By William K. Black
cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives
In the Savings and Loan (S&L) debacle Speaker Wright became enraged at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and the Department of Justice when he learned that the FBI was investigating 400 individuals, most of them Texans, for their possible role in the S&L control frauds that were causing the regional bubble in commercial real estate (CRE) to hyper-inflate. (Akerlof & Romer’s 1993 article – “Looting: the Economic Underworld of Bankruptcy for Profit” discussed the major contribution the S&L frauds made to expanding that regional bubble.) Legend has it that an FBI agent accidentally left the list of investigative targets with an interviewee who copied it. Whatever the truth of the legend, Speaker Wright eventually reviewed a copy of the list and noticed that it had the names of many contributors to the Democratic Party. He and several senior Democratic colleagues and a staffer responded to the list by dividing up telephone calls to the FBI, Justice Department and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (Bank Board). Wright was enraged and concluded immediately that the investigation was politically motivated. He wanted the investigation killed.
Wright began intervening with the Bank Board on behalf of a series of Texas S&L control frauds in 1986 and 1987. He eventually held the bill to “recapitalize” the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) (the “FSLIC recap” bill) hostage to extort more favorable regulatory treatment for these frauds’ CEOs. Wright’s extortion focused on preventing agency actions against three Texas executives. Each of the executives shared two traits – they had voted for President Reagan in 1980 and they were now contributing to the Democratic Party. When we met with Speaker Wright in early 1987 his primary argument was the extreme fragility of Texas’ economy. (The meeting was set up by Bob Strauss, the grand old man of Texas Democrats, as a “peace meeting.”) I was the agency’s “point man” seeking to get FSLIC recap passed. The meeting was a disaster, Wright ended up claiming (incorrectly) that the head of our agency had lied to him and let loose in a swearing tirade aimed at me.
What Wright never understood was that the most politically active Texas S&Ls were so active because they were frauds and desperately needed protection from being closed by us. In particular, we intended to use the additional funds we would receive under FSLIC recap to close the worst control frauds and those frauds were located primarily in the states with the weakest regulation and supervision. Texas was the most criminogenic environment because it had the earliest extensive deregulation and the most complete state desupervision. (The top State of Texas S&L regulator later admitted to using prostitutes provided by Vernon Savings (aka “Vermin)). Vernon was the second worst control fraud in the nation and had 96% of its loans in default when it was finally placed in receivership despite Wright’s extortion. We had been so aggressive in closing the control frauds that by early 2007 we had roughly $500 million in the FSLIC fund – to insure an (insolvent) industry with $1 trillion in liabilities. We were running on fumes. Wright knew this and knew that holding the FSLIC recap bill hostage would give him exceptional leverage over our agency. Unfortunately for Wright, the result of the failed peace meeting was that we were able to convince the head of our agency that we had to take on Speaker Wright rather than continuing to capitulate to his ever increasing extortion. Doubly unfortunately, I was assigned the task of explaining to the public how the Speaker was extorting us on behalf of frauds and endangering the public. Thereafter, he tried repeatedly to get me fired. (One of the proposed ethic charges by the independent counsel for the House ethics committee investigating Speaker Wright was those attempts.)
Speaker Wright cultivated an image designed to terrorize opponents. He was nasty, asking us to fire our top supervisor in the Texas region on the “grounds” that he Wright had heard he was a homosexual. Wright had exceptional leverage over us because we were desperately short of funds and he held our access to funds hostage. Our agency (over several of our objections) gave in to many of his demands, including terminating a civil suit against a lender who had defaulted on his debts to roughly a dozen S&Ls. At no time, however, did we even consider giving in to Speaker Wright’s desire that we back off of criminal referrals, investigations, or prosecutions.
Later, under Bank Board Chairman Danny Wall, the agency’s head of enforcement wrote a “side letter” promising Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings that the agency had no present intention of filing additional criminal referrals. (We, the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco (FHLBSF), had filed criminal referrals based on the findings of a formal investigation that established that Lincoln Savings had forged thousands of signatures and scores of documents and had stuffed the files with purported underwriting files. Those files were actually created by Arthur Andersen years after the junk bonds were purchased for the sole purpose of deceiving the examiners into believing that the S&L had underwritten the bonds before purchasing them.) The FHLBSF had discovered evidence of additional likely crimes by Lincoln Savings, but had not completed the referrals, at the time the “side letter” was written. Danny Wall and Bank Board member Roger Martin removed our (the FHLBSF’s) jurisdiction over Lincoln Savings (an unprecedented act) because we refused to withdraw our recommendation that Lincoln Savings be placed in conservatorship despite the political intervention of the five U.S. Senators who became known as the “Keating Five” and Speaker Wright on behalf of Keating. The Bank Board made no criminal referrals against Lincoln Savings after it removed our jurisdiction despite finding new evidence of likely fraud. The FHLBSF was not informed of the existence of the side letter and while the deal documents detailing the Bank Board’s de facto surrender to Keating were provided to us the side letter was not. I learned accidentally about the existence of the side letter in preparing for the House hearings on the scandal of the successful political intervention on behalf of Keating – the most notorious S&L control fraud. I then exposed the side letter and its import in my testimony. The side letter sealed Danny Wall’s fate. The Committee, on a bipartisan basis, was outraged by it. Wall resigned in disgrace.
I set forth this history because of the disclosures in Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story’s April 14 article in the New York Times “In Financial Crisis, No Prosecutions of Top Figures.”
Morgenson and Story’s reporting revealed that Timothy Geithner discouraged criminal investigations of suspected accounting control frauds. I was asked to comment on this “elite felons go free” policy by Kai Ryssdal, Marketplace’s business journalist.
Ryssdal: What about the argument, though, that the financial system is so fragile still, and these cases so complicated, that we can’t really tear things apart with substantive investigations and prosecutions because it will all fall apart again?
Black: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. We should leave felons in charge of our largest financial institutions as a means of achieving financial stability.
When more junior officials took actions discouraging criminal investigations against Charles Keating that were considerably less harmful than Geithner’s actions the Congress, the administration, and the media treated those actions as infamous and the head of the Office of Thrift Supervision, Danny Wall, had to resign. Why aren’t Geithner’s and Holder’s far more harmful and unprincipled actions, and failures to act, with regard to the elite criminals that caused the Great Recession a national scandal? Why isn’t Attorney General Mukasey, who was even more derelict than Holder, considered a national embarrassment? Have we lost our capacity as a nation for outrage? Are these elite ethical failures too powerful to hold accountable?
Bill Black is an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a white-collar criminologist, former senior financial regulator, and the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.