The Obama Administration’s Financial-Fraud Stunt Backfires

The press shows the feds' numbers are phony and asks where the whales are.

Boy, the Obama administration’s slapdash PR effort to show it’s cracking down on financial fraud sure looks to be failing—and getting some serious blowback.

Jesse Eisinger has a column in today’s New York Times noting that the feds’ insider-trading investigation, while important, misses the bigger issue: prosecuting those who caused the crisis.

The New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin called out Eric Holder’s Justice Department on Monday, noting that the 343 criminal defendants it said it’s prosecuting in a sweep it lamely calls Operation Broken Trust are small fry. No executive from the major corporations (like, oh, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Countrywide, Ameriquest, etc.) has yet been charged.

Sorkin suggested that Operation Broken Trust (that name’s so awful I just have to repeat it) was at least partially smoke and mirrors:

Mr. Chen went so far as to suggest that the number of cases Mr. Holder cited as evidence of the department’s crackdown were somewhat fictional.

“It’s hard to believe that they built up all these cases in the past four months,” since the task force was created, Mr. Chen said, suggesting it was more likely that Mr. Holder counted every case that had anything to do with financial fraud and put them all under the Operation Broken Trust umbrella.

The Times’s Edward Wyatt, a few hours before Sorkin’s column came out, made that point more clearly in a news story:

But the effort was also something less than it appears. Some of the cases were initiated before the Obama administration took office. Others got under way before President Obama created the appointment of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force in November 2009, and many of them were well on their way to completion by the time the task force began its crackdown on Aug. 16.

The statistical rendering of the operation also includes considerable overlap of criminal and civil cases, which results in double-counting of many of the defendants, losses and victims.

That’s just terrific spot-news reporting.

But it gets even better (and by better, I mean worse—that’s sort of a newsman’s tic) than that. Bloomberg’s Jonathan Weil comes along today with an outstanding column further proving that the feds are full of it.

First, here’s some background on what the attorney general claimed:

Holder said the sweep by President Barack Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force began Aug. 16 and resulted in 231 cases against 343 criminal defendants as of Dec. 1. All told there were 64 arrests, 158 indictments or complaints, 104 convictions and 87 sentencings, according to the Justice Department’s tally. Holder also credited the operation with 60 civil suits against 189 defendants.

And here’s Weil’s explanation for what they really are:

The statistics looked squirrely on their face. Some of these cases began years ago, long before the multiagency task force was formed. It’s obvious what the prosecutors did here, too. First they tracked down every small-fry Ponzi scheme, affinity fraud and penny-stock pump-and-dump they could find that had advanced through the courts since mid-August. Then they totaled them up and called it a sweep, lumping together cases that had nothing to do with each other.

Ouch. But it gets worse. Weil burned some shoe leather, asking the Justice Department for a list of the cases, and checked out the first twenty on the list. Uh oh:

For instance, the list said a fellow named Lorenzo Altadonna had been convicted in the Western District of New York on Oct. 27. Actually, he was sentenced to three years probation on Aug. 5, court records show. That was 11 days before Operation Broken Trust began, which means the task force shouldn’t have counted him in its results, even by its own loopy methodology. Finelli said Altadonna was included mistakenly.

The first page of the list also showed a Nov. 8 federal conviction in New Jersey of a man whom I won’t name here. There was no record for him on Pacer, which is the government’s online database of federal court proceedings. But I did find an Oct. 13 article in the Daily Record of Parsippany, New Jersey, about a fraud at an insurance agency where a person with the same name had worked. The article said he had not been charged criminally. Finelli declined to comment on why he was included in the task force’s list of defendants.

Two others were included because they were sentenced in the last few months, even though they were found or pled guilty last year. And those are just in the first twenty names out of 343. In other words, the Obama administration is lying about its crackdown.

Weil concludes thusly:

By all outward appearances, it seems the Justice Department either doesn’t want to prosecute systemically important frauds, or doesn’t know how. Or maybe it’s both.

It wasn’t always this way. More than a thousand felony convictions followed the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s and early 1990s. Some of the biggest kingpins, such as Charles Keating of Lincoln Savings & Loan, went to jail. With this latest financial crisis, there’s been no such accountability.

Operation Broken Trust may be a fitting name. Unfortunately it’s for all the wrong reasons. The public already knows not to trust the government. Flimflam P.R. stunts such as this one at least offer us a useful reminder of why.


I suppose if there’s one good thing that comes out of this headslapper, it’s that maybe the Obama administration’s laughable attempt to show it’s tough on financial fraud will cause enough of a backlash in the press that it forces them to actually do something about the people who took down the financial system in order to make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

Wyatt’s and Weil’s work is a great start. And there’s room for a more comprehensive analysis of the Justice Department’s claims. Keep the drums a-pounding.

Further Reading:

Andrew Ross Sorkin: Fraud Triggered the Financial Crisis. A more important statement than you might think from the NYT’s Wall Street guy.

The NYT Shows Why Cuomo’s After Rattner. Emails show ex-private-equity investor and car czar misled investigators early in the probe, but where are the feds?

Audit Notes: Where Are the Coppers?, Obama and FDR, WSJ.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,