Why Can't Obama Bring Wall Street to Justice?

By Boyer, Peter J.; Schweizer, Peter | Newsweek, May 14, 2012 | Go to article overview

Why Can't Obama Bring Wall Street to Justice?


Boyer, Peter J., Schweizer, Peter, Newsweek


Maybe the banks are too big to jail. Or maybe Washington's revolving door is at work.

with the Occupy protesters resuming battle stations, and Mitt Romney in place as the presumptive Republican nominee, President Obama has begun to fashion his campaign as a crusade for the 99 percent--a fight against, as one Obama ad puts it, "a guy who had a Swiss bank account." Casting Romney as a plutocrat will be easy enough. But the president's claim as avenging populist may prove trickier, given his own deeply complicated, even conflicted, relationship with Big Finance.

Obama came into office vowing to end business as usual, and, in the gray post-crash dawn of 2009, nowhere did a reckoning with justice seem more due than in the financial sector. The public was shaken, and angry, and Wall Street seemed oblivious to its own culpability, defending extravagant pay bonuses even while accepting a taxpayer bailout. Obama channeled this anger, and employed its rhetoric, blaming the worldwide economic collapse on "the reckless speculation of bankers." Two months into his presidency, Obama summoned the titans of finance to the White House, where he told them, "My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks."

The bankers may have found the president's tone unsettling. Candidate Obama had been their guy, accepting vast amounts of Wall Street campaign money for his victories over Hillary Clinton and John McCain (Goldman Sachs executives ponied up $1 million, more than any other private source of funding in 2008). Obama far outraised his Republican rival, John McCain, on Wall Street--around $16 million to $9 million. As it turned out, Obama apparently actually meant what he said at that White House meeting--his administration effectively would stand between Big Finance and anything like a severe accounting. To the dismay of many of Obama's supporters, nearly four years after the disaster, there has not been a single criminal charge filed by the federal government against any top executive of the elite financial institutions.

"It's perplexing at best," says Phil Angelides, the Democratic former California treasurer who chaired the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. "It's deeply troubling at worst."

Strikingly, federal prosecutions overall have risen sharply under Obama, increasing dramatically in such areas as civil rights and health-care fraud. But according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data-gathering organization at Syracuse University, financial-fraud prosecutions by the Department of Justice are at 20-year lows. They're down 39 percent since 2003, when fraud at Enron and WorldCom led to a series of prosecutions, and are just one third of what they were during the Clinton administration. (The Justice Department says the numbers would be higher if new categories of crime were counted.)

"There hasn't been any serious investigation of any of the large financial entities by the Justice Department, which includes the FBI," says William Black, an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who, as a government regulator in the 1980s, helped clean up the S&L mess. Black, who is a Democrat, notes that the feds dealt with the S&L crisis with harsh justice, bringing more than a thousand prosecutions, and securing a 90 percent conviction rate. The difference between the government's response to the two crises, Black says, is a matter of will, and priorities. "You need heads on the pike," he says. "The first President Bush's orders were to get the most prominent, nastiest frauds, and put their heads on pikes as a demonstration that there's a new sheriff in town."

Obama delivered heated rhetoric, but his actions signaled different priorities. Had Obama wanted to strike real fear in the hearts of bankers, he might have appointed former special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald or some other fire-breather as his attorney general. …

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