JPMorgan Chase, the star of mega-banks, is up against the wall at the Justice Department, trying to settle its myriad crimes for $13 billion. That’s real money, even for a trillion-dollar bank. So this is progress. After years of scandalous indifference, the Obama administration appears to have found its backbone.
But the $13 billion is not even the best part.
Four years ago, Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware crisply described the fundamental problem posed by the reckless behemoths of Wall Street. “People know that if they rob a bank, they will go to jail,” Kaufman said. “Bankers should know that if they rob people, they will go to jail, too.” Can we hear an Amen on that? Not yet. But the complaint Kaufman voiced constantly is back. “At the end of the day,” the senator warned, “this is a test of whether we have one justice system in this country or two. If we do not treat a Wall Street firm that defrauded investors of millions of dollars the same way we treat someone who stole $500 from a cash register, then how can we expect our citizens to have any faith in the rule of law?” [see Greider, “How Wall Street Crooks Get Out of Jail Free,” April 11, 2011].
After the Senate hearings in 2009, where Kaufman made those pointed remarks, Attorney General Eric Holder was stung, his reputation damaged. His lieutenants in the Criminal Division explained repeatedly that while the mega-crimes seemed obvious, it is fiendishly difficult to locate the people in a huge, complex financial organization who can be successfully prosecuted as criminals. The popular anger did not go away, however, because in JPMorgan’s case, the outrages only got larger and more obvious.
So here we are, four years later, and leading news-papers report that Justice is on the brink of that record-setting $13 billion settlement. Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan CEO and formerly the president’s favorite banker, has personally negotiated the terms with the attorney general. The bank started with an offer of $1 billion and quickly raised it to $4 billion. Holder’s office kept saying no, not enough. According to The New York Times, at least seven federal agencies are investigating the bank, plus state banking regulators and a couple of foreign governments.
The offenses include crimes against an all-star list of duped victims—mortgage fraud against homebuyers, investor fraud against people and pension funds that purchased the rotten mortgage securities, and defrauding the agencies (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) that bought the mortgage bonds and applied federal guarantees to them. Nevertheless, if there is no identifiable “criminal” who can be sent to jail, the case could be treated as merely another bureaucratic crime and adjudicated with lots of cash—a very familiar exercise in this era of high-flying capitalist buccaneers and bandits.
But here is the exciting and suspenseful element in this story: Holder and his prosecutors have so far refused to settle on such amicable terms. Federal prosecutors in Sacramento believe they have established the personal link—who ordered the dirty deals, who carried them out—that could support criminal indictments of individuals or of the corporate ”person” known as JPMorgan Chase. That would be unprecedented—a “game-changer” in Wall Street–Washington parlance.
In the negotiations, Holder has refused to give Dimon what he seems to want most—an agreement to drop the potential criminal charges and settle for bigger money instead. Such a settlement might weaken the storm of private lawsuits already filed by the victims of JPMorgan’s fraudulent profiteering. The star banker kept raising his bid. The AG kept saying no way. The tentative deal reached in mid-October did not take the criminal investigation off the table. Americans should stay tuned and maybe send fan mail to the Justice Department, urging the prosecutors to hang tough.
But you can’t send a bank to jail, can you? No, but you can place it under court supervision and empower a federal judge to order and supervise internal reforms in the convicted bank—perhaps even downsizing. Does that sound too harsh? If the feds can do it to a corrupt labor union like the Teamsters, why not to an outlaw bank like JPMorgan Chase?
Robert Scheer wrote about how JPMorgan's $13 billion fine doesn’t punish the company that much.