McClatchy’s “Unconfirmed Reports” About Criminal Probes

McClatchy asks a darned good question in a recent news story:

“Why haven’t any Wall Street tycoons been sent to the slammer?”

Unfortunately, not all of its answers measure up.

The story is a useful survey of the status of criminal probes of lenders and their Wall Street funders springing from the mortgage crisis—an angle too often neglected by much of the mainstream business media. McClatchy reports that the FBI says it is busy, and all we can do is believe that overrated agency:

The FBI has more than 580 large-scale corporate fraud investigations under way. At least 40 of them are scrutinizing players in sub-prime mortgage lending, which was the first domino to fall and triggered a global financial crisis.

McClatchy does well to frame the problem both as a simple law enforcement issue— if laws were broken, the cases should be prosecuted; it’s pretty simple—and a larger one: Without the prosecution of key actors the public is deprived of important symbols and understandable story lines about the economic meltdown:

The absence of what many would call justice stands out all the more because past financial crises always had their villains. The depression-era had electricity and railroad magnate Samuel Insull, who partly inspired the movie “Citizen Kane.” The savings and loan crisis of the 1980’s had banker Charles Keating. Energy giant Enron Corp.’s spectacular collapse offered the late CEO Kenneth Lay, a Texas crony of President George W. Bush.

Yet there’s no such poster child for the Great Recession, as today’s crisis is now called.

One problem, though: McClatchy passes along information that is poorly attributed (my emphasis):

There are persistent but unconfirmed reports that the FBI and grand juries are looking at the e-mails of executives of failed institutions such as Bear Stearns, which pioneered the process of pooling sub-prime loans for sale to investors, and Lehman Brothers, which was a leader in these toxic products when it collapsed.

It’s hard to know what to make of that.


Records from AIG, which the Federal Reserve saved from collapse on Sept. 17, 2008, are also thought to be under review. The FBI reportedly is also looking at rating agencies Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s to determine if they knowingly gave pools of sub-prime mortgages AAA investment-grade ratings, the best possible, despite evidence to the contrary.

Carter, the FBI spokesman, declined comment on ongoing investigations.


I can appreciate the need to be comprehensive. And I think there certainly should be criminal probes of the raters and the others, but “reportedly” is not my favorite word, particularly when it’s difficult to find actual reports of such a probe.

In a conversation, the reporter, Kevin G. Hall, acknowledged that the attribution could “be viewed as squishy.” But he says the totality of his reporting over 18 months made him comfortable with the assertions. Further, he says, it would be strange if the FBI weren’t looking at, for instance, the raters.

“If they’re not looking them, then we ought to be looking at the FBI,” he says.

True enough, as far as it goes. Hall also points to a Huffington Post piece by law professor William K. Black that makes a case that raters deserve scrutiny, as well as a 2005 LA Times story that says:

Among other possible targets, the FBI has said, are investment firms that sold billions in securities backed by shaky subprime mortgages and credit rating agencies that gave high marks to the now-worthless securities and failed to protect investors.

Still, these were “possible targets,” and this was four years ago. That should tell you something. The fact is, from this story we don’t know if grand juries are looking at emails of Bear and Lehman executives or if the FBI is “looking at” raters.

A spokesman for S&P, which is part of McGraw-Hill Cos., declined to comment. Spokespeople for the other raters haven’t gotten back to me. I’ll update when they do.

These passages are buried in the McClatchy story, and hedged to a fare-thee-well, so I don’t want to make, you know, a federal case out of it. But certainly, it’s better to keep the record clear of such reports unless and until they can be confirmed.

Put it this way, if the FBI opened criminal probes of S&P, Moody’s, etc., it’s the lede.

And there’s a bigger point: if the FBI was “looking at” the raters, so what? Has anyone noticed that when it comes to financial crimes, among many, many other crimes, the FBI leaks more hot air than can fill several Ameriquest blimps? How many investigations are “opened” and “launched,” via strategic leaks in the glare of media coverage and public outrage, never to be heard from again? Here’s one view: Way too many.

The financial media, to my mind, has long given this outfit far more credit and credibility in white-collar matters than it deserves. This is an agency with feet of clay. For years, if it wasn’t for Robert Morgenthau, then Eliot Spitzer, forcing their federal counterparts out of their undisclosed locations, you’d never hear from them. Enough about the FBI “looking at,” “launching probes of,” and “investigating” things. Let’s see it make a case for a change, or at least make a formal inquiry that would require disclosure.

Who knows? The FBI might be the story after all. But for now, lay off the weasel words. It’s not fair to the “looked at” parties, and it gives the FBI way too much credit.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.