Hollywood loves a good chase. Last night at the Oscars, Tinsel Town sent a strong message to the rest of the country – the bad guys are getting away, and the cops aren’t even on their trail.
For a brief instant the Obama administration’s sorry efforts in holding bankers accountable for the financial collapse took center stage at, of all places, the Academy Awards.
Accepting his Oscar for “Inside Job,” his documentary about the financial collapse, Charles Ferguson used the opportunity to remind the audience of millions that not a single banker had gone to prison for fraud.
Ferguson was saying what the mainstream media has deemed a non-story, following President Obama’s lead in downplaying accountability while highlighting evidence of economic recovery.
But Ferguson joins a handful of prominent critics, including Bill Black, Simon Johnson, former Sen. Ted Kaufman, Dean Baker and Matt Stoller, who have been sending the same message in a variety of less prominent venues.
Meanwhile the president, far from insisting that his prosecutors develop fraud cases against top bankers, appoints them to top positions in his administration.
Typical is this recent column from the New York Times oped columnist Joe Nocera, who pooh-poohs the criminal aspects of the financial meltdown, blaming it on widespread “mania.”
Make no mistake; these are hard cases to make. In the 90s I covered the prosecution of savings and loan magnate Charles Keating, the poster child for bad behavior and political shenanigans for that earlier banking fiasco that also followed a rash of deregulation. Keating was convicted in both state and federal court. Though the convictions were overturned, Keating did serve four and a half years of his five-year state sentence.
Good prosecutors don't mind tough cases. They enjoy the challenge. But their bosses set their priorities and have to give them the support they need.
The Obama administration is barely even trying, afraid of alienating the bankers it’s trying to court. The cases that have been brought are either minor sideshows or they’ve been mishandled.
A local prosecutor told me that federal authorities have shown no interest in the painstaking work of building serious cases against bank executives, which would involve authorities going after minor players such as mortgage brokers, and working their way up the chain of responsibility.
In Inside Job, former New York state attorney general Eliot Spitzer has a suggestion for prosecutors – do unto the bankers what the prosecutors did unto him: go through their credit card receipts looking for evidence of illicit activity, like paying for high-priced hookers. Bust the bankers for their bad personal behavior and then obtain their cooperation in investigating financial abuse.
It may work; it may not. But at least prosecutors wouldn’t be sitting on their hands. They’d be doing their jobs – aggressively going after the bad guys.