For anyone who watched last week's PBS Frontline documentary, The Untouchables, it's pretty clear that the reason that we have not seen one single banker brought to justice for criminal wrongdoing in the mortgage crisis is because the Department of Justice has had the wrong Sheriff in charge. Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General in charge of financial prosecutions, has consistently shot down virtually all potential fraud cases, explaining that they were simply too hard to prosecute.
His attitude toward the banks was shockingly protective and certainly not prosecutorial. In fact, Breuer was quoted during a speech at the New York Bar Association last fall saying that he was "losing sleep at night over worrying about what a lawsuit might result in at a large financial institution." In spite of mountains of evidence from whistleblowers and private firms, the Department of Justice has not filed any criminal charges against banks related to the mortgage crisis.
Thankfully, as President Obama begins his second term, we may have a second chance at justice. Last week news leaked that Lanny Breuer is stepping down, after nearly four wasted years at DOJ. Now with Mary Jo White at the head of the SEC and Richard Cordray at the Consumer Protection Bureau, there's a chance that winds of change might finally be blowing and the executives who knowingly sold bad mortgages to reap huge profits while bankrupting our economy may finally be held to account. But it's not a given, and the time for bringing these banks to justice for their crime is quickly running out, since the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions in fraud cases is, in most cases, five years.
Let's face facts: We know that Wall Street is extremely powerful, if for no other reason than the fact that the government seems afraid to hold them accountable. Imagine if this level of scandal had happened in any other industry. For example, let's say that a car company knowingly sold millions of cars with faulty brake systems. Through emails, phone records, and maybe a whistleblower -- this information comes to light after car owners die in accidents, or were otherwise maimed and injured. Most reasonable people would agree that the best way to respond would be to force the automaker into a mandatory recall to fix the brakes on all the cars, compensate the victims, and, to the degree that the manufacturers knew this was a problem, prosecute them to the full extent of the law in criminal and civil court. This is not what has happened to banks who knowingly sold bad mortgages to people who could not afford them, then sold them off to investors in the market bundled into AAA rated securities.
So, why is criminal court off the table in the financial sector? Well, maybe the harm is not as severe, one might argue. But that's simply not true. In fact, in some cases the trauma and harm caused by foreclosure can be more devastating and far reaching in a community than any car accident.
Take Ana and Jose Mendez from Springfield, Mass. After they fell behind in their mortgage payments due to a loss of income, they did what millions of families were told to do -- they contacted the bank. Aurora Bank offered them a temporary trial modification, like millions of other families. The Mendez family obliged and paid for six consecutive months. At the end of the trial period, Aurora Bank refused a permanent modification and offered another trial. The family obliged again and paid for six more months at a higher price -- hoping that this time they would get a permanent modification. At the end of that period, Aurora again refused a permanent modification and offered one last six-month trial modification. The Mendez family paid those six months. At the end of 18 months of trial payments, Aurora Bank refused to permanently modify the loan and foreclosed.
Jose Mendez expressed his frustration to a local CBS News Affiliate in Springfield, stating, "I don't understand the logic that the banks use to evict our communities, all these buildings stay empty without any benefit to our communities."
The Mendez family struggle is ongoing. Aurora Bank FSB, which is the legacy of the now defunct Lehman Brothers refused to accept the Mendez family's offer to pay rent and is now no longer negotiating in good faith. Aurora Bank has chosen to proceed with eviction. The Mendez family is willing to move if Aurora Bank can find a buyer who signs an affidavit to move into the home, but the bank would rather leave the home vacant than work with the family.
This is just one example of the thousands of families whose lives have been upended without any recourse or justice. If anyone else stole rent for a home from a family, we would haul them into court. Who will stand up for the Mendez family in court?
That's why it is so critical that bankers who committed criminal fraud be held to account for their crimes. Any criminal justice expert will tell you that if there is no punishment, there is no deterrent. Bankers need a deterrent to prevent them from cooking up the next crisis that will bankrupt America.
The Campaign for a Fair Settlement and Corporate Action Network are working to shine a spotlight on stories of those whose lives were ruined by Wall Street crime during the first 100 days of President Obama's second term. We're telling these stories because we must have justice. With the statute of limitations running out, it's imperative that the administration makes it a priority to replace Lanny Breuer with someone who will actually prosecute the banks and bankers who wreaked havoc on so many lives.
The paltry settlements that homeowners will receive based on the decisions now being made in the civil court will not make those homeowners whole. Meanwhile, banks and the executives who run them got huge government bailouts. There's a reason why petty criminals are forced to pay restitution, and the reason is simple justice. Bankers are no different from the rest of us. In his radio address on the nominations of Mary Jo White and Richard Cordray, President Obama stated that "we [...] need cops on the beat to enforce the law." Campaign for a Fair Settlement, Corporate Action Network, and homeowners in foreclosure will spend what's left of these first 100 days making sure President Obama gets someone at the Justice Department who will do just that.