If you’re going to steal, be sure you steal a lot. Last month, Citigroup agreed to pay $285 million to settle fraud charges, and as part of the settlement promised never, ever to defraud anyone again. But the NYT found:
Citigroup’s main brokerage subsidiary, its predecessors or its parent company agreed not to violate the very same antifraud statute in July 2010. And in May 2006. Also as far as back as March 2005 and April 2000.
Citigroup is far from the only such repeat offender — in the eyes of the S.E.C. — on Wall Street. Nearly all of the biggest financial companies, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America among them, have settled fraud cases by promising the S.E.C. that they would never again violate an antifraud law, only to do it again in another case a few years later.
A New York Times analysis of enforcement actions during the last 15 years found at least 51 cases in which 19 Wall Street firms had broken antifraud laws they had agreed never to breach.
On Wednesday, Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Federal District Court in Manhattan, an S.E.C. critic, is scheduled to review the Citigroup settlement. Judge Rakoff has asked the agency what it does to ensure companies do not repeat the same offense, and whether it has ever brought contempt charges for chronic violators. The S.E.C. said in a court filing Monday that it had not brought any contempt charges against large financial firms in the last 10 years.
I’m sure these were honest mistakes. Wall Street bankers would never steal on purpose. Unlike this candidate for History’s Greatest Monster down in Mississippi:
Last week, a federal judge in Mississippi sentenced a mother of two named Anita McLemore to three years in federal prison for lying on a government application in order to obtain food stamps.
Apparently in this country you become ineligible to eat if you have a record of criminal drug offenses. States have the option of opting out of that federal ban, but Mississippi is not one of those states. Since McLemore had four drug convictions in her past, she was ineligible to receive food stamps, so she lied about her past in order to feed her two children.
The total “cost” of her fraud was $4,367. She has paid the money back. But paying the money back was not enough for federal Judge Henry Wingate.
Wingate had the option of sentencing McLemore according to federal guidelines, which would have left her with a term of two months to eight months, followed by probation. Not good enough! Wingate was so outraged by McLemore’s fraud that he decided to serve her up the deluxe vacation, using another federal statute that permitted him to give her up to five years.
He ultimately gave her three years, saying, “The defendant’s criminal record is simply abominable …. She has been the beneficiary of government generosity in state court.”
More on the case here. And in case you’re thinking this must be some white racist thing, note that the judge in the case is black. The race of McLemore is undisclosed. McLemore is not a good person. She has multiple drug offenses. But then again, these Wall Street banks have multiple fraud convictions.
Let this be a lesson to you. As Anatole France said, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” But not to steal investor funds repeatedly without going to jail.
UPDATE: Three cheers for Joe Nocera!