By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer understands their predicament — somewhat. As his state's attorney general, Spitzer was the last major politician to launch a sustained assault on financial crime. He, too, believes that Wall Street has become analogous to the Mafia.
"Look, you organize things in a cartel structure very similar to what the Mob did," says Spitzer. "I think it's also the continuity of the fraud and the pervasiveness."
Yet Spitzer, now host of Viewpoint on Current TV, knows firsthand how difficult it is to drill a multibillion-dollar crime family. Just like Mafia dons, CEOs are insulated from direct involvement — or may not even be aware of the schemes. Moreover, it's often harder to bring cases that simply pick off henchmen.
"Juries don't like holding mid-level people accountable when the top people are getting off," says Spitzer.
Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey doesn't buy the excuses.
Blakey may be America's most storied organized-crime lawyer. He's a former federal prosecutor and author of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO — the cudgel used to pound the Mafia and corrupt labor unions. It allows prosecutors to charge entire organizations for a continuing pattern of criminality — exactly what the banks are doing.
Back in the 1980s, Rudy Giuliani used the law to take down Romney's pal Michael Milken. Yet prosecutors have been reticent to use it against corporations ever since.
"I am livid that nobody has thought about it," says Blakey. "I am livid that there are all these civil settlements."
He notes that the feds have a long history of taking on seemingly invincible foes, from Standard Oil to Big Tobacco: "What's changed that they could get these convictions and we can't now?"
After all, Blakey argues, corporate criminals are easier to slay. When you subpoena their records, they'll actually produce them. When Blakey was prosecuting the Teamsters, their books would suddenly go up in flames.
Blakey sees bankers at the bottom of the organized-crime gene pool — their schemes simple and obvious.
"They designed a fraud cookie cutter, and all of these guys have been running comparable scams," he says. "The variation between scam to scam is minor, and none of them are particular imaginative."
But the problem isn't Attorney General Holder, the professor asserts; it's the battery of lawyers beneath him. Prosecutors prize their win-loss records like starting pitchers. For them, it's much better to win a weak settlement than potentially lose a real fight.
In other words, if justice were a bar brawl, the feds would seek out the little guy on crutches.
In May, SunTrust was caught working the same mortgage scam as Wells Fargo. It charged more than 20,000 black and Hispanic customers higher interest rates and fees than white clients with the same credit profiles. Price to make the problem go away: $21 million.
A month later, ING paid a $619 million settlement for violating international sanctions and anti-terrorist laws. It spent a decade providing "state sponsors of terror and other sanctioned entities with access to the U.S. financial system," Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco said at the time.
In July, Capital One was caught luring customers into buying credit-card protection "they didn't understand, didn't want, or in some cases couldn't even use," said the feds. The company paid $210 million in fines and refunds.
In September, Discover was nabbed running the same scam on 3.5 million customers. The company spent $214 million to make its sins vanish.
For those of you scoring at home: Four major crimes against America. Millions of victims. Zero executives jailed.
"If there are no consequences," asks Sam Antar, "what incentive do I have to not be a criminal?"