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The People vs. Goldman Sachs

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Here is where the supporters of Goldman and other big banks will stand up and start wanding the air full of confusing terms like "scienter" and "loss causation" — legalese mumbo jumbo that attempts to convince the ignorantly enraged onlooker that, according to American law, these grotesque tales of grand theft and fraud you've just heard are actually more innocent than you think. Yes, they will say, it may very well be a prosecutable crime for a corner-store Arab to take $2 from a customer selling tap water as Perrier. But that does not mean it's a crime for Goldman Sachs to take $100 million from a foreign hedge fund doing the same thing! No, sir, not at all! Then you'll be told that the Supreme Court has been limiting corporate liability for fraud for decades, that in order to gain a conviction one must prove a conscious intent to deceive, that the 1976 ruling in Ernst and Ernst clearly states....

Leave all that aside for a moment. Though many legal experts agree there is a powerful argument that the Levin report supports a criminal charge of fraud, this stuff can keep the lawyers tied up for years. So let's move on to something much simpler. In the spring of 2010, about a year into his investigation, Sen. Levin hauled all of the principals from these rotten Goldman deals to Washington, made them put their hands on the Bible and take oaths just like normal people, and demanded that they explain themselves. The legal definition of financial fraud may be murky and complex, but everybody knows you can't lie to Congress.

"Article 18 of the United States Code, Section 1001," says Loyola University law professor Michael Kaufman. "There are statutes that prohibit perjury and obstruction of justice, but this is the federal statute that explicitly prohibits lying to Congress."

The law is simple: You're guilty if you "knowingly and willfully" make a "materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation." The punishment is up to five years in federal prison.

When Roger Clemens went to Washington and denied taking a shot of steroids in his ass, the feds indicted him — relying not on a year's worth of graphically self-incriminating e-mails, but chiefly on the testimony of a single individual who had been given a deal by the government. Yet the Justice Department has shown no such prosecutorial zeal since April 27th of last year, when the Goldman executives who oversaw the Timberwolf, Hudson and Abacus deals arrived on the Hill and one by one — each seemingly wearing the same mask of faint boredom and irritated condescension — sat before Levin's committee and dodged volleys of questions.

Before the hearing, even some of Levin's allies worried privately about his taking on Goldman and other powerful interests. The job, they said, was best left to professional prosecutors, people with experience building cases. "A senator's office is not an enormous repository of expertise," one former regulator told me. But in the case of this particular senator, that concern turned out to be misplaced. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Levin has a long record of using his subcommittee to spend a year or more carefully building cases that lead to criminal prosecutions. His 2003 investigation into abusive tax shelters led to 19 indictments of individuals at KPMG, while a 2006 probe fueled insider-trading charges against the notorious Wyly brothers, a pair of billionaire Texans who manipulated offshore investment trusts. The investigation of Goldman was an attempt to find out what went wrong in the years leading up to the financial crash, and the questioning of the bank's executives was not one of those for-the-cameras-only events where congressmen wing ad-libbed questions in search of sound bites. In the weeks leading up to the hearing, Levin's team carefully rehearsed the moment with committee members. They knew the possible answers that Goldman might give, and they were ready with specific counterquestions. What ensued looked more like a good old-fashioned courtroom grilling than a photo-op for grinning congressmen.

Sparks, who stepped down as Goldman's mortgage chief in 2008, cut a striking figure in his testimony. With his severe crew cut, deep-set eyes and jockish intransigence, he looked like a cross between H.R. Haldeman and John Rocker. He repeatedly dodged questions from Levin about whether or not the bank had a responsibility to tell its clients that it was betting against the same stuff it was selling them. When asked directly if he had that responsibility, Sparks answered, "The clients who did not want to participate in that deal did not." When Levin pressed him again, asking if he had a duty to disclose that Goldman had an "adverse interest" to the deals being sold to clients, Sparks fidgeted and pretended not to comprehend the question. "Mr. Chairman," he said, "I'm just trying to understand."

OK, fine — non-answer answers. "My guess is they were all pretty well coached up," says Kaufman, the law professor. But then Sparks had a revealing exchange with Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. Tester calls the Goldman deals "a wreck waiting to happen," noting that the CDOs "were all downgraded to junk in very short order."

At which point, Sparks replies, "Well, senator, at the time we did those deals, we expected those deals to perform."

Tester then cannily asks if by "perform," Sparks means go to shit — which would have been an honest answer. "Perform in what way?" Tester asks. "Perform to go to junk so that the shorts made out?"

Unable to resist the taunt, Sparks makes a fateful decision to defend his honor. "To not be downgraded to junk in that short a time frame," he says. Then he pauses and decides to dispense with the hedging phrase "in that short a time frame."

"In fact," Sparks says, "to not be downgraded to junk."

So Sparks goes before Congress and, under oath, tells a U.S. senator that at the time he was selling Timberwolf, he expected it to "perform." But an internal document he approved in May 2007 predicted exactly the opposite, warning that Goldman's mortgage desk expected such deals to "underperform." Here are some other terms that Sparks used in e-mails about the subprime market affecting deals like Timberwolf around that same time: "bad and getting worse," "get out of everything," "game over," "bad news everywhere" and "the business is totally dead."

And we indicted Roger Clemens?

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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