They weren’t murderers or anything; they had merely stolen more money than most people can rationally conceive of, from their own customers, in a few blinks of an eye. But then they went one step further. They came to Washington, took an oath before Congress, and lied about it.
Thanks to an extraordinary investigative effort by a Senate subcommittee that unilaterally decided to take up the burden the criminal justice system has repeatedly refused to shoulder, we now know exactly what Goldman Sachs executives like Lloyd Blankfein and Daniel Sparks lied about. We know exactly how they and other top Goldman executives, including David Viniar and Thomas Montag, defrauded their clients. America has been waiting for a case to bring against Wall Street. Here it is, and the evidence has been gift-wrapped and left at the doorstep of federal prosecutors, evidence that doesn’t leave much doubt: Goldman Sachs should stand trial.
This article appears in the May 26, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and will appear in the online archive May 13.
The great and powerful Oz of Wall Street was not the only target of Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse, the 650-page report just released by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, alongside Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Their unusually scathing bipartisan report also includes case studies of Washington Mutual and Deutsche Bank, providing a panoramic portrait of a bubble era that produced the most destructive crime spree in our history — “a million fraud cases a year” is how one former regulator puts it. But the mountain of evidence collected against Goldman by Levin’s small, 15-desk office of investigators — details of gross, baldfaced fraud delivered up in such quantities as to almost serve as a kind of sarcastic challenge to the curiously impassive Justice Department — stands as the most important symbol of Wall Street’s aristocratic impunity and prosecutorial immunity produced since the crash of 2008.
To date, there has been only one successful prosecution of a financial big fish from the mortgage bubble, and that was Lee Farkas, a Florida lender who was just convicted on a smorgasbord of fraud charges and now faces life in prison. But Farkas, sadly, is just an exception proving the rule: Like Bernie Madoff, his comically excessive crime spree (which involved such lunacies as kiting checks to his own bank and selling loans that didn’t exist) was almost completely unconnected to the systematic corruption that led to the crisis. What’s more, many of the earlier criminals in the chain of corruption — from subprime lenders like Countrywide, who herded old ladies and ghetto families into bad loans, to rapacious banks like Washington Mutual, who pawned off fraudulent mortgages on investors — wound up going belly up, sunk by their own greed.
But Goldman, as the Levin report makes clear, remains an ascendant company precisely because it used its canny perception of an upcoming disaster (one which it helped create, incidentally) as an opportunity to enrich itself, not only at the expense of clients but ultimately, through the bailouts and the collateral damage of the wrecked economy, at the expense of society. The bank seemed to count on the unwillingness or inability of federal regulators to stop them — and when called to Washington last year to explain their behavior, Goldman executives brazenly misled Congress, apparently confident that their perjury would carry no serious consequences. Thus, while much of the Levin report describes past history, the Goldman section describes an ongoing? crime — a powerful, well-connected firm, with the ear of the president and the Treasury, that appears to have conquered the entire regulatory structure and stands now on the precipice of officially getting away with one of the biggest financial crimes in history.
Defenders of Goldman have been quick to insist that while the bank may have had a few ethical slips here and there, its only real offense was being too good at making money. We now know, unequivocally, that this is bullshit. Goldman isn’t a pudgy housewife who broke her diet with a few Nilla Wafers between meals — it’s an advanced-stage, 1,100-pound medical emergency who hasn’t left his apartment in six years, and is found by paramedics buried up to his eyes in cupcake wrappers and pizza boxes. If the evidence in the Levin report is ignored, then Goldman will have achieved a kind of corrupt-enterprise nirvana. Caught, but still free: above the law.
To fully grasp the case against Goldman, one first needs to understand that the financial crime wave described in the Levin report came on the heels of a decades-long lobbying campaign by Goldman and other titans of Wall Street, who pleaded over and over for the right to regulate themselves.
Before that campaign, banks were closely monitored by a host of federal regulators, including the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the FDIC and the Office of Thrift Supervision. These agencies had examiners poring over loans and other transactions, probing for behavior that might put depositors or the system at risk. When the examiners found illegal or suspicious behavior, they built cases and referred them to criminal authorities like the Justice Department.
This system of referrals was the backbone of financial law enforcement through the early Nineties. William Black was senior deputy chief counsel at the Office of Thrift Supervision in 1991 and 1992, the last years of the S&L crisis, a disaster whose pansystemic nature was comparable to the mortgage fiasco, albeit vastly smaller. Black describes the regulatory MO back then. “Every year,” he says, “you had thousands of criminal referrals, maybe 500 enforcement actions, 150 civil suits and hundreds of convictions.”
But beginning in the mid-Nineties, when former Goldman co-chairman Bob Rubin served as Bill Clinton’s senior economic-policy adviser, the government began moving toward a regulatory system that relied almost exclusively on voluntary compliance by the banks. Old-school criminal referrals disappeared down the chute of history along with floppy disks and scripted television entertainment. In 1995, according to an independent study, banking regulators filed 1,837 referrals. During the height of the financial crisis, between 2007 and 2010, they averaged just 72 a year.
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