...the stated opinion of those government entities asked to examine the financial crisis overall is not that no fraud was committed. Quite the contrary. For example, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in its final report, uses variants of the word “fraud” no fewer than 157 times in describing what led to the crisis, concluding that there was a “systemic breakdown,” not just in accountability, but also in ethical behavior.
As the commission found, the signs of fraud were everywhere to be seen, with the number of reports of suspected mortgage fraud rising twenty-fold between 1996 and 2005 and then doubling again in the next four years. As early as 2004, FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker was publicly warning of the “pervasive problem” of mortgage fraud, driven by the voracious demand for mortgage-backed securities. Similar warnings, many from within the financial community, were disregarded, not because they were viewed as inaccurate, but because, as one high-level banker put it, “A decision was made that ‘We’re going to have to hold our nose and start buying the stated product if we want to stay in business.’”
Without giving further examples, the point is that, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the prevailing view of many government officials (as well as others) was that the crisis was in material respects the product of intentional fraud. In a nutshell, the fraud, they argued, was a simple one. Subprime mortgages, i.e., mortgages of dubious creditworthiness, increasingly provided the chief collateral for highly leveraged securities that were marketed as AAA, i.e., securities of very low risk. How could this transformation of a sow’s ear into a silk purse be accomplished unless someone dissembled along the way?
While officials of the Department of Justice have been more circumspect in describing the roots of the financial crisis than have the various commissions of inquiry and other government agencies, I have seen nothing to indicate their disagreement with the widespread conclusion that fraud at every level permeated the bubble in mortgage-backed securities. Rather, their position has been to excuse their failure to prosecute high-level individuals for fraud in connection with the financial crisis on one or more of three grounds:
Rakoff goes on the examine these grounds, and finds none of them convincing. So, then, why no prosecutions? He discounts the revolving door theory -- the prosecutors have avoided action because of former links to financial firms, or hope of future employment links -- because, in his experience, prosecutors are well motivated to get convictions. He suggests that there are a host of reasons: prosecutors simply had other priorities in the years after 9/11/2001; in many cases government regulators acquiesced early on to changing practices, where in increasingly lax demands on mortgage documentation became the norm. And, finally and most importantly, he points to changes in prosecuting practices over the past few decades:
The final factor I would mention is both the most subtle and the most systemic of the three, and arguably the most important. It is the shift that has occurred, over the past thirty years or more, from focusing on prosecuting high-level individuals to focusing on prosecuting companies and other institutions. It is true that prosecutors have brought criminal charges against companies for well over a hundred years, but until relatively recently, such prosecutions were the exception, and prosecutions of companies without simultaneous prosecutions of their managerial agents were even rarer.
The reasons were obvious. Companies do not commit crimes; only their agents do. And while a company might get the benefit of some such crimes, prosecuting the company would inevitably punish, directly or indirectly, the many employees and shareholders who were totally innocent. Moreover, under the law of most US jurisdictions, a company cannot be criminally liable unless at least one managerial agent has committed the crime in question; so why not prosecute the agent who actually committed the crime?
In recent decades, however, prosecutors have been increasingly attracted to prosecuting companies, often even without indicting a single person. This shift has often been rationalized as part of an attempt to transform “corporate cultures,” so as to prevent future such crimes; and as a result, government policy has taken the form of “deferred prosecution agreements” or even “nonprosecution agreements,” in which the company, under threat of criminal prosecution, agrees to take various prophylactic measures to prevent future wrongdoing. Such agreements have become, in the words of Lanny Breuer, the former head of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, “a mainstay of white-collar criminal law enforcement,” with the department entering into 233 such agreements over the last decade. But in practice, I suggest, this approach has led to some lax and dubious behavior on the part of prosecutors, with deleterious results.
If you are a prosecutor attempting to discover the individuals responsible for an apparent financial fraud, you go about your business in much the same way you go after mobsters or drug kingpins: you start at the bottom and, over many months or years, slowly work your way up. Specifically, you start by “flipping” some lower- or mid-level participant in the fraud who you can show was directly responsible for making one or more false material misrepresentations but who is willing to cooperate, and maybe even “wear a wire”—i.e., secretly record his colleagues—in order to reduce his sentence. With his help, and aided by the substantial prison penalties now available in white-collar cases, you go up the ladder.
But if your priority is prosecuting the company, a different scenario takes place. Early in the investigation, you invite in counsel to the company and explain to him or her why you suspect fraud. He or she responds by assuring you that the company wants to cooperate and do the right thing, and to that end the company has hired a former assistant US attorney, now a partner at a respected law firm, to do an internal investigation. The company’s counsel asks you to defer your investigation until the company’s own internal investigation is completed, on the condition that the company will share its results with you. In order to save time and resources, you agree.
Six months later the company’s counsel returns, with a detailed report showing that mistakes were made but that the company is now intent on correcting them. You and the company then agree that the company will enter into a deferred prosecution agreement that couples some immediate fines with the imposition of expensive but internal prophylactic measures. For all practical purposes the case is now over. You are happy because you believe that you have helped prevent future crimes; the company is happy because it has avoided a devastating indictment; and perhaps the happiest of all are the executives, or former executives, who actually committed the underlying misconduct, for they are left untouched.
I suggest that this is not the best way to proceed. Although it is supposedly justified because it prevents future crimes, I suggest that the future deterrent value of successfully prosecuting individuals far outweighs the prophylactic benefits of imposing internal compliance measures that are often little more than window-dressing. Just going after the company is also both technically and morally suspect. It is technically suspect because, under the law, you should not indict or threaten to indict a company unless you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that some managerial agent of the company committed the alleged crime; and if you can prove that, why not indict the manager? And from a moral standpoint, punishing a company and its many innocent employees and shareholders for the crimes committed by some unprosecuted individuals seems contrary to elementary notions of moral responsibility.
These criticisms take on special relevance, however, in the instance of investigations growing out of the financial crisis, because, as noted, the Department of Justice’s position, until at least recently, is that going after the suspect institutions poses too great a risk to the nation’s economic recovery. So you don’t go after the companies, at least not criminally, because they are too big to jail; and you don’t go after the individuals, because that would involve the kind of years-long investigations that you no longer have the experience or the resources to pursue.
In conclusion, I want to stress again that I do not claim that the financial crisis that is still causing so many of us so much pain and despondency was the product, in whole or in part, of fraudulent misconduct. But if it was—as various governmental authorities have asserted it was—then the failure of the government to bring to justice those responsible for such colossal fraud bespeaks weaknesses in our prosecutorial system that need to be addressed.