Too big to fail is apparently good not only for a taxpayer-funded bailout, it can also get you a get out of jail free card.
In the latest example of just how far above the law titans of finance now live, a Colorado prosecutor has declined to file felony hit and run charges against a wealthy Morgan Stanley Smith Barney money manager who left the scene after striking a bicyclist while driving his 2010 Mercedes.
Tougher charges, the prosecutor explained, would have damaged the bankers’ source of income, which could have limited his ability to pay restitution. The banker, Martin Erzinger, manages about $1 billion in assets. Morgan Stanley received about $10 billion in federal bailout money.
Meanwhile the banker’s victim, a New York City doctor, faces a lifetime of pain, according to the Vail Daily. The prosecutor offered a variety of lame explanations for accepting the bankers’ guilty plea to two misdemeanors rather than a felony: the banker had no prior record, there were no drugs or alcohol involved, and harsher charges might have jeopardized the banker’s ability to pay restitution. The prosecutor insisted that he had rejected a more lenient plea offered by the banker’s lawyer, which would have allowed his client to wipe his record clean after a time.
Why the prosecutor believed he was obliged to reach a plea deal at all rather than taking the case to trial remains a mystery. Then again, a trial could have been inconvenient for the banker.
I covered criminal courts in Los Angeles for several years and I don’t recall local prosecutors acting so deferential to accused criminals, even those wearing expensive suits. In fact, criminal defense attorneys were always complaining about how law enforcement authorities liked to try to humiliate their white-collar clients by requiring them to come to court through a gantlet of news cameras in what was known as the dreaded “perp” walk.
Maybe the Colorado prosecutor’s attitude toward bankers has trickled down to him from the Obama administration. Its lenient treatment of bankers throughout the financial crisis has been interrupted only by occasional Asperger-like outbursts of populist rhetoric. Most recently the president has taken a hands-off approach to the scandal surrounding the handling of foreclosure cases. The banks, inundated with foreclosures, couldn’t be bothered with following the legal requirements to prove that they actually own the mortgages on which they want to foreclosure or to guarantee that the required documentation is in order. The president has balked at proposals for a temporary foreclosure moratorium while the banks straighten out the mess. Unlike the president and the Colorado prosecutor, some judges are beginning to insist on accountability.