SEC: Taking on Big Firms is ‘Tempting,’ But We Prefer Picking on Little Guys [rollingstone.com]
June 5, 2012 Leave a comment
If you want to see a perfect example of how completely broken our regulatory system is, look no further than a speech that Daniel Gallagher, one of the S.E.C.’s commissioners, recently gave in Denver, Colorado.
It’s a speech whose full lunacy is hard to grasp without some background.
It’s by now been well-established that the S.E.C.’s performance in policing Wall Street before, after, and during the crash has been comically inept. It would be putting it generously to say that the top cop on the financial services beat has demonstrated particular incompetence with regard to investigations of high-profile targets at powerhouse banks and financial companies. A less generous interpretation would be that the agency is simply too afraid, too unwilling, or too corrupt to take on the really dangerous animals in this particular jungle.
The S.E.C.’s failure to make even one case against a high-ranking executive involved in the mass frauds leading to the 2008 crash – compare this to the comparatively much smaller and less serious S&L crisis twenty years earlier, when the government made 1,100 criminal cases and sent 800 bank officials to jail – became so conspicuous that by the end of last year, the “No prosecutions of top figures” idea became an accepted meme in mainstream news media coverage of the economic crisis.
The S.E.C. in recent years has failed in almost every possible way a regulator can fail to police powerful criminals. Failure #1 was that it repeatedly fell down on the job even when alerted to problems at big companies well ahead of time by insiders. Six months before Lehman Brothers collapsed, setting off a chain reaction of losses that crippled the world economy, one of Lehman’s attorneys, Oliver Budde, contacted the S.E.C. to warn them that the firm had understated CEO Dick Fuld’s income by more than $200 million; the agency blew him off. There were similar brush-offs of insiders with compelling information in cases involving Moody’s, Chase, and both of the major Ponzi scheme scandals, i.e. the Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford cases.
The S.E.C.’s attitude toward whistleblowers at powerhouse companies has not just been aloof or indifferent, it’s been downright hostile at times. Whistleblowers commonly report being treated as though they’re the criminal. The most notorious example probably involved Peter Sivere, a compliance officer at Chase who years ago went to the S.E.C. to complain that Chase was withholding an incriminating email from the agency, which was investigating an illegal trading practice. When Sivere contacted the S.E.C. with the documents, he asked if he would be eligible for an award; they told him no, and he gave them the documents anyway. Subsequently, Sivere was fired by Chase because, in the words of Chase’s attorneys, Sivere had “sought payment from the SEC to provide documents and information to them.”