In the end, though, the conviction of a few bit players seems like far too puny a punishment, given that the bid rigging exposed in Carollo involved an entrenched system that affected major bond issues in every state in the nation. You find yourself thinking, America's biggest banks ripped off the entire country, virtually every day, for more than a decade! A truly commensurate penalty would be something like televised stonings of the top 10 executives of every guilty bank, or maybe the forcible resettlement of every banker and broker in Lower Manhattan to some uninhabited Andean wasteland... anything to address the systemic nature of the crime.
No such luck. Instead of anything resembling real censure, a few young executives got spanked, while the offending banks got off with slap-on-the-wrist fines and were allowed to retain their pre-eminent positions in the municipal bond market. Last year, the two leading recipients of public bond business, clocking in with more than $35 billion in bond issues apiece, were Chase and Bank of America – who combined had just paid more than $365 million in fines for their role in the mass bid rigging. Get busted for welfare fraud even once in America, and good luck getting so much as a food stamp ever again. Get caught rigging interest rates in 50 states, and the government goes right on handing you billions of dollars in public contracts.
Over the years, many in the public have become numb to news of financial corruption, partly because too many of these stories involve banker-on-banker crime. The notorious Abacus deal involving Goldman Sachs, for instance, involved a hedge-fund billionaire ripping off a couple of European banks – who cares? But the bid-rigging scandal laid bare in USA v. Carollo is a totally different animal. This is the world's biggest banks stealing money that would otherwise have gone toward textbooks and medicine and housing for ordinary Americans, and turning the cash into sports cars and bonuses for the already rich. It's the equivalent of robbing a charity or a church fund to pay for lap dances.
Who ultimately loses in these deals? Well, to take just one example, the New Jersey Health Care Facilities Finance Authority, the agency that issues bonds for the state's hospitals, had their interest rates rigged by the Carollo defendants on $17 million in bonds. Since then, more than a dozen New Jersey hospitals have closed, mostly in poor neighborhoods.
As Carollo showed us, in open court, this is what Wall Street learned from the Mafia: how to reach into the penny jars of dying hospitals and schools and transform their desperation and civic panic into fat year-end bonuses and the occasional "big lunch." Unlike the Mafia, though, they were smart enough to do their dirt without anyone noticing for a very long time, which is what defense counsel in this case were talking about when they argued that towns and cities "were not harmed" by the rigged bids. No harm, to them, means no visible harm, i.e., that what taxpayers didn't know couldn't hurt them. This is logical thinking, to the sociopath – like saying it's not infidelity if your wife never finds out. But we did find out, and the scale of betrayal unveiled in Carollo was epic. It was like finding out your husband didn't just cheat, but had a frequent-flier account with every brothel in North America for the past 10 years. At least now we know how bad it was. The trick is to find a way to make the cheaters pay.
Editor's Note: Due to a mislabeling in the court transcript, we misidentified the attorney who used the refrigerator analogy in his opening statement. The online version of the story has been corrected.
This story is from the July 5th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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