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.Go read the whole article. It is an eye-opener. The worst part is that it shows corruption under Clinton, under Bush, and now under Obama. Wall Street has effectively bought political power and immunity from prosecution for its crimes.
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.
But spiking almost all criminal referrals wasn't enough for Wall Street. In 2004, in an extraordinary sequence of regulatory rollbacks that helped pave the way for the financial crisis, the top five investment banks — Goldman, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns — persuaded the government to create a new, voluntary approach to regulation called Consolidated Supervised Entities. CSE was the soft touch to end all soft touches. Here is how the SEC's inspector general described the program's regulatory army: "The Office of CSE Inspections has only two staff in Washington and five staff in the New York regional office."
Among the bankers who helped convince the SEC to go for this ludicrous program was Hank Paulson, Goldman's CEO at the time. And in exchange for "submitting" to this new, voluntary regime of law enforcement, Goldman and other banks won the right to lend in virtually unlimited amounts, regardless of their cash reserves — a move that fueled the catastrophe of 2008, when banks like Bear and Merrill were lending out 35 dollars for every one in their vaults.
The Levin report catalogs dozens of instances of business practices that are objectively shocking, no matter how any high-priced lawyer chooses to interpret them: gambling billions on the misfortune of your own clients, gouging customers on prices millions of dollars at a time, keeping customers trapped in bad investments even as they begged the bank to sell, plus myriad deceptions of the "failure to disclose" variety, in which customers were pitched investment deals without ever being told they were designed to help Goldman "clean" its bad inventory. For years, the soundness of America's financial system has been based on the proposition that it's a crime to lie in a prospectus or a sales brochure. But the Levin report reveals a bank gone way beyond such pathetic little boundaries; the collective picture resembles a financial version of The Jungle, a portrait of corporate sociopathy that makes you never want to go near a sausage again.
Upton Sinclair's narrative shocked the nation into a painful realization about the pervasive filth and corruption behind America's veneer of smart, robust efficiency. But Carl Levin's very similar tale probably will not. The fact that this evidence comes from a U.S. senator's office, and not the FBI or the SEC, is itself an element in the worsening tale of lawlessness and despotism that sparked a global economic meltdown. "Why should Carl Levin be the one who needs to do this?" asks Spitzer. "Where's the SEC? Where are any of the regulatory bodies?"
This isn't just a matter of a few seedy guys stealing a few bucks. This is America: Corporate stealing is practically the national pastime, and Goldman Sachs is far from the only company to get away with doing it. But the prominence of this bank and the high-profile nature of its confrontation with a powerful Senate committee makes this a political story as well. If the Justice Department fails to give the American people a chance to judge this case — if Goldman skates without so much as a trial — it will confirm once and for all the embarrassing truth: that the law in America is subjective, and crime is defined not by what you did, but by who you are.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Matt Taibbi on Corruption & Greed in America
Here are some bits from another excellent article by Matt Taibbi in the Rolling Stone magazine on the corruption and greed at Goldman Sachs and the failure of the Bush and Obama administrations to do the right thing and nail these bastards for the crimes. This is a story of corporate crime and political corruption: