Once upon a time, the “F” word (fraud) was in vogue when dealing with the U.S. banking community. After the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s, more than 1,100 bankers were prosecuted on felony charges and over 800 sent to prison for white-collar crimes, including top executives at many of the largest failed banks. By throwing the savings and loan bankers in jail, the federal government sent a message: if you rip people off, you will pay for it.
No more. The federal government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis couldn’t have been more unlike what it did in the wake of the savings and loan crisis. The Justice Department has taken the position that these cases are too hard to win and the size of some large banks makes it difficult to bring criminal charges against them because they threaten a bank’s existence, which would endanger the economy. This collateral consequences approach basically gives too-big-to-fail banks and their senior executives a get-out-of-jail-free card.
After the man-made 2008 financial meltdown that left millions of Americans jobless and led to a $700 billion taxpayer bailout that dwarfed the savings and loan crisis, not one Wall Street executive went to jail for the events leading up to the crisis.
There were no high-profile big banker prosecutions for the widespread mortgage fraud and financial chicanery that fueled the bubble. These bankers were too big to jail.
Sure, there were prosecutions of small fish like mortgage brokers and loan officers, which is fine if you believe the fraud took place at the bottom of the food chain.
There were billions of dollars in civil settlements but no serious criminal prosecutions.
The notion of accountability is becoming an endangered species. Regulators still treat the banking industry with velvet gloves. Standard fare involves a firm paying a big fine with shareholder money and treating it as a corporate expense that in certain cases is tax deductible. The company promises never to commit such a crime again and in the final analysis it is just a cost of doing business.
For example, Wells Fargo got its rear-end in a sling when it was revealed that since 2011, thousands of employees secretly opened more than two million bogus bank and credit card accounts using unauthorized customer names and signatures.
The fraud was so common that employees had a name for it: sandbagging. The firm fired 5,300 employees involved in the scandal who were trying to hit steep sales targets and refunded $2.6 million in customer fees.
Here again, the government got its pound of flesh in fines rather than by prosecuting wrongdoers. WFC was fined $100 million by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, $35 million by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and $50 million by the city and county of Los Angeles. The $185 million total amounts to three days of profit for the bank. Last week the California attorney general’s office announced it is conducting a criminal investigation into whether employees at San Francisco-based Wells Fargo committed identity theft in violation of state law during the sales practice scandal.
Also, the U.S. Department of Labor is promising a “top-to-bottom” review of the firm.
It is unclear whether the investigation will focus on employees at the bottom of the food chain or senior executives, the banking industry’s untouchables. But if recent history is any guide, the biggest fish face little risk of prosecution. They may have created the cross-selling practices but were not the ones creating the fake accounts.
There is no mystery here as the American public continues to watch ordinary citizens turned into a veritable basket of deplorables and jailed for minor offenses while the most powerful walk away unpunished and with complete impunity.
As Cassius says in “Julius Caesar,” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Originally Published: Oct 30, 2016