How Many Strings Lead to the White House?

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The New York Times published a column by its leading financial experts, Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story, on November 22, 2011 which contains a spectacular charge against the Obama administration’s financial regulatory leaders. I have waited for the rebuttal, but it is now clear that the administration does not contest the charge. 

The specific example that prompted the NYT article (“Financial Finger-Pointing Turns to Regulators”) was a civil action against a former executive of IndyMac. IndyMac was supposed to be regulated by the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS). OTS was the worst of the federal financial regulators – which is a large statement. It was so bad that the Dodd-Frank Act killed it. I used to work for OTS. One of the things I did to make myself unemployable during the S&L debacle was to testify before Congress against the head of our agency, Danny Wall, and our head of supervision, Darrell Dochow. Wall resigned in disgrace and Dochow was demoted and sent back to run the obscure office he had once run in Seattle.

Ms. Story and Ms. Morgenson’s column discusses how an IndyMac manager is defending himself against suit by arguing that Dochow told him to file false financial statements. OTS’ senior leaders knew from my book exactly what they were getting when they promoted Dochow and made him the top (anti) regulator for all the top S&L originators of fraudulent liar’s loans.

This column addresses a more general point, the charge that Obama’s financial regulatory leaders actively oppose the prosecution of elite financial criminals and the regulators who conspired with them (to use the term the article quotes Professor Kane as insisting upon).

“Any financial crisis case that named a regulator probably would turn into a huge political battle, because it would question many of the nontransparent acts that bank regulators take while trying to save banks, said Denise Voigt Crawford, former commissioner of the Texas securities board and now a law professor at Texas Tech University.

In any prosecution of bank regulators, she said, “you’d have the Justice Department in a fight with the policy goals of the Department of Treasury. Particularly in this environment, you know the banking regulators would fight it tooth and nail.”

Some longtime lawyers go further and say the overall scarcity of cases related to the financial crisis might be in part because regulators want to avoid scrutiny of their own kind.

“It’s not just one 30-year-old wunderkind who was responsible for the financial crisis,” said Dennis C. Vacco, who was the New York State attorney general in the 1990s and now is a lawyer at Lippes Mathias Wexler & Friedman. “Once you start pulling the string through in these complex cases, you might be surprised what you find at the other end.”

Mr. Vacco continued: “What’s at the end of the string? The defense may be that ‘at the highest echelons of the financial institutions, we were in regular contact with the government.’”

These charges are exceptionally severe. Senior former regulators are willing to be quoted by name asserting that Obama’s (not Bush’s) financial regulatory leaders are blocking lawsuits against fraudulent financial elites and their anti-regulatory co-conspirators because they fear embarrassment. That would be a disgraceful policy. Indeed, it is hard to think of a worse reason for granting the elite white-collar criminals that caused the crisis and the Great Recession immunity from prosecution. The fact that Obama has no response rebutting this grave charge against his administration’s integrity sounds loud, but not proud.

Bill Black is the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He spent years working on regulatory policy and fraud prevention as Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention, Litigation Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Deputy Director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement, among other positions.

Bill writes a column for Benzinga every Monday. His other academic articles, congressional testimony, and musings about the financial crisis can be found at his Social Science Research Network author page and at the blog New Economic Perspectives. Follow him on Twitter: @WilliamKBlack

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About William K Black PhD

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