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The $9 Billion Witness: Meet JPMorgan Chase's Worst Nightmare

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If you have any interest in income inequality whatsoever, this is a must-read. Think of it this way: the entire food stamp program, which some people think amounts to poor people taking money out of their pockets, costs $75 billion per year and helps feed 47 million Americans -- 14 percent of all households. Meanwhile, a financial institution paid $9 billion in settlement money -- $7 billion of which they were allowed to take as a tax writeoff! -- just to not have a public accounting of one small slice of their fraudulent business practices. It takes literally millions of moms trying to feed their kids to equal the cost to the taxpayer of JUST THE TAX WRITEOFF ON THE FINE of a small clique of wealthy bankers. So who are the moochers and takers now?

The moochers are the wealthy bankers. The winners are taking all. It's very sad. 

This is seriously messed up. They're protecting very badly behaving rich people.

By the time the working group was set up, most of the applicable statutes of limitations had either expired or were about to expire. "A conspiratorial way of looking at it would be to say the state waited far too long to look at these cases and is now taking its sweet time investigating, while the last statutes of limitations run out," says famed prosecutor and former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

It soon became clear that the SEC wasn't so much investigating Chase's behavior as just checking boxes. Fleischmann received no follow-up phone calls, even though she told the investigator that she was willing to tell the SEC everything she knew about the systemic fraud at Chase. Instead, the SEC focused on a single transaction involving a mortgage company called WMC. "I kept trying to talk to them about GreenPoint," Fleischmann says, "but they just wanted to talk about that other deal."

The following year, the SEC would fine Chase $297 million for misrepresentations in the WMC deal. On the surface, it looked like a hefty punishment. In reality, it was a classic example of the piecemeal, cherry-picking style of justice that characterized the post-crisis era. "The kid-gloves approach that the DOJ and the SEC take with Wall Street is as inexplicable as it is indefensible," says Dennis Kelleher of the financial reform group Better Markets, which would later file suit challenging the Chase settlement. "They typically charge only one offense when there are dozens. It would be like charging a serial murderer with a single assault and giving them probation."

The idea that Holder had cracked down on Chase was a carefully contrived fiction, one that has survived to this day.

For starters, $4 billion of the settlement was largely an accounting falsehood, a chunk of bogus "consumer relief" added to make the payoff look bigger. What the public never grasped about these consumer--relief deals is that the "relief" is often not paid by the bank, which mostly just services the loans, but by the bank's other victims, i.e., the investors in their bad mortgage securities.

Moreover, in this case, a fine-print addendum indicated that this consumer relief would be allowed only if said investors agreed to it – or if it would have been granted anyway under existing arrangements. This often comes down to either forgiving a small portion of a loan or giving homeowners a little extra time to pay up in full. "It's not real," says Fleischmann. "They structured it so that the homeowners only get relief if they would have gotten it anyway." She pauses. "If a loan shark gives you a few extra weeks to pay up, is that 'consumer relief'?"

The average person had no way of knowing what a terrible deal the Chase settlement was for the country. The terms were even lighter than the slap-on-the-wrist formula that allowed Wall Street banks to "neither admit nor deny" wrongdoing – the deals that had helped spark the Occupy protests. Yet those notorious deals were like the Nuremberg hangings compared to the regulatory innovation that Holder's Justice Department cooked up for Dimon and Co.

Bless her for doing the right thing when even the U.S. Attorney general wouldn't.

One day last spring, Fleischmann happened across a video of Holder giving a speech titled "No Company Is Too Big to Jail." It was classic Holder: full of weird prevarication, distracting eye twitches and other facial contortions. It began with the bold rejection of the idea that overly large financial institutions would receive preferential treatment from his Justice Department.

Then, within a few sentences, he seemed to contradict himself, arguing that one must apply a special sort of care when investigating supersize banks, tweaking the rules so as not to upset the world economy. "Federal prosecutors conducting these investigations," Holder said, "must go the extra mile to coordinate closely with the regulators who oversee these institutions' day-to-day operations." That is, he was saying, regulators have to agree not to allow automatic penalties to kick in, so that bad banks can stay in business.

Fleischmann winced. Fully fluent in Holder's three-faced rhetoric after years of waiting for him to act, she felt that he was patting himself on the back for having helped companies survive crimes that otherwise might have triggered crippling regulatory penalties. As she watched in mounting outrage, Holder wrapped up his address with a less-than-reassuring pronouncement: "I am resolved to seeing [the investigations] through." Doing so, he added, would "reaffirm" his principles.

Or, as Fleischmann translates it: "I will personally stay on to make sure that no one can undo the cover-up that I've accomplished."

That's when she decided to break her silence. "I tried to go on with the things I was doing, but I just stopped sleeping and couldn't eat," she says. "It felt like I was trying to keep this secret and my body was literally rejecting it."

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