Four people who have been at the center of some of the nation’s biggest Wall Street scandals have come together to send a message to the 2016 presidential candidates: Pledge to stand against Wall Street fraud and corruption – not just with words, but with the kind of actions that Americans have long expected but have yet to see.
The four veterans of battles with banksters – Gary J. Aguirre, William K. Black, Richard M. Bowen III and Michael Winston – on Thursday called on the candidates to not take contributions from financial companies or officers that have been charged with fraud, particularly related to the 2008 financial meltdown. They have also outlined a set of actions that they say will “restore the rule of law” on Wall Street. They have formed a new organization, Bank Whistleblowers United, to move that agenda forward.
“We use the f-word a lot,” said Black, who came into national prominence for his role in exposing the “Keating Five” savings-and-loan senatorial scandal in 1989, “the five-letter word, ‘fraud,’ that you are supposed to be able to say in polite company.”
That word, he said, is central to the issue these whistleblowers are concerned about: the fact that regulators and prosecutors have too often in the wake of the financial crash given a pass to banks and other financial institutions that profited from deception and dissembling.
Black recalled that during the era of the savings-and-loan scandal, when the federal government brought an action involving a financial institution “we actually spelled out in the English language what had happened.” The news media echoed that language, and in the glare of that disclosure “the politicians who took political contributions from those institutions rushed to return the contributions or to donate them to charity.”
In today’s era of no-blame settlements and obfuscatory language, “that never happens now,” Black said.
Nonetheless, people running for office have no excuse. It is clear that the financial meltdown was a consequence of actions that done by individuals rather than Wall Street institutions would likely have landed those persons behind bars. The biographies of the founding members of the Bank Whistleblowers United make that clear.
Bowen, for example, was at Citigroup when in 2006 he saw first-hand how the bank was issuing large numbers of subprime mortgages and then selling bundles of those mortgages on the securities market. His warnings that the deals violated bank and regulatory standards not only went unheeded; he was fired for speaking out. His experience, however, was probed by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which was created by Congress to document the causes of the Wall Street meltdown and make recommendations. It was also featured in a powerful “60 Minutes” segment.
Winston had a similar experience as an executive in the mortgage unit at the now-defunct Countrywide Financial. He recalled being told by a fellow senior executive of the impetus from the very top of the company to approve mortgages by anyone, regardless of qualification. “If they can fog a mirror, we’ll give them a loan,” he was told. With the complicity of a bond-rating agency that allowed the mortgages to be bundled as high-quality securities, Countrywide made billions – until the house of cards crashed, taking with it people who found their homes foreclosed and communities economically devastated. Winston, too, was fired after flagging fraudulent practices he saw and for refusing a direct order to disseminate false information on behalf of the company. For a brief time he found exoneration when a jury ruled in his favor in a California county superior court suit against Bank of America, which absorbed Countrywide during the depths of the financial crisis. The bank succeeded, however, in getting that verdict overturned in an appeals court on grounds that critics found highly irregular and suspect.
Aguirre experienced Wall Street corruption from the perspective of a regulatory agency, as a Securities and Exchange Commission attorney. While heading an insider trading investigation of Pequot Capital Management, formerly the world’s largest hedge fund, Aguirre resisted his supervisor’s demands to give preferential treatment to a Wall Street titan involved in the case. He was fired for “insubordination,” but he would later prove to the satisfaction of two Senate committees, a federal court and three federal agencies that the SEC had acted unlawfully.
Then there is Black, who in addition to his Keating Five work is known for having essentially written the book on “control fraud,” the methods banks have used to turn fraudulent activity into a business model that is highly profitable and hard to prosecute. The book that explains that topic has a title that says it all: “The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One.”
Bank Whistleblowers United have devised a “60-day plan” that the next president – or even the current president – should execute. The plan has 19 actions, 18 of which can be done by the executive branch or regulatory agencies with laws and regulatory authority they already have, “so there are no excuses,” Black said. Only one action – hiring more FBI agents, Justice Department attorneys and regulatory investigators – would require budgetary action in Congress.
At the top of that list is restoring “the mandatory criminal referral process and Criminal Referral Coordinators at every financial regulatory agency.” That would lead to bank executives actually being charged with crimes and the possibility of being held accountable for their actions, rather than a process that allows financial institutions to buy a get-out-of-jail-free card through a settlement negotiation.
But a first step is to persuade presidential candidates, and for that matter congressional candidates, to make the simple pledge to, as Black put it, “no longer take money from financial felons.”
The whistleblowers have not yet had a candidate sign on to their pledge, although Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, having sworn off super PAC dollars and shunned Wall Street political donors, is closest in spirit and practice to the pledge. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is selling herself as the candidate who has the most comprehensive plan for curbing what she calls the “shenanigans” of a broad range of financial institutions – a word that Black said reflects Clinton’s reticence to call a crime a crime and respond accordingly.
These insiders are offering a tough standard for candidates to measure their Wall Street reform agenda against. But that is because of what they have seen first-hand, and the lives that were damaged because of the banks’ illicit behavior. It’s good that there is a competition in the Democratic Party presidential primary to sound tough on Wall Street. The next step is for each candidate to address how much of the whistleblowers’ plan for “breaking Wall Street’s power over our economy and democracy” and returning the rule of law to the financial sector he or she is willing to embrace.
“I think the public has to make a decision, and that is why we are trying to tee this up for the candidates so that the public can see and speak to them,” Aguirre said.
“It is ingrained in the fiber, in the DNA of our Congress and our government to defer to Wall Street,” he added. “And until we change the DNA it’s going to remain the same.”