Are banks too big to jail?

Update:  Dealbook at the NYT interviews the producers of ‘The Untouchables’.

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism comments begin:

Lanny Breuer, former Covington & Burling partner and more recently head of the criminal division at the Department of Justice, resigned abruptly today. The proximate cause may be a Frontline show that ran two nights ago, part of a series on the financial crisis…

and ends

But sadly, Breuer’s resignation is unlikely to be a bellwether that lying does not pay. He simply didn’t lie well enough and that made him an embarrassment.

David Sirota at Salon discusses the significance of:

PBS Frontline’s stunning report last night on why the Obama administration has refused to prosecute any Wall Streeter involved in the financial meltdown doesn’t just implicitly indict a political and financial press that utterly abdicated its responsibility to cover such questions. It also — and as importantly — exposes the genuinely radical jurisprudential ideology that Wall Street campaign contributors have baked into America’s “justice” system. Indeed, after watching the piece, you will understand that the word “justice” belongs in quotes thanks to an Obama administration that has made a mockery of the name of a once hallowed executive department.

The Frontline report is titled “The Untouchables,”

As this excerpt from Breuer’s 2012 speech to the New York City Bar Association shows, that characterization of Breuer’s declarations is not an overstatement (emphasis added):

To be clear, the decision of whether to indict a corporation, defer prosecution, or decline altogether is not one that I, or anyone in the Criminal Division, take lightly. We are frequently on the receiving end of presentations from defense counsel, CEOs, and economists who argue that the collateral consequences of an indictment would be devastating for their client. In my conference room, over the years, I have heard sober predictions that a company or bank might fail if we indict, that innocent employees could lose their jobs, that entire industries may be affected, and even that global markets will feel the effects.

In reaching every charging decision, we must take into account the effect of an indictment on innocent employees and shareholders, just as we must take into account the nature of the crimes committed and the pervasiveness of the misconduct.

I personally feel that it’s my duty to consider whether individual employees with no responsibility for, or knowledge of, misconduct committed by others in the same company are going to lose their livelihood if we indict the corporation. In large multi-national companies, the jobs of tens of thousands of employees can be at stake. And, in some cases, the health of an industry or the markets are a real factor. Those are the kinds of considerations in white collar crime cases that literally keep me up at night, and which must play a role in responsible enforcement.

Save for the intrepid Marcy Wheeler and now Frontline, this speech received almost no news media attention despite being arguably one of the most important statements to come from a top law enforcement official in recent history.

The highlighted parts of that speech are what is so significant. In them, Breuer is saying that enforcing the law should not be — and no longer is, in the Department of Justice — prosecutors’ chief priority. Rather, he says listening to Wall Street’s economic arguments about the alleged cost of stopping and/or punishing lawbreaking should be.

… After all, it was Breuer who sculpted the Obama administration’s settlement with megabank HSBC after the bank admitted laundering money for drug cartels and terrorist organizations.
In that decision not to criminally prosecute any HSBC executive who had enabled such laundering, Breuer explicitly cited the same radical Too Big to Jail principle aired in the PBS Frontline report. He said: “Our goal here is not to bring HSBC down, it’s not to cause a systemic effect on the economy, it’s not for people to lose thousands of jobs.”

For pure adversarial and investigative journalism horsepower, the PBS Frontline piece rivals Bill Moyers’ epic PBS indictment of those charlatans who enabled the Bush administration’s march into the Iraq War. It is a must-watch in the truest sense of the overused term because it so powerfully explains how Obama’s campaign motto of “change” meant something entirely different than what many thought. In the case of financial crime, it meant the embrace of a radical Too Big to Jail ideology, one that creates a moral hazard, encourages exactly the same kind of crimes and therefore makes it more likely that another financial meltdown will happen.

UPDATE: A mere hours after the PBS Frontline piece aired, Lanny Breuer just announced he is resigning his post at the Justice Department. Meanwhile, PBS reporter Martin Smith just reported that in response to his report, the Obama White House has decided to block access to Frontline reporters in their future reporting.

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