Eric Holder certainly has changed since his days at Columbia University. According to the New York Times, "as a boyish-looking freshman" he "was recruited by upperclassmen to help take over the R.O.T.C. office," which they claimed as "a student center named for Malcolm X." Actions like that, and heroes like Malcolm X, reflected the idealism that many of us shared in those days.
As attorney general, Holder chose not to prosecute banking giant HSBC for laundering Mexican drug cartel money. Holder, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, and other Obama Justice Department officials showed similar favoritism to other big banks.
In fact, not a single big-bank executive was prosecuted during their tenure, despite the most massive and well-documented epidemic of financial fraud in American history.
The Times reports that young Holder "chose to major in American history as a means to explore his own heritage and to use as a prism through which to examine current events. Longing to escape the elite world at Columbia, he spent Saturdays taking underprivileged teenagers around New York City."
It's easy to condemn the Eric Holder of today. It's harder to understand, and sadder to contemplate, whatever became of someone who was once so young and idealistic.
Thanks to a new congressional report, we now know that Holder and Breuer overruled prosecutors and cut a settlement that let the bank avoid pleading guilty to felony charges. The bank merely paid a fine of $1.9 billion – a sum that was widely described as "a slap on the wrist" at the time. (That should convey a sense of the magnitude of wrongdoing involved.)
In its write-up of the congressional report, Bloomberg News said that Holder "didn't immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment."
Holder's deal protected HSBC and its executives from any consequences for their actions - actions that aided and abetted the murderers of as many as 85,000 people in war-torn parts of Mexico, sometimes by decapitation and often through prolonged torture.
Why did it take Republican members of Congress – Republicans, for God's sake! – to bring this information to light? It was the Republican chair of the Financial Services Committee who famously said, "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks."
How did this cash-drunk crew of bank-servile troglodytes become messengers of truth and justice? They may be imperfect vessels, but make no mistake: the GOP report is thorough, well-documented, and incontrovertible.
Holder said this about big banks like HSBC:
"I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that ... if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy ... some of these institutions have become too large."
Shortly thereafter he amended his remarks:
"I made a statement I guess in a Senate hearing that I think has been misconstrued ... let me make it very clear that there is no bank, there's no institution, there's no individual who cannot be investigated and prosecuted by the United States Department of Justice."
If by "misconstrued" Holder meant "universally understood to mean the exact opposite of what I now claim to have intended" then yeah, he was misconstrued. And even if he believed that HSBC itself was too big to indict, why didn't Holder pursue criminal charges against the individual bankers who committed these crimes?
This report raises some questions for the Democrats, too. Why do you suppose the Republicans released this information now? If Dems don't think this is going to be an issue in the presidential campaign, they're in for a surprise. They'll need to convince voters that lawbreaking bankers won't receive the same lenient treatment in the next Democratic administration they enjoyed in the last.
That may not be easy. Republican candidate Donald Trump will almost certainly bring up past Clinton connections to HSBC and other large banks. Secretary Clinton should promise not to appoint Wall Streeters to senior positions in the Treasury or Justice Departments, and she should pledge to break up several of our nation's too-big-to-fail banks.
Holder has gone back to Covington & Burling, the firm where he earned more than $3 million a year before leading the Justice Department. So has Lanny Breuer. That firm represents many of the banks Holder protected as Attorney General. Other unsavory clients include Big Pharma companies, Halliburton, Philip Morris tobacco, and Xe (formerly Blackwater).
And did we mention? It's also a lobbying firm.
Matt Taibbi called Holder a "double agent" for Wall Street, but it's doubtful that he sees himself that way. Few of us think of ourselves as bad people. But then, how does Holder justify his behavior to himself?
I wish I knew.
"I'm for truth," a great leader once wrote, "no matter who tells it." How did a young idealist wind up using his high office to protect bankers from standing equal before the law? The same leader also wrote, as if in prescient rebuke to Holder: "I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against."
That leader's name was Malcolm X.