Amid eye-popping fines on banks, calls grow for charges on executives

Eye-popping settlements against financial institutions are doing little to tamp down demands from Wall Street’s critics for more charges against individual executives.

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“Banks don’t break laws, people do,” said Dennis Kelleher, president and CEO of the reform advocacy group Better Markets. “Without individual accountability you don’t risk more crime, you guarantee more crime.”
In recent weeks, the federal government has obtained record settlement amounts from some of Wall Street’s biggest names. 

Earlier this month, JPMorgan Chase tentatively reached a deal with the Justice Department to pay $13 billion to settle charges it misled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac about mortgage quality leading up to the financial crisis. And Bloomberg reported that the Federal Housing Finance Agency is eyeing at least a $6 billion penalty for Bank of America for similar claims.

The JPMorgan settlement, if finalized at current terms, would represent the largest single fine ever assessed against a single company in U.S. history, beating out BP’s settlement over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

But some of Wall Street’s harshest critics on, and off, the Hill are still waiting for the federal government to take on other big financial names: the executives themselves.

Reform advocates argue that if the government truly wants to discourage bad behavior in the financial sector, it is not enough to rack up billion-dollar fines against big banks. The government needs to go after individual executives and hold them personally responsible.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to financial regulators Wednesday where she not too subtly chided them for what she saw as lacking enforcement. 

She noted in her letter that the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) had managed to secure over 100 criminal convictions between 2009 and 2012 and place 51 defendants in prison. 

She also noted the agency did it with a fraction of the enforcement staff and budget the other regulators enjoyed.

While Warren said regulators deserve “substantial credit” for the “landmark settlements” reached in recent weeks, Warren clearly wanted to know why more convictions had not been pursued and achieved, and asked for enforcement statistics from the agencies.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, unveiled legislation Thursday to beef up money laundering laws in part because she said too many individuals had been able to avoid punishment for breaking them. 

In a statement to The Hill, Waters said it was clear that fines are "nothing more than the cost of doing business" for Wall Street, and criminal charges should be considered -- for banks and the executives that run them. 

"It goes without saying that criminal prosecutions are certainly in order for those who broke the law and significantly harmed our nation," she said. "At a minimum, individual executives and senior management responsible for these acts should be prosecuted, including prison terms.”

While some on the left point to the lack of major prosecutions as a shortcoming, there have been some changes in recent months to indicate regulators are taking a tougher stance with Wall Street.

After Mary Jo White was sworn in as the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the agency killed a previous policy that allowed the regulator to settle charges without actually requiring any admittance of wrongdoing, a policy that has come under fire from lawmakers in both parties.

And administration officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, have insisted that investigations are still ongoing. Holder warned in an August interview with The Wall Street Journal that bad actors are not “out of the woods because of the passage of time.”

“If any individual or if any institution is banking on waiting things out, they have to think again,” he said.

A criminal investigation against JPMorgan is still ongoing and unaffected by the settlement.

A Justice Department spokesman said the government has “aggressively prosecuted” a host of financial fraud cases, and vowed more investigations are in the works.

“We follow the evidence where it leads, and will never hesitate to use every tool at our disposal to hold those who have broken the law accountable because no individual or institution is immune from prosecution,” said spokesman Peter Carr.

According to Justice Department statistics, 83 individuals in the last four years have been charged for financial wrongdoing.

While some want to see more individual charges, there is also some grumbling about institution-wide settlements as well.

Reuters reported Wednesday that the bank could actually write off up to $4 billion, or nearly a third, of its settlement as a tax break, given that that portion is meant to assisting struggling homeowners. 

In response to the news, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) drafted legislation that would bar institutions facing punitive damages from using them as tax deductions.

He is also gathering signatures for a letter to be sent to the bank’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, urging him to not write off any portion of the damages and “accept full responsibility.”