Friday, December 27, 2013
In the current New York Review of Books, Judge Jed Rakoff presents the most thoughtful, balanced analysis I have seen to date regarding DOJ's failure to prosecute high-level executives at elite financial institutions in connection with the recent financial crisis. Appropriately entitled, The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High Level Executives Been Prosecuted?, Judge Rakoff is careful not to point fingers, rush to judgment, or even allege that fraud has definitively been established. And that's a big part of the DOJ's problem. How can you establish fraud if the effort to investigate it has been haphazard and understaffed from the outset? Rakoff is someone worth listening to. An unusually thoughtful federal district judge, he has presided over many significant securities and bank fraud cases, served as chief of the Securities Fraud Unit in the SDNY U.S. Attorney's Office, and worked as a defense attorney. Oh yeah. He also hates the Sentencing Guidelines.
Among the many theories Rakoff posits for the failure to prosecute what, it bears repeating, only may have been fraud, are two that I take issue with. These investigations were apparently parceled out to to various OUSA districts, rather than being concentrated in the SDNY. Judge Rakoff believes that the SDNY would have been the more logical choice, as it has more experience in sophisticated fraud investigations. This may be true as a general proposition. But the most plausible historical fraud model for the mortgage meltdown-fueled financial crisis is the Savings & Loan Scandal of the late 1980s, so successfully prosecuted by DOJ into the mid-1990s. The SDNY had very little of that action.
Judge Rakoff also notes the government's role in creating the conditions that led to the current crisis as a potential prosecution pitfall. But this did not stop the S&L prosecutors from forging ahead in their cases. Back then, virtually every S&L criminal defendant claimed that the government had created that crisis by establishing, and then abandoning, Regulatory Accounting Principles, aka RAP. (One marked difference between the two scandals is that the S&L Scandal was immediately met with public outrage and a sustained Executive Branch commitment to investigate and prosecute where warranted. The sustained Executive Branch commitment has not happened this time around, for whatever reason.)
But these are minor quibbles and Judge Rakoff is spot on in most of his observations.
Judge Rakoff is right to reject the "revolving door" theory of non-prosecution. Any prosecutor worth his salt would love to make a name for himself, and would definitely enhance his private sector marketability, by winning one of these cases. Judge Rakoff also correctly notes that these cases are hard and time-consuming to investigate.
The judge's most salient point has nothing to do with the various theories for DOJ's failure to prosecute. Instead, it is his observation that there is no substitute for holding financial elites responsible for their major criminal misdeeds. The compliance and deferred prosecution agreements favored today are simply a cost of doing business for most big corporations. What's worse, in the current environment, DOJ is giving a walk to elite financial actors and simultaneously prosecuting middle-class pikers with a vengeance that is sickening to behold. The elite financial actors may not have committed criminal fraud, but many of them bear heavy responsibility for the ensuing mess. It is so much easier for DOJ to rack up the stats by picking the low hanging fruit.
The one thing Judge Rakoff cannot do, and does not try to do, is answer the question of whether criminal fraud occurred in the highest sectors of our financial world. The answer to that question can only be supplied, at least as an initial matter, by the AUSA in charge of each investigation. And if no prosecution occurs, you and I are unlikely to ever know the reason why.