The revolving door between Wall Street and its government regulators has been spinning at warp speed lately. Two recent cases involve high-level officials whose jobs were to regulate Wall Street’s practices and prosecute Wall Street’s crimes. Despite the massive and systemic fraud that led to the financial collapse of 2008, both failed to win a single major enforcement against Wall Street, and now they are being rewarded with lucrative jobs there.
Mary Schapiro, who took over a demoralized Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that repeatedly failed to head off financial disasters involving Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Bernard Madoff, did not win a major civil action against any Wall Street executive who was part of the subprime mortgage scam that led to the crash during her four years as SEC chair. One low point came the day federal judge Jed Rakoff refused to approve SEC’s $285 million settlement with Citigroup because, just as with Goldman Sachs, SEC failed to get an admission of wrongdoing. Schapiro did open a new tips database and a whistleblower office.
Lanny Breuer worked the criminal side of the street as head of the Justice Department’s criminal division for the past four years, yet he failed to win a single major criminal conviction against a Wall Street executive. He resigned shortly after a recent “Frontline” documentary implied that he had been ineffectual in bringing justice to the financial industry. His public defense of his own lack of criminal prosecutions was also widely panned.
Now both are returning to the other side: Schapiro has taken a job as a managing director and chair of the governance and markets practice at Promontory Financial Group, which advises financial firms on regulation, while Breuer is going back to Covington & Burling, a major law firm that defends financial clients, as vice chair of the firm. Although salary data are unavailable, both can be expected to earn at least $500,000 annually from their new gigs.
“It used to be called ‘selling out,’ ‘cashing in,’ or ‘influence peddling.’ Now it’s referred to politely as the ‘revolving door,’” Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a nonprofit that wants stronger regulation of the financial industry, told the National Journal. “But whatever it’s called, nothing is more corrosive to the American people’s trust in government than when former senior public officials turn their so-called public service into multimillion-dollar riches unimaginable to almost all Americans.”
Even more insidious than outright corruption, argue such critics, is the fact that the continually revolving door between Wall Street and its regulators creates a financial industry culture shared by both bankers and their regulators, who come to see themselves as part of the financial system—and hope eventually to be rewarded by the profit-making companies they are supposed to regulate and prosecute.
To Learn More:
Mary Schapiro and Lanny Breuer Give Us the Ultimate Dog-Bites-Man Story (by Michael Hirsh, National Journal)
Justice Dept. Defends Not Prosecuting Corporate Leaders for White-Collar Crime (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)
SEC Chair Schapiro Retains a Lawyer (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)
Revolving Door at SEC is in a Whirl as Hundreds Hired by Industry they Regulated (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)
- Where Bank Regulators Go to Get Rich – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Schapiro’s move to consultant prompts ‘revolving door’ critique (blogs.marketwatch.com)
- Washington’s Revolving Door Keeps Spinning (billmoyers.com)
In what the New York Times declared as a “dark day for the rule of law” on December 11, 2012, HSBC, the world’s second largest bank, failed to be indicted for extensive criminal activities in laundering money to and from regimes under sanctions, Mexican drug cartels, and terrorist organizations (including al-Qaeda). While admitting culpability, and with guilt assured, state and federal authorities in the United States decided not to indict the bank “over concerns that criminal charges could jeopardize one of the world’s largest banks and ultimately destabilize the global financial system.” Instead, HSBC agreed to pay a $1.92 billion settlement.
The fear was that an indictment would be a “death sentence” for HSBC. The U.S. Justice Department, which was prosecuting the case, was told by the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve that taking such an “aggressive stance” against HSBC could have negative effects upon the economy. Instead, the bank was to forfeit $1.2 billion and pay $700 million in fines on top of that for violating the Bank Secrecy Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act. In a statement, HSBC’s CEO stated, “We accept responsibility for our past mistakes… We are committed to protecting the integrity of the global financial system. To this end, we will continue to work closely with governments and regulators around the world.” With more than $7 billion in Mexican drug cartel money laundered through HSBC alone, the fine amounts to a slap on the wrist, no more than a cost-benefit analysis of doing business: if the ‘cost’ of laundering billions in drug money is less than the ‘benefit,’ the policy will continue.
As part of the settlement, not one banker at HSBC was to be charged in the case. The New York Times acknowledged that, “the government has bought into the notion that too big to fail is too big to jail.” HSBC joins a list of some of the world’s other largest banks in paying fines for criminal activities, including Credit Suisse, Lloyds, ABN Amro and ING, among others. The U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer referred to the settlement as an example of HSBC “being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight.” Lanny Breuer, who heads the Justice Department’s criminal division, which was responsible for prosecuting the case against HSBC, was previously a partner at a law firm (along with the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder) where they represented a number of major banks and other conglomerates in cases dealing with foreclosure fraud. While Breuer and Holder were partners at Covington & Burling, the firm represented notable clients such as Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, among others. It seems that at the Justice Department, they continue to have the same job: protecting the major banks from being persecuted for criminal behaviour.
With a great deal of focus on the $1.9 billion in fines being paid out by HSBC, little mention was made of the fact that HSBC had roughly $2.5 trillion in assets, and earned $22 billion in profits in 2011. But not to worry, HSBC’s executive said that they “accept responsibility for our past mistakes,” and added: “We have said we are profoundly sorry for them, and we do so again.” So not only did the executives of the world’s second largest bank apologize for laundering billions in drug money (along with other crimes), but they apologized… again. Thus, they pay a comparably small fine and face no criminal charges. I wonder if a crack dealer from a ghetto in the United States could avoid criminal prosecution if he were to apologize not once, but twice. Actually, we don’t have to wonder. In May of 2012, as HSBC executives were testifying before the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C., admitting their role in drug money laundering, a poor black man was convicted of peddling 5.5 grams of crack cocaine just across the river from the U.S. Capitol building, and he was given 10 years in prison.
Back in August the bank stated that they had put aside $700 million to pay fines for illegal activities, which conveniently was the exact amount they were fined by the U.S. Justice Department (not including the forfeiture of profits). Lanny Breuer declared the settlement to be “a very just, very real and very powerful result.” Indeed, one could agree that the results are “powerful” and “very real,” in that they provide a legal state-sanctioned decision that big banks will not be prosecuted for their vast criminal activities, precisely because they are big banks. The “very real” result of this is that we can guarantee that such criminal behaviour will continue, since the banks will continue to be protected by the state. With news of the settlement, HSBC’s market share price rose by 2.8%, a clear sign that “financial markets” also reward criminal behaviour and the “pervasively polluted” culture at HSBC (in the words of the U.S. Senate report).
Jack Blum, a Washington attorney and former special counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who specializes in money laundering and financial crimes stated that, “If these people aren’t prosecuted, who will be?” He further asked: “What do you have to do to be prosecuted? They have crossed every bright line in bank compliance. When is there an offense that’s bad enough for a big bank to be prosecuted?” But the Justice Department’s Lanny Breuer explained that his department had to consider “the collateral consequences” of prosecutions: “If you prosecute one of the largest banks in the world, do you risk that people will lose their jobs, other financial institutions and other parties will leave the bank, and there will be some kind of event in the world economy?”
In other words, the U.S. Justice Department decided that big banks are above the law, because if they weren’t, there would be severe consequences for the financial system. And this is not just good news for HSBC, the “favourite” bank of Mexican drug cartels (according to Bloomberg), but it’s good news for all banks. After all, HSBC is not the only bank engaged in laundering drug money and other illegal activities. Back in 2010, Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) paid roughly $160 million in fines for laundering some $378.4 billion in drug money. Drug money has also been found to be laundered through other major financial institutions, including Bank of America, Banco Santander, Citigroup, and the banking branch of American Express. Nearly all of the world’s largest banks have been or are currently being investigated for other crimes, including rigging interest rates (in what’s known as the Libor scandal), and other forms of fraud. Among the banks being investigated for criminal activity by U.S. prosecutors are Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS, Bank of America, Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi, Credit Suisse, Lloyds, Rabobank, Royal Bank of Canada, and Société Générale, among others. Regulators and investigators of the Libor scandal – “the biggest financial scandal ever” – report that the world’s largest banks engage in “organized fraud” and function like a “cartel” or “mafia.”
The pervasive criminality of this “international cartel” is so consistent that one commentator with the Guardian has referred to global banks as “the financial services wing of the drug cartels.” But indeed, where could be a better place for drug cartels to deposit their profits than with a financial cartel? And why would banks give up their pivotal role in the global drug trade? While the pharmaceutical drug industry records annual revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars (which is nothing to ignore), the global trade in illicit drugs, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, amounted to roughly 2.3-5.5% of global GDP, around $2.1 trillion (U.S.) in 2009. That same year, the same United Nations office reported that billions of dollars in drug money saved the major global banks during the financial crisis, as “the only liquid investment capital” pouring into banks. Roughly $325 billion in drug money was absorbed by the financial system in 2009. It is in the interest of banks to continue profiting off of the global drug trade, and now they have been given a full green light by the Obama administration to continue.
Welcome to the world of financial criminality, the “international cartel” of drug money banks and their political protectors. These banks not only launder billions in drug money, finance terrorists and commit massive fraud, but they create massive financial and economic crises, and then our governments give them trillions of dollars in bailouts, again rewarding them for creating crises and committing criminal acts. On top of that, we, the people, are handed the bill for the bailouts and have to pay for them through reduced standards of living by being punished into poverty through ‘austerity measures’ and have our labour, resources, and societies exploited through ‘structural reform’ policies. These criminal banks dominate the global economy, and dictate policies to national political oligarchies. Their greed, power, and parasitic nature knows no bounds.
The fact that the Justice Department refused to prosecute HSBC because of the effects it could have on the financial system should be a clear sign that the financial system does not function for the benefit of people and society as a whole, and thus, that it needs to be dramatically changed, cartels need to be destroyed, banks broken up, criminal behaviour punished (not rewarded), and that people should dictate the policies of society, not a small network of international criminal cartel banks.
But then, that would be rational, so naturally it’s not even up for discussion.
When Charles Ferguson accepted the Academy Award in 2010 for his documentary film Inside Job, he told 30 million people viewing the award ceremony that “three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single senior financial executive has been prosecuted and that’s wrong.”
Two years later, still no prosecution.
So, now Ferguson is out with a book – Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (Random House, 2012.)
It reads like an indictment.
It reads like a number of indictments.
And Ferguson is hoping that federal prosecutors will pick up the book and get some ideas.
And why exactly have there been no prosecutions of high level Wall Street investment bank executives?
“Not exactly,” Ferguson says.
“It’s important to bear in mind the direct personal incentive structures of many of the people involved,” Ferguson told Corporate Crime Reporter last week. “The revolving door phenomenon now effects the Justice Department and federal prosecutors to a very substantial extent.”
“The previous federal prosecutor for the southern district of New York, Mary Jo White, now does white collar criminal defense and makes a great deal more money than she did as a federal prosecutor. I think that phenomenon is very well entrenched, very thoroughly entrenched.”
“Indeed Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division was head of the white collar criminal defense practice at Covington & Burling. They represent most of the major banks and investment banks in the United States.”
And his boss, Eric Holder, the Attorney General, came from the same firm.
“Exactly,” Ferguson said. “So, when you say politics, you sort of think of Republicans, Democrats, ideology, large scale political and policy debates. I don’t think that’s the only thing going on here. I think you have to consider incentives – individual, personal, financial and professional.”
When Rudy Giuliani was U.S. Attorney, he had no qualms about prosecuting Michael Milken. What has changed?
“One thing that has changed is that the amount of wealth and political power held by the financial sector has gone up by at least an order of magnitude,” Ferguson said.
“Another thing that’s changed is the amount of money that the financial sector spends on politics and acquiring political power and influence has also gone up by at least an order of magnitude.”
“And thirdly, the divergence, the difference between public sector salaries and incomes and private sector salaries and incomes has widened enormously.”
“So again, for those at the level of large scale political behavior and at the level of individual incentive, things have changed dramatically since the 1980s.”
As an undergrad, Ferguson studied mathematics at the University of California Berkeley and went on to study political science at MIT.
He then went on to organize an early software company – Vermeer Technologies – which was sold in 1996 to Microsoft for a reported $133 million.
He was an early fan of President Obama.
“I donated my legal maximum to his campaign in 2008,” Ferguson says.
But at a press conference in October 2011, Obama addressed the question of why no high level Wall Street executive has been prosecuted.
“So, you know, without commenting on particular prosecutions– obviously, that’s not my job, that’s the attorney general’s job – you know, I think part of people’s frustrations, part of my frustration, was a lot of practices that should not have been allowed weren’t necessarily against the law, but they had a huge destructive impact,” Obama said. […]
What was Ferguson’s reaction when he heard Obama say – the actions “weren’t necessarily against the law”?
“My reaction was very negative,” Ferguson said. “First of all the statement is thoroughly inaccurate and incorrect, but secondly it’s very difficult for me to believe that he doesn’t know that.”
“Given what we now know, it’s very difficult for me to believe that President Obama actually believes that there was no significant criminality in the housing bubble and the financial crisis.”
Russell Mokhiber edits the Corporate Crime Reporter.
- Exposing Countrywide (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Predator Nation: How Wall Street Crashed the Economy & Got Off Scott Free (ritholtz.com)
- Corporate criminals gone wild (salon.com)