Without prosecutions, there’s nothing keeping fraud from becoming a standard business practice.
In 2004, the FBI warned Congress of an ” epidemic of mortgage fraud,” of unscrupulous operators taking advantage of a booming real estate market. Less than two years later, an accounting scandal at Fannie Mae tipped us off that something was very wrong at the highest levels of corporate America.
Of course, we all know what happened next. Crime invaded the center of our banking system. Wall Street CEOs were signing on to SEC documents knowing they contained material misstatements. The New York Fed, riddled with conflicts of interest, shoveled money to large banks and tried to hide it under the veil of central bank independence. Even Tim Geithner noted that Lehman had ” air in the marks” in its valuations of asset-backed securities, as the bankruptcy examiner’s report showed that accounting manipulation to disguise the condition of the balance sheet was a routine management tool at the bank. There’s a reason Charles Ferguson got an Academy Award for his work on the documentary Inside Job.
And yet, no handcuffs. The big news on prosecutions in the traditionally high-powered Southern District of New York are convictions for relatively petty insider trading that are unrelated to the collapse of the economy. The criminal charges could have been filed in the 1980s. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has brought minor civil suits against banks, but nothing significant, and no criminal indictments for the Ponzi scheme of the last four years.