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Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?

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Episodes like this help explain why so many Wall Street executives felt emboldened to push the regulatory envelope during the mid-2000s. Over and over, even the most obvious cases of fraud and insider dealing got gummed up in the works, and high-ranking executives were almost never prosecuted for their crimes. In 2003, Freddie Mac coughed up $125 million after it was caught misreporting its earnings by $5 billion; nobody went to jail. In 2006, Fannie Mae was fined $400 million, but executives who had overseen phony accounting techniques to jack up their bonuses faced no criminal charges. That same year, AIG paid $1.6 billion after it was caught in a major accounting scandal that would indirectly lead to its collapse two years later, but no executives at the insurance giant were prosecuted.

All of this behavior set the stage for the crash of 2008, when Wall Street exploded in a raging Dresden of fraud and criminality. Yet the SEC and the Justice Department have shown almost no inclination to prosecute those most responsible for the catastrophe — even though they had insiders from the two firms whose implosions triggered the crisis, Lehman Brothers and AIG, who were more than willing to supply evidence against top executives.

In the case of Lehman Brothers, the SEC had a chance six months before the crash to move against Dick Fuld, a man recently named the worst CEO of all time by Portfolio magazine. A decade before the crash, a Lehman lawyer named Oliver Budde was going through the bank's proxy statements and noticed that it was using a loophole involving Restricted Stock Units to hide tens of millions of dollars of Fuld's compensation. Budde told his bosses that Lehman's use of RSUs was dicey at best, but they blew him off. "We're sorry about your concerns," they told him, "but we're doing it." Disturbed by such shady practices, the lawyer quit the firm in 2006.

Then, only a few months after Budde left Lehman, the SEC changed its rules to force companies to disclose exactly how much compensation in RSUs executives had coming to them. "The SEC was basically like, 'We're sick and tired of you people fucking around — we want a picture of what you're holding,'" Budde says. But instead of coming clean about eight separate RSUs that Fuld had hidden from investors, Lehman filed a proxy statement that was a masterpiece of cynical lawyering. On one page, a chart indicated that Fuld had been awarded $146 million in RSUs. But two pages later, a note in the fine print essentially stated that the chart did not contain the real number — which, it failed to mention, was actually $263 million more than the chart indicated. "They fucked around even more than they did before," Budde says. (The law firm that helped craft the fine print, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, would later receive a lucrative federal contract to serve as legal adviser to the TARP bailout.)

Budde decided to come forward. In April 2008, he wrote a detailed memo to the SEC about Lehman's history of hidden stocks. Shortly thereafter, he got a letter back that began, "Dear Sir or Madam." It was an automated e-response.

"They blew me off," Budde says.

Over the course of that summer, Budde tried to contact the SEC several more times, and was ignored each time. Finally, in the fateful week of September 15th, 2008, when Lehman Brothers cracked under the weight of its reckless bets on the subprime market and went into its final death spiral, Budde became seriously concerned. If the government tried to arrange for Lehman to be pawned off on another Wall Street firm, as it had done with Bear Stearns, the U.S. taxpayer might wind up footing the bill for a company with hundreds of millions of dollars in concealed compensation. So Budde again called the SEC, right in the middle of the crisis. "Look," he told regulators. "I gave you huge stuff. You really want to take a look at this."

But the feds once again blew him off. A young staff attorney contacted Budde, who once more provided the SEC with copies of all his memos. He never heard from the agency again.

"This was like a mini-Madoff," Budde says. "They had six solid months of warnings. They could have done something."

Three weeks later, Budde was shocked to see Fuld testifying before the House Government Oversight Committee and whining about how poor he was. "I got no severance, no golden parachute," Fuld moaned. When Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee's chairman, mentioned that he thought Fuld had earned more than $480 million, Fuld corrected him and said he believed it was only $310 million.

The true number, Budde calculated, was $529 million. He contacted a Senate investigator to talk about how Fuld had misled Congress, but he never got any response. Meanwhile, in a demonstration of the government's priorities, the Justice Department is proceeding full force with a prosecution of retired baseball player Roger Clemens for lying to Congress about getting a shot of steroids in his ass. "At least Roger didn't screw over the world," Budde says, shaking his head.

Fuld has denied any wrongdoing, but his hidden compensation was only a ripple in Lehman's raging tsunami of misdeeds. The investment bank used an absurd accounting trick called "Repo 105" transactions to conceal $50 billion in loans on the firm's balance sheet. (That's $50 billion, not million.) But more than a year after the use of the Repo 105s came to light, there have still been no indictments in the affair. While it's possible that charges may yet be filed, there are now rumors that the SEC and the Justice Department may take no action against Lehman. If that's true, and there's no prosecution in a case where there's such overwhelming evidence — and where the company is already dead, meaning it can't dump further losses on investors or taxpayers — then it might be time to assume the game is up. Failing to prosecute Fuld and Lehman would be tantamount to the state marching into Wall Street and waving the green flag on a new stealing season.

The most amazing noncase in the entire crash — the one that truly defies the most basic notion of justice when it comes to Wall Street supervillains — is the one involving AIG and Joe Cassano, the nebbishy Patient Zero of the financial crisis. As chief of AIGFP, the firm's financial products subsidiary, Cassano repeatedly made public statements in 2007 claiming that his portfolio of mortgage derivatives would suffer "no dollar of loss" — an almost comically obvious misrepresentation. "God couldn't manage a $60 billion real estate portfolio without a single dollar of loss," says Turner, the agency's former chief accountant. "If the SEC can't make a disclosure case against AIG, then they might as well close up shop."

As in the Lehman case, federal prosecutors not only had plenty of evidence against AIG — they also had an eyewitness to Cassano's actions who was prepared to tell all. As an accountant at AIGFP, Joseph St. Denis had a number of run-ins with Cassano during the summer of 2007. At the time, Cassano had already made nearly $500 billion worth of derivative bets that would ultimately blow up, destroy the world's largest insurance company, and trigger the largest government bailout of a single company in U.S. history. He made many fatal mistakes, but chief among them was engaging in contracts that required AIG to post billions of dollars in collateral if there was any downgrade to its credit rating.

St. Denis didn't know about those clauses in Cassano's contracts, since they had been written before he joined the firm. What he did know was that Cassano freaked out when St. Denis spoke with an accountant at the parent company, which was only just finding out about the time bomb Cassano had set. After St. Denis finished a conference call with the executive, Cassano suddenly burst into the room and began screaming at him for talking to the New York office. He then announced that St. Denis had been "deliberately excluded" from any valuations of the most toxic elements of the derivatives portfolio — thus preventing the accountant from doing his job. What St. Denis represented was transparency — and the last thing Cassano needed was transparency.

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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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