Bankers Ride Free

by wjw on May 6, 2014

Over the weekend the New York Times magazine published a lengthy article on why, when evidence showed Wall Street to be riding atop a sea of criminality, only one top banker went to jail after the financial crisis.  And no, they conclude, it’s not the reason you think it is.

Here’s your take-away:

Many assume that the federal authorities simply lacked the guts to go after powerful Wall Street bankers, but that obscures a far more complicated dynamic. During the past decade, the Justice Department suffered a series of corporate prosecutorial fiascos, which led to critical changes in how it approached white-collar crime. The department began to focus on reaching settlements rather than seeking prison sentences, which over time unintentionally deprived its ranks of the experience needed to win trials against the most formidable law firms. By the time Serageldin committed his crime, Justice Department leadership, as well as prosecutors in integral United States attorney’s offices, were de-emphasizing complicated financial cases — even neglecting clues that suggested that Lehman executives knew more than they were letting on about their bank’s liquidity problem. In the mid-’90s, white-collar prosecutions represented an average of 17.6 percent of all federal cases. In the three years ending in 2012, the share was 9.4 percent . . .

Resources aside, the erosion of the department’s actual trial skills would soon become apparent. In November 2009, the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn lost the first criminal case of the crisis against two Bear Stearns executives accused of misleading investors. The prosecutors rushed into trial, failing to prepare for the exculpatory emails uncovered by the defense team. After two days, the jury acquitted the two money managers. “For sure,” one former federal prosecutor told me, “it put a chill” on investigations. “Politicos care about winning and losing.”

. . .But given that Washington rejected a unified national task force, these career motivations would prove particularly relevant. When Preet Bharara, former chief counsel for Senator Charles E. Schumer, arrived in the Southern District of New York in 2009, he had a decision to make. There were cases arising from the financial crisis, which could take years to investigate and, after all that, never make it to a jury. Or there were insider-trading cases, which were far more straightforward. Someone improperly learns nonpublic details about a company and makes a killing on the stock market. “You do have a tough choice,” one former Southern District prosecutor says. “Am I going to chase after crimes I don’t know were committed and don’t know who by, or do we go after crimes we do know were committed and by whom?”

. . . Bharara focused on insider trading, and his office has amassed a stunning 80-0 record of prosecutions, locking up the hedge-fund titan Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta, the former managing director of McKinsey & Company and a director at Goldman Sachs. They took down eight former employees of Steven A. Cohen’s notorious SAC Capital hedge fund. (Notably, however, they haven’t been able to bring charges against the man himself.) Time magazine put Bharara on its cover, with the bold headline: “This Man Is Busting Wall Street.” Yet Bharara didn’t touch Wall Street’s real players — top bankers. The former prosecutor was almost sheepish about the insider-trading cases when I spoke to him: “They made our careers, but they don’t change the world.” In fact, several former prosecutors in the office told me that going after bankers was never a real priority. “The government failed,” another former prosecutor said. “We didn’t do what we needed to do.”

mearsk May 6, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Job Creators can’t go to jail! That’s an absurd idea, they are Job Creators! Just like we can’t let those big corporations and their many political donors fail from bad investments, as that would be antithetical to Job Creation!

DensityDuck May 13, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Well, if you think that American citizens have legal rights (Gitmo) then you have to accept that American citizens have legal rights (bankers).

If you think that we should just bust the bad guys and not bother with phony legalistic bullshit when we’re seriously going after seriously bad people who we seriously know are seriously bad, well, here’s the joystick for a drone, fire when ready Gridley.

wjw May 14, 2014 at 7:14 pm

I’m not suggesting tossing bankers in jail without trial, I’m suggesting that they be tried and sent to jail if found guilty. The whole, “I won’t get promoted if I lose a complex case” meme is an attitude that should not be found in the office of the New York Justice Department.

It could be argued that we’re a lot more arbitrary under the current system, where the banks are just whacked with great big fines, and no trial involved.

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