Dean Starkman: Wrecking an Economy Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Dean Starkman, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark

“We know the banks are eager to put the scandal of the financial crisis behind them. What’s disturbing is that, in the name of deference, convenience, or something darker, the Justice Department is letting them do just that.”—Dean Starkman

In his book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman charts the history of the financial press culminating in an analysis of the failure of mainstream journalism to cover the events and trends leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

In a sense, he argues that the financial press abandoned its roots in investigative journalism and let mortgage lenders, banks, and Wall Street off the hook. Recently, in the New Republic, Starkman suggests that the government is doing the same after the fact. Despite some settlements paid out by the likes of J.P. Morgan and Citigroup, the Justice Department “has permitted the banks, for a price, to bury their sins.” Starkman writes:

It bears saying one more time: It’s a disgrace that the Justice Department has failed to bring a single criminal charge against any Wall Street or mortgage executive of consequence for their roles in wrecking the economy, despite having managed to make arrests in the comparatively piddling schemes of Enron and the Savings & Loan flimflam. (The latter resulted in more than 800 convictions, including those of many top executives.) These settlements are wan consolation. The sums being surrendered, for starters, are large only until compared with the $13 trillion or so the public lost in the financial crash—or, for that matter, with the banks’ own coffers. (Citi’s pure profit in the two years before the wipeout was more than triple its penalty.) Not to mention that the money won’t be paid by any parties actually responsible, but by the banks’ current shareholders, who pretty much had nothing to do with the misdeeds in question. And the bulk of the settlements will be tax deductible. For destroying trillions in wealth and thousands of jobs, banks will get a write-off.

He continues by revealing how the Justice Department’s settlements are curtailing a fuller understanding of the banks’ activities during the mortgage boom of the 2000s:

There’s a much deeper problem here, however, and one that has received far less attention: Not only has the Department of Jus­tice (DOJ) failed to build any criminal cases for financial-crisis misdeeds, but it’s also now settling with these banks without even filing civil complaints. A complaint is the cornerstone of civil litigation, the foundation for even routine lawsuits. One of its primary benefits—and of adversarial legal proceedings generally—is that a complaint can bring huge amounts of previously undisclosed information into the public record. In these mortgage securities cases, the Justice Department had not only an obligation but an opportunity: to show the country what it found, to deter future misconduct, to complete the story of the financial crisis in humanizing, clarifying, searing detail. And to do all that, the department didn’t need to do anything special. Just what lawyers normally do. Instead, by imposing a fine without documenting the underlying abuses, the Justice Department has permitted the banks, for a price, to bury their sins.

Starkman concludes by writing:

We know the banks are eager to put the scandal of the financial crisis behind them. What’s disturbing is that, in the name of deference, convenience, or something darker, the Justice Department is letting them do just that.

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