"...American financial history has generally unfolded as a series of booms followed by busts followed by crackdowns. After the crash of 1929, the Pecora Hearings seized upon public outrage, and the head of the New York Stock Exchange landed in prison. After the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s, 1,100 people were prosecuted, including top executives at many of the largest failed banks. In the '90s and early aughts, when the bursting of the Nasdaq bubble revealed widespread corporate accounting scandals, top executives from WorldCom, Enron, Qwest and Tyco, among others, went to prison.
The credit crisis of 2008 dwarfed those busts, and it was only to be expected that a similar round of crackdowns would ensue. In 2009, the Obama administration appointed Lanny Breuer to lead the Justice Department's criminal division...
But the crackdown never happened. Over the past year, I've interviewed Wall Street traders, bank executives, defense lawyers and dozens of current and former prosecutors to understand why the largest man-made economic catastrophe since the Depression resulted in the jailing of a single investment banker — one who happened to be several rungs from the corporate suite at a second-tier financial institution.
...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.
...the fact that the only top banker to go to jail for his role in the crisis was neither a mortgage executive (who created toxic products) nor the C.E.O. of a bank (who peddled them) is something of a paradox, but it's one that reflects the many paradoxes that got us here in the first place.
...From 2004 to 2012, the Justice Department reached 242 deferred and nonprosecution agreements with corporations, compared with 26 in the previous 12 years...
...President Obama's Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, which was designed to give hundreds of millions to prosecute financial criminals, was able to deliver only $65 million in 2010 and 2011. Prosecutors reporting to Breuer proposed setting up a mortgage-fraud initiative, a "Prosecutorial Strike Force," as one July 2009 memo put it, but the Justice Department dithered. Finally it set up the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, an enormous coordinating committee with essentially no investigative operation. One former Justice Department official derided it as "the turtle."
...A top Treasury Department official told Breuer, in carefully couched language, that an indictment could cause broader problems in the financial system. Breuer even went as far as discussing whether banks were too big to indict with H. Rodgin Cohen, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, who was representing HSBC in his very own case. Cohen told Breuer that while the Justice Department can't have a rule not to indict a large bank, prosecutors should, well, take into account how the target has cooperated and what changes it has made to fix the problems.
It would be easy to blame the Justice Department's ineptitude on past mistakes alone. But again, the very ambitions of its prosecutors played a prominent role. Top governmental lawyers generally don't want to spend their entire careers in the public sector. Many want to score marquee victories and avoid mistakes and eventually leave for prominent corporate firms with starting salaries at 10 times what they make at the Department of Justice. According to numerous former criminal-division employees, Breuer almost immediately signaled his interest in bigger things. In October 2009, Steven Fagell, his deputy chief of staff and former Covington colleague, sent an email to the division. "Do you like giving toasts? Do you think it should have been you accepting the writing Emmy for '30 Rock?'" Fagell wrote. "If so, we need your wit, smarts and gift for the written word! We're putting together a speechwriting team for the assistant attorney general." Prosecutors developing cases against Mexican drug cartels and Al Qaeda members found it more than a little tone deaf. (Fagell says the email request was intended "both to foster internal morale and to send a message of deterrence to the public.")
...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."
...the Justice Department never aggressively pursued what may have been the most promising angle. On Sept. 10, 2008, the chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers, Ian Lowitt, told shareholders and the public that the bank had $42 billion of available cash, or liquidity. The bank's position, Lowitt reassured, "remains very strong." Lehman would file for bankruptcy five days later. "What they were saying was not just wrong but materially wrong," Robert Byman, a Jenner & Block partner, told me.
...Of those billions, $15 billion was in the "low" category, generally because it had been pledged as collateral to other banks. One former Lehman executive told me that several other company managers understood that they could not tap much, if any, of that encumbered money. And at least two executives objected to how the bank was representing its liquidity, including its international treasurer, Carlo Pellerani, according to the Jenner & Block report. The law firm found that regulators, credit-rating agencies and Lehman's outside lawyer had no idea that the liquidity pool wasn't, in fact, all that liquid. When Lowitt came to talk to Jenner & Block, he explained that he had not fully understood the issues when he assured investors of its liquid assets. That may be a reasonable defense, but it does not appear that prosecutors and federal investigators made a serious attempt to test how much Lehman's chief financial officer knew about his own books. Three Lehman executives and one regulator at the Federal Reserve, all of whom were involved in the bank's desperate attempts to keep itself liquid, told me they were never even interviewed by any federal-government officials.
...Federal prosecutors have their own explanation for how only one Wall Street executive landed in jail in the wake of the financial crisis. The cases were complex to investigate and would have been infernally difficult to explain to juries, some told me. Much of the crisis and banker transgressions stemmed from recklessness, not criminality. They also suggest that deferred prosecutions — with their billions in settlements and additional oversights — can be stricter punishments than indictments.
...Federal prosecutors almost never bring criminal charges against top executives of large corporations, from banking to pharmaceuticals to technology..."