By Lynn Ashby 8 Sept. 2014
THE COURT ROOM – “Your honor,” I whine, “yes, I have lied and cheated, sold worthless bonds to widows, bundled doomed mortgages and forced thousands of Americans to lose their homes. True, I hid money in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying taxes. I guess you could say I did my part in bringing down the American economy, putting millions out of work, wiping out savings accounts and probably causing global warming, although the jury is still out on that, so to speak. So I will pay the fine of a billions dollars – actually the stockholders will pay it — without admitting any guilt.” I and my high-priced lawyers will leave with my Get Out of Jail Free card. Just pay a big, impressive fine, and walk.
You don’t have to read the following police blotter, just skim it to see what’s going on in your name. Five banks — Wells Fargo & Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp., Ally Financial Inc. — agreed to pay $25 billion in penalties and borrower relief over alleged – alleged? — foreclosure processing abuses. The deal represented the largest government-industry settlement since the tobacco deal, which started it all back in 1998 with that $246 billion tobacco industry settlement. At the time it was a record, but the fine hit the entire industry, so it was spread out. No one went to jail.
A week or so ago, Goldman Sachs paid $3.15 billion to buy back mortgage bonds now worth about $1.2 billion less than what they were sold for. This is not a first for Goldman. In 2010 it paid $550 million to settle a similar case. Hey, here is J.P. Morgan again with a “record” $13 billion settlementwith the Department of Justice (DOJ) and other federal regulators over mortgage-backed securities. “(I)t would likely be the biggest fine ever levied by the DOJ.’’ The HSBC (that’s a British bank) agreed to pay $1.9 billion to U.S. authorities over deficiencies in its anti-money-laundering controls. U.S. officials hailed the settlement as “the largest penalty ever under the Bank Secrecy Act.” France’s largest banking house, BNP Paribas, pled guilty to criminal – not civil — charges of money laundering in the U.S. and paid an $8.9 billion fine. But “no BNP employees currently face criminal charges.” Why not?
The pharmaceutical industry seems to be particularly bad medicine: GlaxoSmithKline – July 2012: In what was billed as “the largest healthcare settlement” with the DOJ ever, the drug maker paid $3 billion and pleaded guilty to criminal charges of illegally marketing drugs and withholding safety data from U.S. regulators. In 2009 Pfizer Inc., pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges and paid a $2.3 billion fine. Abbott Laboratories, 2012: The drug maker agreed to pay $1.6 billion and to plead guilty to a criminal misdemeanor violation of a federal drug laws. In 2009, Eli Lilly agreed to pay $1.42 billion to settle a probe into alleged improper marketing of the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa. In 2011, Merck & Co. paid $950 million and plead guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge.
Some of these pay-to-prey cases involve far more than mere billions. In the BP Gulf oil spill case, it wasn’t just money. Eleven people were killed, others were injured, thousands of Cajuns lost their livelihood and it was months before I could get a decent shrimp etouffee. BP pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges and agreed to pay (guess what?) “a record” $4 billion in government penalties. The gang in BP’s executive suite, who had to know what corners were being cut, what safety measures were being ignored, paid a fine just in time for their 11 a.m. tee time. Only one guy, a middle management engineer from Katy, was convicted of destroying emails, the conviction was thrown out and the government may or may not appeal. Now let’s look at these figures DOJ and others crow about. Bank of America’s fine of $16.7 billion is to go to consumer relief, but the bank can take some of that off its federal income taxes. What a deal. Only a small fraction of hurt homeowners would get relief, and that won’t be parceled out until – get this – 2018. The actual amount the bank pays will probably be close to $12 billion, a lot of money but nothing like the fine the feds proudly put out.
A question: Follow the money, but where does it go? Do the DOJ lawyers get to bill by the hour? Maybe Attorney General Eric Holder has one super bank account. The money probably goes into the U.S. Treasury never to be seen again. True, the treasury deals in trillions, not billions, of dollars, but these are still sizeable sums. It was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen who supposedly said, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” Someone has to know what happens to this huge amount of cash, but I’ve never heard just where it goes. Have you? One place the money should go is to whistle-blowers. Some fink the other day got $400,000 from the government for ratting out a crook who owed Washington millions. Good for him or her.
Back to our original question: Why isn’t, say, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon still walking around his yacht or golf course or summer house in Cannes instead of making license plates in prison? Why are Joe Cassano (head of the AIG’s derivatives business), Angelo Mozilo (whose Countrywide Lending mortgages were the embodiment of toxic loans) and Richard Fuld (the CEO of Lehman Brothers) not in the clink? You hold up a convenience store for $50, you do time. You steal billions, you walk. Their companies were called too big to fail. These guys apparently are too big to jail. That reminds me: “Your Honor, I’ve signed the check and now I’ve got to go. I’ve got an 11 o’clock tee time.”
Ashby is just fine at email@example.com