“Tax day” comes and goes each year, but unfortunately, the systemic issues that plague American taxpayers linger on without resolution well past the mid-April deadline.
The U.S. tax code has long been manipulated by corporate lobbyists and their corporate tax attorneys. (President Jimmy Carter once called the loophole-ridden tax laws “a disgrace to the human race.”) A primary purpose of these perforations is to arrange the law and regulations so that certain categories of profit-rich companies can avoid paying their fair share to Uncle Sam.
In many states, it is a literal race to the bottom for elected officials to offer corporations sweeter tax deals to keep jobs in their locality — see the 2013 Boeing controversy in the state of Washington, in which the aerospace industry, much of which is made up of Boeing, was awarded $8.7 billion in tax breaks over 16 years to produce the 777X jetliner in-state. Notably, Boeing paid zero in federal income tax that year — along with many other major U.S. corporations such as GE and Verizon. Some of these Fortune 500 companies even get a rebate check!
According to Citizens for Tax Justice, “American Fortune 500 corporations are avoiding up to $600 billion in U.S. federal income taxes by holding more than $2.1 trillion” of retained profits offshore, which they designate as “permanently reinvested” to avoid a tax liability.
And of course, millionaires and billionaires often pay less in taxes than middle-class Americans do, taking full advantage of tax loopholes, deductions, deferrals and other forms of creative accounting. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives now intends to pass legislation to repeal the estate tax, which would see that “vast amounts of money that has never been taxed will be passed tax-free to the heirs of today’s billionaires,” according to Scott Klinger of the Center for Effective Government.
The end result is that, through a myriad of tax avoidance schemes, the wealthy 1 percent continue to profit using public resources, subsidies and infrastructure while the 99 percent disproportionately pay the bills for it — all while struggling to pay their own bills, mortgages, student loans, and more. And when Wall Street runs amok, it’s the taxpayers who have paid the bills for the catastrophic damage as a result of regulatory surrender. Millions of these taxpayers also lost their jobs and pensions in the 2008-2009 Wall Street collapse of our economy.
This brings us to the Internal Revenue Service — which has been made into a dirty word to many Americans. Those Americans might be surprised to learn, however, that the current IRS enforcement budget is $10.9 billion, after a cut of $346 million from the previous year. To put that in perspective, Apple Inc. spent $14 billion just to buy back its own stock last year, a move that only serves to provide a meager benefit, if that, to its shareholders, while nourishing executive compensation packages.
The IRS loses an estimated $300 billion a year due to tax evasion. A budget proposal by the Obama administration claimed that the IRS could bring in an additional $6 for every dollar it adds to the enforcement budget. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said that he pushes this very convincing point in Congress to little reception or reaction. “I say that and everybody shrugs and goes on about their business,” he told the AP in 2014. “I have not figured out either philosophically or psychologically why nobody seems to care whether we collect the revenue or not.”
The effects of these budgetary cuts are already being seen. Current staffing levels at the IRS are at 87,000 — the lowest since the early 1980s. The agency lost 13,000 employees from 2010 to 2014 and expects to lose another 3,000 this year. In the final stretch towards April 15, many taxpayers have experienced excruciatingly long waits on hold and long lines at local IRS offices as a result. Congress doesn’t care. (National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, who operates independently within the IRS, detailed this degradation of service in her annual report to Congress. (See taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov.)
Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has gone so far as to publicly state his intention to abolish the IRS entirely, calling that radical course of action the “simplest and best tax reform.” It’s not clear how Senator Cruz intends the federal government to collect revenue to pay for his presidential salary, the White House budget and expanding his giant military budget if he should be elected and not recover his senses.
It is clear, however, that significant rational tax reform is necessary. What remains unclear is who will benefit the most from such reform. Americans must seriously ask why individual U.S. taxpayers are fronting the money for hugely profitable corporations. These are funds that could potentially be used to repair critical public infrastructure, create decently paying jobs, or simply reduce the tax burden on middle-income individuals.
One solution to ensure that the interests of small taxpayers are accounted for and protected is to establish taxpayer watchdog associations across the country. These organizations would work full-time in each state to make sure that individual taxpayers get the best deal possible. After all, big corporations can afford to support an army of tax accountants and attorneys to continually update the playbook of tactics to avoid having to pay their fair share. Most taxpayers don’t have this luxury. What they do have, however, is sheer force of numbers. Organization of such watchdog organizations could be facilitated by including a notice on the 1040 tax return inviting people to pay a small due and join these advocacy and educational nonprofit groups. These associations would be supported by membership dues and would receive no tax money. The members would elect a board of directors that could hire researchers, organizers, accountants and lawyers.
Such pressure from united citizen bodies would provide the organizational mechanism to enhance the influence of individuals in the tax-collection and policy-making process — something that is much-needed in our current American plutocracy.
A simple motto to consider when asking what we choose to tax is: “Tax what they burn, not what we earn.” Before we place the largest burdens of taxation on workers, we should tax areas that have the greatest potential negative or damaging influence on our economy and our society. Tax the polluters, the Wall Street speculators, the junk-food peddlers, and the corporate criminals. Consider that just a fraction of a 1-percent sales tax on speculation in derivatives and trading in stocks could bring in $300 billion a year! (See robinhoodtax.org.)
If taxpayers really want to protect their interests, they must organize and fight for them. The corporations certainly have the money — but they can’t match the manpower or votes of an organized citizenry.
In the meantime, big corporations on welfare like Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Pfizer, General Electric, Weyerhaeuser, and ExxonMobile should declare April 15 to be Taxpayer Appreciation Day. The corporate welfare kings should have the decency to, at least, thank smaller taxpayers who pay for all the freeloading that the corporatists have rammed through Congress. (See goodjobsfirst.org for much more on this issue.)
Follow Ralph Nader on Twitter : www.twitter.com/RalphNader
Giant financial institutions that benefitted from federal bailouts during the depths of the recession have repaid the American people’s largesse by hiding profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.
According to a report (pdf) commissioned by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), four big banks—Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase—which received massive amounts of money and loan guarantees to keep them afloat in the wake of the financial crisis, park large amounts of money in tax haven nations.
Citigroup got the most help of the four in the bailout, $2.5 trillion. That company has at least 427 offshore divisions where it squirrels away profits out of reach of the American people. Those funds, as of early 2014, totaled $43.8 billion, which would mean $11.7 billion in tax revenue for the United States if they were brought to this country. Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat was rewarded with $1.5 million in salary, $4.5 million in bonuses and $8 million in stock for his work in 2014.
Bank of America received a $1.3 trillion bailout from the American people. In 2014, it had $17 billion in profits stashed offshore, which would bring $4.3 billion in funding for education, infrastructure and other badly needed projects in the United States. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan made $1.5 million in salary, $13 million in bonuses and $11.5 million in stock in 2014.
JPMorgan Chase got a $416 billion bailout from American taxpayers. That bank has hidden $28.5 billion overseas which would bring in $6.4 billion to the U.S. Treasury. Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was paid $1.5 million in salary, $7.4 million in bonuses and $11.1 million in company stock in 2014.
Goldman Sachs was the recipient of $814 billion in virtually zero-interest loans, as well as $10 billion from the government. It’s holding $22.5 billion offshore that would bring $4.1 billion back to the American people. Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein made $2 million in salary, $7.33 million in bonuses and $7.33 million in stock in 2014.
Of course, banks aren’t the only companies taking advantage of tax havens. Apple, for instance, famously worked it out so two of its subsidiaries have no home country to which to pay taxes. But then Apple didn’t come hat-in-hand begging the American people not to let it go under.
To Learn More:
Legalized Tax Fraud: How Top U.S. Corporations Continue to Profit Through Offshore Tax Havens (by Senator Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senate) (pdf)
Offshore Shell Games (U.S. PIRG) (pdf)
The Bailouts 4 Years Later: Were They Worthwhile Investments? (by Matt Bewig, AllGov )
In order to overcome massive US and world public opposition to new wars in the Middle East, Obama relied on the horrific internet broadcasts of ISIS slaughtering two American hostages, the journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff, by decapitation. These brutal murders were Obama’s main propaganda tool to set a new Middle East war agenda – his own casus belli bonanza!
This explains the US Administration’s threats of criminal prosecution against the families of Foley and Sotloff when they sought to ransom their captive sons from ISIS.
With the American mass media repeatedly showing the severed heads of these two helpless men, public indignation and disgust were aroused with calls for US military involvement to stop the terror. US and EU political leaders presented the decapitations of Western hostages by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) as a direct and mortal threat to the safety of civilians in the US and Europe. The imagery evoked was of black-clad faceless terrorists, armed to the teeth, invading Europe and the US and executing innocent families as they begged for rescue and mercy.
The problem with this propaganda ploy is not the villainy and brutal crimes celebrated by ISIS, but the fact that Obama’s closest ally in his seventh war in six years is Saudi Arabia, a repugnant kingdom which routinely decapitates its prisoners in public without any judicial process recognizable as fair by civilized standards – unless tortured ‘confessions’ are now a Western norm. During August 2014, when ISIS decapitated two American captives, Riyadh beheaded fourteen prisoners. Since the beginning of the year the Saudi monarchy has decapitated more than 46 prisoners and chopped off the arms and limbs of many more. During Obama and Kerry’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, horrendous decapitations were displayed in public. These atrocities did not dim the bright smile on Barak Obama’s face as he strolled with his genial royal Saudi executioners, in stark contrast to the US President’s stern and angry countenance as he presented the ISIS killing of two Americans as his pretext for bombing Syria.
The Western mass media are silent in the face of the Saudi Kingdom’s common practice of public decapitation. Not one among the major news corporations, the BBC, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CBS and NPR, have questioned the moral authority of a US President who engages in selective condemnation of ISIS while ignoring the official Saudi state beheadings and the amputations.
Decapitation and Dismemberment: By Dagger and Drones
The ISIS internet videos showing gaunt, orange-suited Western prisoners and their lopped-off heads have evoked widespread dismay and fear. We are repeatedly told: ‘ISIS is coming to get us!’ But ISIS is open and public about their criminal acts against helpless hostages. We cannot say the same about the decapitations and dismemberment of the hundreds of victims of US drone attacks. When a drone fires its missiles on a home, a school, wedding party or vehicle, the bodies of living people are dismembered, macerated, decapitated and burned beyond recognition – all by remote control. The carnage is not videoed or displayed for mass consumption by Obama’s high command. Indeed, civilian deaths, if even acknowledged, are brushed off as ‘collateral damage’ while the vaporized remnants of men, women and children have been described by US troops as ‘pink foam’.
If the brutal decapitation and dismemberment of innocent civilians is a capital crime that should be punished, as I believe it is, then both ISIS and the Obama regime with his allied leaders should face a people’s war crimes tribunal in the countries where the crimes occurred.
There are good reasons to view Washington’s close relation with the Saudi royal beheaders as part of a much broader alliance with terror-evoking brutality. For decades, the US drug agencies and banks have worked closely with criminal drug cartels in Mexico while glossing over their notorious practice of decapitating, dismembering and displaying their victims, be they local civilians, courageous journalists, captured police or migrants fleeing the terror of Central America. The notorious Zetas and the Knights Templar have penetrated the highest reaches of the Mexican federal and local governments, turning state officials and institutions into submissive and obedient clients. Over 100,000 Mexicans have lost their lives because of this ‘state within a state’, an ‘ISIS’ in Mexico – just ‘South of the Border’. And just like ISIS in the Middle East, the cartels get their weapons from the US imported right across the Texas and Arizona borders. Despite this gruesome terror on the US southern flank, the nation’s principle banks, including Bank of America, CitiBank, Wells Fargo and many others have laundered billions of dollars of drug profits for the cartels. For example, the discovery of 49 decapitated bodies in one mass in May 2014 did not prompt Washington to form a world-wide coalition to bomb Mexico, nor was it moved to arrest the Wall Street bankers laundering the ‘beheaders bloody booty’.
Obama’s hysterical and very selective presentation of ISIS crimes forms the pretext for launching another war against a predominantly Muslim country, Syria, while shielding his close ally, the royal Saudi decapitator from US public outrage. ISIS crimes have become another excuse to launch a campaign of ‘mass decapitation by drones and bombers’. The mass propaganda campaign over one crime against humanity becomes the basis for perpetrating even worse crimes against humanity. Many hundreds of innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq will be dismembered by ‘anti-terrorist’ bombs and drones unleashed by another of Obama’s ‘coalition’.
The localized savagery of ISIS will be multiplied, amplified and spread by the US-directed ‘coalition of the willing decapitators’. The terror of hooded beheaders on the ground will be answered and expanded by their faceless counterparts in the air, while delicately hiding the heads rolling through the public squares of Riyadh or the headless bodies displayed along the highways of Mexico … and especially ignoring the hidden victims of US-Saudi aggression in the towns and villages of Syria.
While the US government touted its “record” settlement reached this week with Bank of America for mortgage fraud that helped fuel the 2008 recession, the details of the agreement indicate yet another light punishment for an offending Wall Street titan.
Bank of America agreed to a $16.65 billion settlement with federal authorities for selling toxic mortgages and misleading investors, the US Justice Department announced Thursday.
“This historic resolution – the largest such settlement on record – goes far beyond ‘the cost of doing business,’” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
“Under the terms of this settlement, the bank has agreed to pay $7 billion in relief to struggling homeowners, borrowers, and communities affected by the bank’s conduct. This is appropriate given the size and scope of the wrongdoing at issue,” Holder added.
Yet the $7 billion in “relief” is considered a “soft money” fine, in which the bank will reduce some homeowners’ mortgages. Very few homeowners are eligible for the refinancing pursuant to the settlement, AP reported. Those who are eligible may need to wait years to see any settlement aid, as payouts will be ongoing through 2018.
Those already in the hole following a lost home due to foreclosure or a short sale – when a lender takes less money for a home than what the borrower owes – are unlikely to benefit from the terms of the settlement.
Outside of the $7 billion for consumers, the Bank of America settlement includes a $5 billion cash penalty and $4.6 billion in remediation payments. Large portions of the deal will be eligible to claim as business expenses, allowing the mega bank to treat them as tax write-offs.
The Bank of America settlement includes the appointment of an independent monitor to review the consumer relief portion of the agreement. It is yet to be determined when the monitor will be named.
The deal echoes similar agreements the government reached with other Wall Street players, like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, for crimes committed surrounding the recent economic recession.
JPMorgan Chase came to a $13 billion settlement in November. The $4 billion supposedly offered to homeowner relief has yet to benefit many in need, according to the advocacy group Home Defenders League. Citigroup reached a $7 billion deal with the government.
Critics of these deals have blasted the US government for its ongoing, lax attitude regarding mass crimes committed by powerful banks that, they say, are not adequately punished for wrongdoing.
“[T]he latest round of settlements deals with misconduct that even though the banks are getting off on the cheap again, the underlying abuses don’t strike at the heart of the too big to fail mortgage securitization complex,” said Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.
“So the [Obama] Administration can feign being a little more bloody-minded. Even so, the greater and greater proportion in recent deals of funny money relative to real dough show that this is simply another variant of an exercise in optics.”
No major bank executive has faced criminal charges following the mortgage crisis. Without significant retribution for banks and executives that knowingly passed off fraudulent mortgages, Wall Street players will continue to act with impunity, argued Dean Baker, economist and director of the Center for Economic & Policy Research.
“Knowingly packaging and selling fraudulent mortgages is fraud. It is a serious crime that could be punished by years in jail,” Baker wrote. “The risk of jail time is likely to discourage bankers from engaging in this sort of behavior.”
William D. Cohan, a former senior mergers and acquisitions banker, wrote in the New York Times that, not only has the government barely punished those on the hook for Wall Street crimes, the Justice Department has also offered “sanitized” versions of events that led up to the crimes in its accounts given to the public following investigations.
“The American people are deprived of knowing precisely how bad things got inside these banks in the years leading up to the financial crisis, and the banks, knowing they will be saved the humiliation caused by the public airing of a trove of emails and documents, will no doubt soon be repeating their callous and indifferent behavior,” Cohan wrote.
Bank of America resisted the settlement at first, claiming nearly all bad mortgage securities under scrutiny came from Countrywide and Merrill Lynch. Both firms were purchased by Bank of America amid the 2008 financial crisis.
A federal judge in Manhattan ruled in a separate case that Bank of America was liable for the pre-merger mortgages, issuing a penalty of $1.3 billion. The ruling pushed the bank to agree to the settlement. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said Thursday that the deal is “in the best interests of our shareholders and allows us to continue to focus on the future.”
Meanwhile, consumers advocates said the faulty mortgages will continue to haunt homeowners and their own vision of the future.
“It is hard to see how these settlements provide relief commensurate with the harm caused,” said Kevin Stein, associate director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, according to AP. “Countless families and communities have been devastated by predatory loans that should not have been made.”
Following the Thursday announcement of the settlement, Bank of America’s stock rose more than 4 percent.
Jeff Olson, the 40-year-old man who is being prosecuted for scrawling anti-megabank messages on sidewalks in water-soluble chalk last year now faces a 13-year jail sentence. A judge has barred his attorney from mentioning freedom of speech during trial.
According to the San Diego Reader, which reported on Tuesday that a judge had opted to prevent Olson’s attorney from “mentioning the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech during the trial,” Olson must now stand trial for on 13 counts of vandalism.
In addition to possibly spending years in jail, Olson will also be held liable for fines of up to $13,000 over the anti-big-bank slogans that were left using washable children’s chalk on a sidewalk outside of three San Diego, California branches of Bank of America, the massive conglomerate that received $45 billion in interest-free loans from the US government in 2008-2009 in a bid to keep it solvent after bad bets went south.
The Reader reports that Olson’s hearing had gone as poorly as his attorney might have expected, with Judge Howard Shore, who is presiding over the case, granting Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard’s motion to prohibit attorney Tom Tosdal from mentioning the United States’ fundamental First Amendment rights.
“The State’s Vandalism Statute does not mention First Amendment rights,” ruled Judge Shore on Tuesday.
Upon exiting the courtroom Olson seemed to be in disbelief.
“Oh my gosh,” he said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Tosdal, who exited the courtroom shortly after his client, seemed equally bewildered.
“I’ve never heard that before, that a court can prohibit an argument of First Amendment rights,” said Tosdal.
Olson, who worked as a former staffer for a US Senator from Washington state, was said to involve himself in political activism in tandem with the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
On October 3, 2011, Olson first appeared outside of a Bank of America branch in San Diego, along with a homemade sign. Eight days later Olson and his partner, Stephen Daniels, during preparations for National Bank Transfer Day, the two were confronted by Darell Freeman, the Vice President of Bank of America’s Global Corporate Security.
A former police officer, Freeman accused Olson and Daniels of “running a business outside of the bank,” evidently in reference to the National Bank Transfer Day activities, which was a consumer activism initiative that sought to promote Americans to switch from commercial banks, like Bank of America, to not-for-profit credit unions.
At the time, Bank of America’s debit card fees were among one of the triggers that led Occupy Wall Street members to promote the transfer day.
“It was just an empty threat,” says Olson of Freeman’s accusations. “He was trying to scare me away. To be honest, it did at first. I even called my bank and they said he couldn’t do anything like that.”
Olson continued to protest outside of Bank of America. In February 2012, he came across a box of chalk at a local pharmacy and decided to begin leaving his mark with written statements.
“I thought it was a perfect way to get my message out there. Much better than handing out leaflets or holding a sign,” says Olson.
Over the course of the next six months Olson visited the Bank of America branch a few days per week, leaving behind scribbled slogans such as “Stop big banks” and “Stop Bank Blight.com.”
According to Olson, who spoke with local broadcaster KGTV, one Bank of America branch claimed it had cost $6,000 to clean up the chalk writing.
Public records obtained by the Reader show that Freeman continued to pressure members of San Diego’s Gang Unit on behalf of Bank of America until the matter was forwarded to the City Attorney’s office.
On April 15, Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard contacted Freeman with a response on his persistent queries.
“I wanted to let you know that we will be filing 13 counts of vandalism as a result of the incidents you reported,” said Hazard.
Arguments for Olson’s case are set to be heard Wednesday morning, following jury selection.
Having bungled the so-called independent review of foreclosure mistakes, the Obama administration has now decided that the best way to help homeowners is to have the banks—which were responsible for the foreclosure errors—examine the case files and decide how best to fix the situation.
In January, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) shut down the foreclosure review by independent consultants—which had already cost about $2 billion— after it was revealed that the banks had selected said consultants. The process also proved to be taking too long to resolve homeowner grievances, so the administration decided to reach a $3.6 billion settlement with the banks.
But before the money can be distributed to individuals wronged during the foreclosure crisis, more than four million cases need to be reviewed. Instead of federal regulators doing the work, they are trusting the financial institutions, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, to do it properly this time.
Housing advocates, not surprisingly, are worried the banks will shortchange homeowners while they scrutinize their earlier mistakes. “The whole process has been a slap in the face to homeowners and a slap on the wrist to banks,” Isaac Simon Hodes, an organizer with Massachusetts-based Lynn United for Change, told The New York Times. “The latest development shows how there has been no accountability.”
The OCC has promised to check the bank’s work to ensure things go right this time.
- Big Banks Slither out of Mortgage Fraud Review with Minor Costs (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Big Banks Put In Charge of (Their Own) Foreclosure Settlement Payout (reason.com)
Why the Feds Won’t Prosecute the Big Wall Street Banks
Yesterday the Department of Justice and 49 state attorneys general announced the long anticipated $25 billion deal with 5 large Wall Street firms — Bank of America Corporation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Company, Citigroup Inc. and Ally Financial Inc. — to settle foreclosure and mortgage servicing abuses. Unfortunately, the settlement is not yet 24 hours old and cracks are emerging.
Each major corruption settlement with Wall Street, and they are legion over the past 15 years, triggers a commemorative magazine cover. I keep some favorites handy.
The October 1996 cover of Registered Representative Magazine, the trade magazine for financial consultants and stock brokers, blared in 48 point bold red type: “How the NASD Was Corrupted.” That issue focused on the years of price fixing of stocks traded on the Nasdaq market by the biggest firms on Wall Street while the self regulatory body, the National Association of Securities Dealers, was dominated by the same firms and looked the other way. (Think SEC today.)
The Department of Justice, then under Janet Reno, had this to say about the settlement: “We have found substantial evidence of coercion and other misconduct in this industry. By providing for the random monitoring of traders’ telephone calls, we expect to deter future price fixing on Nasdaq.” At the time, Reno said the “law does not provide the Department with statutory authority to recover damages or monetary penalties in such cases.”
The next big corruption probe drew a giant green serpent wrapped around the street sign for Wall Street on the cover of BusinessWeek with the rhetorical question: “Wall Street: How Corrupt Is It?” That settlement collectively cost the big firms $1.4 billion for peddling fake stock research to the public to induce investors to buy bad companies while the same analysts called the firms “dogs” and “crap” in internal emails. The announcement of the deal came on April 28, 2003 from the SEC, the New York Attorney General of that day, Eliot Spitzer, the NASD, the New York Stock Exchange and state securities regulators — all gushing over how great this deal was for the public and how it was going to reform Wall Street.
New York Magazine has found an odd way of commemorating the crumbs available to illegally evicted and displaced children and families under the current settlement. The current magazine cover has a Wall Street guy clasping his… uh…private portfolio…with the headline: “The
Emasculation of Wall Street.” If Wall Street is being emasculated, you sure can’t tell it from yesterday’s settlement.
Not only did Wall Street settle its robo-signing, illegal foreclosures and servicing problems with the Department of Justice and 49 state attorneys general (Oklahoma settled independently) but lost in the headlines was that the two major regulators of national banks, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Reserve, also settled with the biggest Wall Street banks in a decidedly cozy deal that effectively lets them off without a monetary fine as long as they pay under the federal-state settlement agreement.
The OCC settled with Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo for a combined $394 million but here’s the cozy part: “the OCC agrees to hold in abeyance imposition of such penalties provided the servicers make payments and take other actions under the federal-state settlement with a value equal to at least the penalty amounts that each servicer acknowledges that the OCC could impose…”
The Federal Reserve issued monetary sanctions of $766.5 million against the parent holding companies: Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Ally Financial, Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Wells Fargo & Co. and two mortgage servicers GMAC Mortgage, LLC a subsidiary of Ally Financial, Inc., and EMC Mortgage Corporation, a subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase & Co. But again, the Wall Street firms can get off the hook for paying these sums by simply paying them under the $25 billion federal-state settlement.
The specifics of just what the state attorneys general agreed to is unknown, even to some of the attorneys general. According to the web site set up to inform the public about the settlement both the primary “Settlement Document” and the “Executive Summary” will be “coming soon.” Without those documents available for public perusal, there is the reasonable suspicion that the public has once again been feted to lipstick on a pig, as they like to say on Wall Street.
One striking problem is that California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris states on her web site and in this video that California is getting $18 billion. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi
says on her web site that Florida is receiving $8.4 billion. Those two amounts would leave a negative figure for the other 47 states that agreed to the $25 billion deal.
There’s also something peculiar about the Federal Department of Justice and 49 states setting up an informational web site that ends in .com instead of .gov. Register.com shows the web site has used a privacy shield to block the name of the owner of the site.
Corporate media is reporting that the deal settles only foreclosure and servicing abuses. But this web site states: “The agreement settles only some aspects of the banks conduct related to the financial crisis (foreclosure practices, loan servicing, and origination of loans) in return for the second largest state attorneys general recovery in history and direct relief to distressed borrowers while they can still use it.” The Florida Attorney General concedes on her web site that the deal with the state includes loan origination issues. That may not sit well with residents of a state where massive loan origination frauds occurred.
I called the AG’s office in Massachusetts – historically a tough regulator when it comes to Wall Street. The spokesperson could not answer why loan origination is included on the settlement web site.
Why is mortgage loan origination a big deal? Because tens of thousands of consumers were victimized in a bait and switch racket, believing they were getting a fixed rate mortgage only to find out a few years down the road that they had an adjustable rate mortgage that reset and doubled or even tripled their monthly payment – making it impossible to stay in their home; an effective wealth stripping enterprise by Wall Street against decent, hardworking families across America.
Other abuses in loan origination abounded. The Federal Trade Commission took this testimony from Michele V. Handzel, a former Branch Manager for CitiFinancial, a unit of Citigroup. Ms. Handzel is comparing the practices of CitiFinancial after it acquired another firm, The Associates.
“CitiFinancial put much more pressure on employees than the Associates did to include as many credit insurance and ancillary products as possible on every loan….In fact, I feel that the credit insurance sales practices at CitiFinancial were worse than at The Associates. From January to June 2001, the policy was that no personal loan at CitiFinancial would be approved if it did not include some type of credit insurance, nor would a real estate loan be approved without some type of ancillary product…There were several internal measures in place to effectuate this policy. For instance, District Managers would frequently refuse to send a loan to underwriting if it did not include some type of insurance product. Moreover, loans that were closed and did not include any insurance would be identified by CitiFinancial’s internal insurance auditors, and the employee who closed the loan would be written up…Closings at CitiFinancial resembled those at The Associates – they were brief. Personal loan closings took approximately 10 minutes. Real estate loan closings took a little longer but also did not provide a lot of details about the loan. At CitiFinancial, I was instructed to do a ‘closed folder’ closing, meaning that information would be discussed orally first. Only after the borrower indicated that he wanted to sign would the employee open the folder and have the borrower sign the papers.”
In the past, Wall Street knew it could steal billions and settle with its easily maneuvered regulators for millions. It did this time and time again, never having to admit to any crime. Wall Street translated this to mean that crime was a lucrative profit center. This latest settlement raises the potential of this profit center. Wall Street now understands that it can steal trillions and settle for billions.
And just why is it that the Feds can’t or won’t prosecute the biggest of the Wall Street firms? Because they are the Federal Government’s bond brokers, the primary dealers who contractually agree to buy Treasury bills or notes or bonds at every U.S. Treasury auction. They may be serially corrupt, but Uncle Sam needs those contractual guarantees of its primary dealers to be sure it can pull off its debt auctions. And the U.S. government cannot engage in contracts with convicted financial felons.
And it won’t break up these bloated behemoths because big balance sheets are just what a government with $15 trillion in debt is looking for in a bond broker.
Pam Martens worked on Wall Street for 21 years. She spent the last decade of her career advocating against Wall Street’s private justice system, which keeps its crimes shielded from public courtrooms. She maintains, along with Russ Martens, an ongoing archive dedicated to this financial era at www.WallStreetOnParade.com. She has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article. She is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. She can be reached at email@example.com
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