Justice Department Fails to Criminally Prosecute a Big Bank -- Again

Justice Department Fails to Criminally Prosecute a Big Bank -- Again

(Photo: Nick Ansell/AP)

Last week, the Justice Department announced that it had reached a $470 million settlement with mega-bank HSBC related to mortgage lending and foreclosure fraud that led to the economic collapse of 2008.

“This settlement illustrates the department’s continuing commitment to ensure responsible mortgage servicing,” Benjamin Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a statement. “The agreement is part of our ongoing effort to address root causes of the financial crisis.”

This isn’t the bank’s first run-in with the Feds. In 2013, HSBC reached a $250 million deal with the Federal Reserve to settle complaints of wrongful foreclosures. That year, it also paid out $550 million to the Federal Housing Finance Agency over the bank’s sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. It also agreed to pay the U.S. government $1.9 billion related to charges that the bank laundered money for Latin American drug cartels. The list goes on.

News of another settlement with a big bank is not surprising. The Justice Department’s modus operandi in dealing with the banks that were behind the most egregious misconduct on Wall Street before the market crash has been to reach out-of-court civil settlements with headline-grabbing penalties and promises of better behavior.

Critics, however, say that such fines are trivial in light of the billions of dollars that banks raked in speculating on the subprime mortgage industry. Criminal prosecution of bank executives, these critics contend, is the only way to ensure that the big banks don’t step out of line again.

Nearly nine years since the start of the Great Recession, not one bank executive has been criminally prosecuted. “Instead of trying to indict and convict companies or the individuals responsible for criminal corporate wrongdoing, prosecutors fine the companies,” Jesse Eisinger wrote for the Prospect in the summer issue. “Fines for corporate misbehavior are skyrocketing, but usually these are paid by shareholders and have little effect on corporate executives.”

The Justice Department’s HSBC settlement comes just as Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren has called on the government to change how it deals with corporate crime. Last month, Warren’s office released a report detailing how a lack of enforcement has let white-collar criminals off the hook.

"It's not equal justice when a kid gets thrown in jail for stealing a car, while a CEO gets a huge raise when his company steals billions," Warren said in a fiery speech on the Senate floor last month. "It's not equal justice when someone hooked on opioids gets locked up for buying pills on the street, but bank executives get off scot-free for laundering nearly a billion dollars of drug cartel money."  

In a New York Times op-ed right before the Iowa caucuses, Warren called on voters to consider how presidential candidates would utilize presidential power through agency rules and executive actions to crack down on corporate malfeasance—something she says the Obama administration has failed to do.

The two Democratic presidential candidates have been dueling over who would be tougher on Wall Street. Warren, who so far has remained neutral in the race, praised Bernie Sanders on Twitter, saying, “I'm glad [Sanders] is out there fighting to hold big banks accountable, make our economy safer, & stop the GOP from rigging the system.”

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has been fighting accusations that she’s beholden to Wall Street and that she wouldn’t come down hard enough on financial misconduct. Her Wall Street reform platform calls for extending the statute of limitations for prosecuting “major financial frauds,” “enhancing whistleblower rewards,” and giving the Justice Department and SEC more resources to prosecute wrongdoing.

Clinton’s critics say the force of that platform is partly offset by the funds she’s taken from major banks and by the Clinton’s campaign’s decision to use former Attorney General Eric Holder as a campaign surrogate, given his lucrative career as a Wall Street lawyer and his department’s legacy of corporate leniency.