The Tea Party regards Barack Obama as a kind of devil figure, but when it comes to hunting down the fraudsters responsible for the economic disaster of the last six years, his administration has stuck pretty close to the Tea Party script. The initial conservative reaction to the disaster, you will recall, was to blame the crisis on the people at the bottom, on minorities and proletarians lost in an orgy of financial misbehavior. Sure enough, when taking on ordinary people who got loans during the real-estate bubble, the president’s Department of Justice has shown admirable devotion to duty, filing hundreds of mortgage-fraud cases against small-timers.
But high-ranking financiers? Obama’s Department of Justice has thus far shown virtually no interest in holding leading bankers criminally accountable for what went on in the last decade. That is ruled out not only by the Too Big to Jail doctrine that top-ranking Obama officials have hinted at, but also by the same logic that inspires certain conservative thinkers—that financiers simply could not have committed fraud, since you would expect fraud to result in riches and instead so many banks went out of business.
“Benjamin Wagner, a U.S. Attorney who is actively prosecuting mortgage fraud cases in Sacramento, Calif., points out that banks lose money when a loan turns out to be fraudulent,” reported a now-famous 2010 story in the Huffington Post. “But convincing a jury that executives intended to make fraudulent loans, and thus should be held criminally responsible, may be too difficult of a hurdle for prosecutors. ‘It doesn’t make any sense to me that they would be deliberately defrauding themselves,’ Wagner said.”
So forget those thousands of hours of Congressional investigation and those thousands of pages of journalism on the crisis. It doesn’t make any sense to the man in charge. No jury would be convinced. Case closed.
As it happens, a trial just ended in Sacramento in which a jury was convinced that “executives intended to make fraudulent loans.” Here’s the thing, though: It wasn’t the government that made the case against the financiers; it was the defendants.