The Scam Wall Street Learned From the Mafia
How America’s biggest banks took part in a nationwide bid-rigging conspiracy – until they were caught on tape
By Matt Taibbi, Rollinbg Stone, June 21, 2012 11:20 AM ET
Someday, it will go down in history as the first trial of the modern American mafia. Of course, you won’t hear the recent financial corruption case, United States of America v. Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm, called anything like that. If you heard about it at all, you’re probably either in the municipal bond business or married to an antitrust lawyer.
Even then, all you probably heard was that a threesome of bit players on Wall Street got convicted of obscure antitrust violations in one of the most inscrutable, jargon-packed legal snoozefests since the government’s massive case against Microsoft in the Nineties – not exactly the thrilling courtroom drama offered by the famed trials of old-school mobsters like Al Capone or Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo.
But this just-completed trial in downtown New York against three faceless financial executives really was historic. Over 10 years in the making, the case allowed federal prosecutors to make public for the first time the astonishing inner workings of the reigning American crime syndicate, which now operates not out of Little Italy and Las Vegas, but out of Wall Street.
The defendants in the case – Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg and Peter Grimm – worked for GE Capital, the finance arm of General Electric. Along with virtually every major bank and finance company on Wall Street – not just GE, but J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, UBS, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Wachovia and more – these three Wall Street wiseguys spent the past decade taking part in a breathtakingly broad scheme to skim billions of dollars from the coffers of cities and small towns across America.
The banks achieved this gigantic rip-off by secretly colluding to rig the public bids on municipal bonds, a business worth $3.7 trillion. By conspiring to lower the interest rates that towns earn on these investments, the banks systematically stole from schools, hospitals, libraries and nursing homes – from “virtually every state, district and territory in the United States,” according to one settlement. And they did it so cleverly that the victims never even knew they were being cheated. No thumbs were broken, and nobody ended up in a landfill in New Jersey, but money disappeared, lots and lots of it, and its manner of disappearance had a familiar name: organized crime.
In fact, stripped of all the camouflaging financial verbiage, the crimes the defendants and their co-conspirators committed were virtually indistinguishable from the kind of thuggery practiced for decades by the Mafia, which has long made manipulation of public bids for things like garbage collection and construction contracts a cornerstone of its business. What’s more, in the manner of old mob trials, Wall Street’s secret machinations were revealed during the Carollo trial through crackling wiretap recordings and the lurid testimony of cooperating witnesses, who came into court with bowed heads, pointing fingers at their accomplices.
The new-age gangsters even invented an elaborate code to hide their crimes. Like Elizabethan highway robbers who spoke in thieves’ cant, or Italian mobsters who talked about “getting a button man to clip the capo,” on tape after tape these Wall Street crooks coughed up phrases like “pull a nickel out” or “get to the right level” or “you’re hanging out there” – all code words used to manipulate the interest rates on municipal bonds. The only thing that made this trial different from a typical mob trial was the scale of the crime.
USA v. Carollo involved classic cartel activity: not just one corrupt bank, but many, all acting in careful concert against the public interest. In the years since the economic crash of 2008, we’ve seen numerous hints that such orchestrated corruption exists. The collapses of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, for instance, both pointed to coordinated attacks by powerful banks and hedge funds determined to speed the demise of those firms. In the bankruptcy of Jefferson County, Alabama, we learned that Goldman Sachs accepted a $3 million bribe from J.P. Morgan Chase to permit Chase to serve as the sole provider of toxic swap deals to the rubes running metropolitan Birmingham – “an open-and-shut case of anti-competitive behavior,” as one former regulator described it.
More recently, a major international investigation has been launched into the manipulation of Libor, the interbank lending index that is used to calculate global interest rates for products worth more than $3 trillion a year. If and when that case is presented to the public at trial – there are several major civil suits in the works here in the States – we may yet find out that the world’s most powerful banks have, for years, been fixing the prices of almost every adjustable-rate vehicle on earth, from mortgages and credit cards to interest-rate swaps and even currencies.
But USA v. Carollo marks the first time we actually got incontrovertible evidence that Wall Street has moved into this cartel-type brand of criminality. It also offered a disgusting glimpse into the enabling and grossly cynical role played by politicians, who took Super Bowl tickets and bribe-stuffed envelopes to look the other way while gangsters raided the public kitty. And though the punishments that were ultimately handed down in the trial – minor convictions of three bit players – felt deeply unsatisfying, it was still a watershed moment in the ongoing story of America’s gradual awakening to the realities of financial corruption. In a post-crash era where Wall Street trials almost never make it into court, and even the harshest settlements end with the evidence buried by the government and the offending banks permitted to escape with no admission of wrongdoing, this case finally dragged the whole ugly truth of American finance out into the open – and it was a hell of a show.
1. THE SCAM
This was no trial scene from popular lore, no Inherit the Wind or State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson. No gallery packed with rapt spectators, no ceiling fans set whirring to beat back the tension and the heat, no defense counsel’s resting a sympathetic hand on the defendant’s shoulder as opening statements commence. No, the setting for USA v. Carollo reflected the bizarre alternate universe that exists on Wall Street. Like so many court cases involving big banks, the proceeding looked more like a roomful of expensive lawyers negotiating a major corporate merger than a public search for justice.
The trial began on April 16th in a federal court in Lower Manhattan. The courtroom, an aerielike setting 23 stories up, offered a panoramic view of the city and the East River. Though the gallery was usually full throughout the three-plus weeks of testimony, the spectators were not average citizens come to witness how they had been robbed blind by America’s biggest banks. Instead, there were row after row of suits – other lawyers eager to observe a long-awaited case, one that could influence the outcome in a handful of civil suits pending across the country. In fact, the defendants themselves, whom the trial would reveal as easily replaceable cogs in a much larger machine of corruption, were barely visible from the gallery, obscured by the great chattering congress of prosecution and defense attorneys.
Only the presence of the mostly nonwhite and elderly jury, which resembled the front pew of a Harlem church, served as a reminder that the case had any connection to the real world. Even reporters from most of the major news outlets didn’t bother to attend. The judge in the trial, the right honorable and amusingly cantankerous Harold Baer, acknowledged that the case was not likely to set the public’s pulse racing. “It is unlikely, I think, that this will generate a lot of media publicity,” Baer sighed to the jury in his preliminary instructions.