Finally, a Judge Stands up to Wall Street

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A courtroom sketch of Judge Jed Rakoff.

Federal judge Jed Rakoff, a former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s office here in New York, is fast becoming a sort of legal hero of our time. He showed that again yesterday when he shat all over the SEC’s latest dirty settlement with serial fraud offender Citigroup, refusing to let the captured regulatory agency sweep yet another case of high-level criminal malfeasance under the rug.

The SEC had brought an action against Citigroup for misleading investors about the way a certain package of mortgage-backed assets had been chosen. The case is very similar to the notorious Abacus case involving Goldman Sachs, in which Goldman allowed short-selling billionaire John Paulson (who was betting against the package) to pick the assets, then told a pair of European banks that the “designed to fail” package they were buying had been put together independently.  

This case was similar, but worse. Here, Citi similarly told investors a package of mortgages had been chosen independently, when in fact Citi itself had chosen the stuff and was betting against the whole pile.

This whole transaction actually combined a number of Goldman-style misdeeds, since the bank both lied to investors and also bet against its own product and its own customers. In the deal, Citi made a $160 million profit, while its customers lost $700 million.

Goldman, in the Abacus case, got fined $550 million. In this worse case, the SEC was trying to settle with Citi for just $285 million. Judge Rakoff balked at the settlement and particularly balked at the SEC’s decision to allow Citi off without any admission of wrongdoing. He also mocked the SEC’s decision to describe the crime as “negligence” instead of intentional fraud, taking the entirely rational position that there’s no way a bank making $160 million ripping off its customers can conceivably be described as an accident.

“Why should the court impose a judgment in a case in which the SEC alleges a serious securities fraud but the defendant neither admits nor denies wrongdoing?” And this: “How can a securities fraud of this nature and magnitude be the result simply of negligence?”

Rakoff of course is right – the settlement is nuts. If you take Citi’s $160 million profit on the deal into consideration, what we’re talking about then is a $125 million fine for causing $700 million in damages. That, and no admission of wrongdoing.

Just imagine a mugger who steals $70 from some lady’s wallet being sentenced to walk free after paying back twelve bucks. Magritte himself could not devise a more surreal take on criminal justice.

It gets worse. Over the last decade, Citi has repeatedly been caught committing a variety of offenses, and time after time the bank has been dragged into court and slapped with injunctions demanding that they refrain from ever engaging the same practices ever again. Over and over again, they’ve completely blown off the injunctions, with no consequences from the state – which does nothing except issue new (soon-to-be-ignored-again) injunctions.

In this current case, this particular unit at Citi had already been slapped with two different SEC cease-and-desist orders barring it from violating certain securities laws. Here’s a summary from Bloomberg:

The commission already had two cease-and-desist orders in place against the same Citigroup unit, barring future violations of the same section of the securities laws that the company now stands accused of breaking again. One of those orders came in a 2005 settlement, the other in a 2006 case. The SEC’s complaint last month didn’t mention either order, as if the entire agency suffered from amnesia.

The SEC’s latest allegations also could have triggered a violation of a court injunction that Citigroup agreed to in 2003, as part of a $400 million settlement over allegedly fraudulent analyst-research reports. Injunctions are more serious than SEC orders, because violations can lead to contempt-of-court charges.

But the SEC avoided the issue of the 2003 injunction by charging Citi with a different type of fraud. But, as Bloomberg points out, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much if they had accused Citi of violating the 2003 injunction, since the bank had already done that once and not been punished for it:

In December 2008, the SEC for the second time accused Citigroup of breaking the same section of the law covered by the 2003 injunction, over its sales of so-called auction-rate securities. Instead of trying to enforce the existing court order, the SEC got yet another one barring the same kinds of fraud violations in the future.

So to recap: a unit of Citigroup, having repeatedly violated the same laws and having repeatedly violated the SEC’s own cease-and-desist orders and injunctions, is dragged into court one more time for committing a massive fraud.

And what does the SEC do? It doesn’t even bring up Citi’s history of ignoring the SEC’s own order, slaps the bank with a fractional fine, refuses to target any individuals, allows the bank to walk away without an admission of wrongdoing, and puts a cherry on the top by describing the $160 million heist not as a crime, but as unintentional negligence.

BRING OUT THE SOFT CUSHIONS! The SEC gets rough with Citigroup.

Imagine a car thief who, when caught driving a stolen Lexus, tells the police he simply stepped into the wrong car and drove off by mistake. Now imagine he tells the same story when, two years later, he’s caught screaming over the GW bridge in a stolen Mercedes.

Then, two years after that, he’s caught on the Cross-Bronx Expressway blasting the stereo in a boosted 7-series BMW. Cops ask him for an explanation. “I must have gotten in the wrong car by mistake,” he says, shrugging. And the cops buy the story and send him home without a charge.

That’s roughly what we’re dealing with with this SEC action. To extend the metaphor just a little further – let’s say that BMW wasn’t even the only car he accidentally drove away that day, but the cops didn’t bother with the others. In the latest Citi case, the $700 million fraud was just one of many dicey CDOs marketed by that unit of Citi. But the SEC chose to address just that one case in its settlement.

Rakoff quite correctly took issue with all of this. From Jonathan Weil’s Bloomberg piece:

“What does the SEC do to maintain compliance?” Additionally, [Rakoff] asked: “How many contempt proceedings against large financial entities has the SEC brought in the past decade as a result of violations of prior consent judgments?” We’ll see if the SEC finds any.

Rakoff gained some notoriety a few years ago when he rejected as inadequate an SEC settlement with Bank of America, which was accused of misleading shareholders about the size of the bonuses paid out by Merrill Lynch, the investment bank BofA was in the process of acquiring. Rakoff dismissed the original $33 million fine as “half-baked justice,” although he eventually approved a $150 million fine.

The amazing thing about the wave of corruption that has overtaken the financial services industry is that most of it couldn’t happen without virtually every player at every level signing off on these deals. From the ratings agencies to the law firms to the accounting firms to the regulators to the bank executives themselves, everybody had to be on board in order for a lot of these fraud schemes to work.

Judges are a part of that picture, and too often, members of the bench sign off on dirty deals made between banks and regulators when the law says that such settlements must be “fair, reasonable, adequate and in the public interest.”

It’s great that Rakoff is behaving as any decent human being would and rejecting these disgusting settlements. But equally disturbing is the fact that more judges haven’t done the same thing. Are people with backbones really that rare?

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