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Saturday, November 8, 2014

How JPMorgan Chase Helped Wreck the Economy and Avoid Prosecution

A whistleblower reveals how JPMorgan Chase got away with cratering the economy.

The following is a transcript of a Democracy Now! segment. 

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A year ago this month, the Justice Department announced the banking giant JPMorgan Chase would avoid criminal charges by agreeing to pay $13 billion to settle claims that it had routinely overstated the quality of mortgages it was selling to investors. When the toxic mortgage securities started turning bad, investors lost faith in the banking system, and a housing crisis turned into the 2008 financial crisis that led to millions of home foreclosures. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman unveiled the settlement last November.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN:Not only will Chase have to pay the largest settlement ever levied against a financial institution, but it has admitted in our statement of facts that its own employees, employees of Bear Stearns and employees of Washington Mutual made material misrepresentations to the investing public about a large number of residential mortgage-backed securities that they issued prior to the crash in 2008. This settlement is a major victory in the fight to hold accountable those who were responsible for that crash.
AMY GOODMAN: Soon after the JPMorgan Chase deal was reached, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder discussed the bank’s misdeeds during an interview with NBC News’ Pete Williams.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: It packaged loans that it knew did not pass its own stated due diligence test. We have a whistleblower who indicated that she expressed concerns about what the strength of these mortgage-backed securities were, and they put them out there to the market and said that they were perfectly fine, when in fact they were not.
PETE WILLIAMS: So, to be clear, you’re saying that JPMorgan’s conduct here contributed to the housing collapse?
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Not only the conduct of JPMorgan, it was the conduct of other banks doing similar kinds of things that led directly to the collapse of our economy in 2008 and in 2009.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During that interview, Attorney General Eric Holder mentioned the role of an unnamed whistleblower from JPMorgan Chase who aided the Justice Department’s case against the bank. Well, until this week, that whistleblower, Alayne Fleischmann, a securities lawyer who worked for JPMorgan, had never spoken publicly about what she witnessed inside the bank. That changed yesterday when Rolling Stone magazine published a major new piece by Matt Taibbi headlined "The $9 Billion Witness: Meet the woman JPMorgan Chase paid one of the largest fines in American history to keep from talking."

AMY GOODMAN: In the article, Alayne Fleischmann criticizes not only JPMorgan’s banking practices, but how government regulators at the Holder Justice Department responded to the bank’s lawbreaking. Today, in her first televised interview, Alayne Fleischmann joins us here on Democracy Now!, along with Matt Taibbi, who has closely covered the financial crisis for years. His latest book, Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, has just come out in paperback.

And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! for the hour.

MATT TAIBBI: Thanks for having us on.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Alayne Fleischmann, start at the beginning. Why did you decide to come forward? And how did you end up at Chase?

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Sure. For a long time, I was expecting it to come out. I’ve been talking to the government for two-and-a-half years now. And first it went through the SEC. Then it went through the Civil Division of the DOJ. And at some stage after watching all of these major banks have deals that actually the facts get wiped away, I started to feel that if I don’t come forward, there’s a real chance of that happening here, too.

In terms of JPMorgan Chase, I started there in March 2006 at sort of the height of the boom. When I started, everything seemed normal. I didn’t really realize some of the things that were happening in the background. And then things started to change in about May, a couple months after I had been there.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, what—when you went to work there, what specifically was your job? And if you could walk us through how you began to realize the huge problem that the bank was a part of?

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Sure. I started as what they call a deal manager. Basically, we coordinate between all these different groups when we’re bringing in these loans, that are then going to be sold to investors. I first noticed that there was a problem when they brought in a new person to do our diligence, which is just the review of the loans themselves to make sure they’re of good quality. As soon as he came in, we suddenly—this wall sort of came down between myself and the group that was doing this review, and you couldn’t get information that you would normally get. On top of that, there was immediately a sort of a no-email policy. He wouldn’t send emails, and we weren’t allowed to send him emails. He would actually come out and yell at you if you sent him an email.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the reason?

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: It was never given, which was extremely worrisome, because normally the reason why you have a compliance and diligence department is to actually have written policies about what you’re doing, to be able to explain to people how you’re making your decisions. So it’s exactly the opposite of what you would normally expect.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you say to review the quality of the loans, if you could—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —for people who are not aware—you were, in essence, certifying that these individual loans could be packaged into a group of securities to then be sold to investors in a huge package, right? But you had to go through every individual loan? Was that—

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Yeah, that’s pretty much what happens. It’s really that you’re taking the actual loan files, that was done between the lender and the borrower, and looking at them to make sure everything looks right. Does this person have enough money to pay off their loan? Do they have the sort of history where we think that they’re going to pay this loan? And if we find that they don’t, then we’re actually not supposed to purchase the loans, and certainly shouldn’t be selling them to other investors without at least telling them there’s something wrong with them.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what was the smoking gun for you?

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Everything about—what really started happening—in particular, it became apparent in October—was that sometimes we had deals coming in where even though I wasn’t even the person looking at the loans, you could tell from where I was that something was wrong with them. The GreenPoint deal, which is what Matt talks about in his article, even when the loans came in, they were very, very old, which usually you try to actually pull these loans and sell them within two to three months—these loans were going back to close to the beginning of the year. If you work in the industry, you know immediately what that means, is either they couldn’t sell them, because the buyers were telling them they weren’t any good, or, even worse, they’d been sold and then had missed a bunch of payments, so they had actually been sold back to the originator. Any of those loans you wouldn’t normally sell to investors as regular loans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Matt, you’ve referred in your article to these loans as basically selling old, beat-up used cars—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —as if they were new. Could you explain that?

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, that’s exactly what Alayne is talking about. Essentially, what the bank was doing was they—you know, there are companies out there, these mortgage lenders, like a company that might be familiar to people is, like, Countrywide—in this case, it was an originator called GreenPoint—they would go out into neighborhoods, and during this boom period, they were giving mortgages to anybody and everybody with a pulse, essentially. They were especially low-income neighborhoods. They were offering these very advantageous loans to people, whether they could afford the houses or not. They were buying huge masses of these loans. And then they were—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: They were called like "liar’s loans," or stated income where no one even checked whether the person had the income to actually pay it off.

MATT TAIBBI: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. That was the verbiage, "liar’s loans." The FBI warned that there was going to be an epidemic of these liar’s loans way back in 2004. The industry ignored these warnings. The government ignored these warnings. And there was this huge influx of these stated income loans, where people could just say that they made an enormous amount of money, and nobody would check.

So the bank buys all these loans, and then what they were doing is essentially throwing them into big pools, making hamburger out of them, and then selling that hamburger to pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds, all kinds of investors. Typically ordinary people were the people on the other end buying this stuff. They were investing in these securities, and often they didn’t even know it.
What Alayne was involved with was making sure that these loans were of good quality, so that pension funds, when they bought these securities, weren’t buying something that was going to blow up on them a year later. And what she found was that they were buying loans that were of very dubious quality, that were extremely risky, and that should not have been made into that hamburger.

AMY GOODMAN:  Last November, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared on NBC News just after the JPMorgan Chase settlement was reached. He was questioned by NBC’s Pete Williams.
PETE WILLIAMS: What about those who say, "Well, the message here is, if you do wrong, you just pay for it and move along"?
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: This was not simply something that JPMorgan simply signed a check and smilingly said, "This is a good deal for us." This inflicts pain on that institution.
PETE WILLIAMS: But is this, in essence, a sort of template? We can expect to see other settlements now?
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I certainly think that the way in which this case has been settled is a template of what we can expect, both in terms of getting maximum amounts of money and then using that money so that we get it to people who suffer the greatest amount—that is, either investors or homeowners.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Attorney General Eric Holder. Alayne Fleischmann, let’s take it back a step. When you started to alert your colleagues and your supervisors at JPMorgan Chase, what did they say?

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Well, what happened was the transaction, at one point, just stopped. It turned out that 40 percent of the loans in this deal had problems with them. When we tried raising this issue with our superiors, what actually happened is they just started yelling at the diligence managers who were clearing the loans, sort of yelling, berating them, making them do reports over and over again. And it became clear that, although they wouldn’t say it, it was going to be like that until they would clear the loans. So what actually happened is these loans started being cleared, but basically just by sort of the brute force of what was going on there.

I raised it first with a managing director and an executive director, and couldn’t get any response. After that, I decided the best possibility would be to write a letter to another managing director that actually laid out everything I was seeing. I used the GreenPoint deal as an example, which is why the letter specifically says exactly who was doing what all over this deal. But it also lays out general problems in our diligence that the salespeople were being involved, which isn’t normal, and that there seemed to be a lot of pressure on diligence managers to clear loans that shouldn’t have been purchased or sold.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the importance of putting it down in a—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —putting all the facts down in a letter, what that meant inside the company?

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Yeah. Well, what it used to be is that the way that you could stop these things from happening was, if you write a memo that lays out what’s happening, the management won’t go forward, because they realize that if they do, there’s going to be this evidence of what happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: There’s going to be a paper trail of the—mm-hmm.

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Yeah. The big worry with these settlements and the way they’re being done—and I’m not the only whistleblower in these cases—is that you have these emails and these memos, but nothing happens. A fine gets paid, and then all of the facts and who did what gets washed away. So, as a whistleblower, you’re thinking, "I did all of this, and the DOJ has all of this, but for some reason they’re not going forward on it."

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened when you went outside the company? How did you go outside?

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Well, one issue I had is that although I warned not to securitize the loans, there was no way—I was blocked off, especially after I had raised complaints, from being able to see any of the data or the diligence process, which right there shows that something was wrong. So, after I left JPMorgan, I actually had no idea, for a full four years, that the loans had been securitized. On one hand, I was worried they would, but I really thought no one would ever actually securitize those loans.

MATT TAIBBI: This is an important distinction—


MATT TAIBBI: —because Alayne had no idea that a crime had been committed until she had concrete knowledge that the loans had actually been resold to somebody else. They’re certainly allowed to buy as many bad loans and as many risky mortgages as they want. It’s not until they go to some investor and represent to them that these are, you know, AAA-rated securities or whatever, or highly rated securities, that they’re actually committing fraud. And so, she had no way of knowing that. Even after she was laid off from the company, she had no knowledge of what actually happened. So she couldn’t actually report the crime yet, because she only saw one half of the deal.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you were laid off in—at the beginning of 2008, right?


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, actually before the crash. Already there was turmoil—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in the home loan market, but there was not—the crash had not happened.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so that the bank, when Jamie Dimon and other leaders later said that they had no realization that the market was tanking as fast as it could, at least your memos were certainly indicating to them that there were major problems in their portfolios.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, what’s funny is they actually said two completely opposite things. There was an article in Fortune magazine later in 2008 in which they report that Jamie Dimon, the CEO of the company, knew as early as October of 2006 that the industry was rife with underwriting problems, all the things that Alayne is talking about. The company was aware of this, and there are quotes in which the CEO is telling his subordinates, "We’ve got to get out of these investments, because this whole thing can go up in smoke." And then, meanwhile, so Chase is selling its own investments in these kinds of mortgages, but they’re taking these same mortgages and selling them to investors and not telling them that they have these concerns. Later, when they testify in front of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in 2010, Dimon said exactly the opposite. He said, essentially, "Well, we had no idea that these things were happening. We got caught up in the fact that housing prices were just going continually upward."

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the settlement. What happened next?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, so, the settlement happened in—I guess, a year ago about this month. And what’s interesting about it is, Alayne, by that point, had already talked to civil investigators in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento, and she talked to some very talented lawyers there who seemed very anxious to press this case. And they were about to release a very detailed civil complaint against Chase in September of last year, and just hours before that press conference, when they were going to announce that, reportedly, Jamie Dimon, again, the CEO of Chase, called up the assistant attorney general, asked to renegotiate, and they canceled the press conference, and they went back into negotiations. And a few months later, they had a settlement in which they paid a lot of money, but none of the facts came out in that.

AMY GOODMAN: Just like if you were in trouble, you could make that call.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I could call up—yeah, I could call up the mayor or the president and have a court case go away. I mean, that’s exactly what happened in this case, is they basically put in a phone call to the very top of the criminal justice system.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what happened to your contacts with the Justice Department, if you could talk about that, that process? How detailed did they want to get into the information that you had?

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Well, my first contact, it was actually after four years. I was working in Calgary, and I got a call from the SEC.

AMY GOODMAN: Because you come from Canada.

ALAYNE FLEISCHMANN: Yeah. He introduced himself as an investigator from the Enforcement Division. And as I sort of paused for a minute, jokingly, he then said, "You weren’t expecting to hear from me, were you?" And after that, they set up my first interview with the SEC, which was very short. It was only maybe an hour, hour and a half. They were only interested in one deal. And even though I kept bringing up GreenPoint and they had the letter that I had written, they weren’t actually interested in that. And the SEC settlement was based on that other deal.

And then, it wasn’t until later, about December 2012, that I first met with the DOJ investigators. And it was very clear that this was going to be very different. As soon as they walked in, you could tell they knew these securities up and down, and they were really anxious to go forward with it and felt very comfortable going forward with the case. So, in that meeting, it was a very detailed meeting, sort of hours of going through how the process works and what happened. And then I had an actual deposition in about May of 2013, where they nailed down a lot more of that.

And you could see at that stage—first, I got to find out for the first time ever how many of these loans had actually gone into—had been sold to investors in sort of one pool, and it was hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of them, with nothing actually disclosed about the problems with the loan. And then, second, I got to really see what their case was, and they clearly realized they had an incredible case there.

AMY GOODMAN: Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder suggested some banks are "too big to jail."
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy. And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large. Again, I’m not talking about HSBC; this is just a more general comment. I think it has an inhibiting influence—impact on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate.
AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, respond to what Attorney General Eric Holder has testified.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, again, I mean, it’s a crazy thing when the leading law enforcement official in the nation comes out and says, "Well, some companies are just so big that we can’t prosecute them no matter what they do." In that case, he was speaking—he was testifying in the wake of a settlement the government had entered into with HSBC, which is the biggest bank in Europe and the biggest bank in Great Britain, which had admitted to laundering over $800 million for a pair of Central and South American drug cartels. And if you can’t send someone to jail for laundering $800 million of drug money, you know, because the company is too big, clearly something is very seriously wrong. But yet, this became sort of the unofficial official policy of the Justice Department. And this greatly affected the way they dealt with companies like JPMorgan Chase, like Citigroup, like Bank of America. They tried to find a way to effect some kind of resolution that didn’t involve criminal charges, didn’t involve penalties to individuals, and also didn’t put the facts of any of what they had actually done out into the public.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in that vein, this is—you know, it’s the old Monopoly board game all over again, get out of jail free. Instead of paying $200 to get out of jail, you pay $2 billion to get out of jail. But the amounts of money that these governments are getting as a result of this—I mean, I just checked with the New York state comptroller. New York state alone, this year, is getting out of its bank settlements with Wall Street a windfall of $5 billion. That’s just New York state. Other states are getting their share, and of course the federal government is getting huge infusions. And so, they suddenly have all this cash. And then they also had this other stuff that you’ve talked about, which is consumer relief—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —apportions. So, the governments actually get cash settlements, but then they supposedly negotiate additional money for the citizens, a consumer relief. Could you talk about that?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, OK, there’s a couple of things here. First of all, these settlements, they always come up with a big number, but the number is always actually—when you actually look at the accounting, it turns out to be smaller than they announce. In the case of the Chase settlement, the number they announced was $13 billion. But there’s a couple of really important factors here. One is that $7 billion of that—it’s $7 billion, right?—was tax-deductible, which means that all of us, American citizens, anybody who pays taxes, actually picked up the check for about $2.4 billion worth of the settlement. So we paid part of that settlement, which is crazy. I mean, the ordinary person, if we get a speeding ticket, we can’t deduct that when we go to pay our taxes. But these people cratered the world economy, and they get to write a tax deduction for it.

Four billion dollars of the settlement was what they call consumer relief. And what this really boils down to, I mean, there’s some loan forgiveness, where they’re allowing people to pay less principal towards their home loans, but mostly it comes down to letting people have a little extra time to pay off their payments. And it’s not always the bank that is actually doing that; it’s often the investors in those loans who are actually giving the relief. So, it’s not really the bank paying $4 billion. It’s just a number.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to President Obama speaking in September, when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he would resign.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He’s helped safeguard our markets from manipulation and consumers from financial fraud. Since 2009, the Justice Department has brought more than 60 cases against financial institutions and won some of the largest settlements in history for practices related to the financial crisis, recovering $85 billion, much of it returned to ordinary Americans who were badly hurt.
AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, your response?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I mean, the first thing I would say is, OK, they brought a bunch of settlements and they collected a bunch of money, but there isn’t a single individual, in this entire tableau, who is actually individually paying any kind of penalty for any of these misdeeds. All of that money came out of the pockets of shareholders. No executives had to pay a fine. No executives had to do a single day in jail. There were not even charges filed against any individuals. And—
AMY GOODMAN: What was the actual crime you feel Jamie Dimon committed that you feel he should be in jail for?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I can’t stand here and tell you that Jamie Dimon committed a crime. But certainly there are people in these companies, and in cases like Alayne’s case, who would be targets of criminal fraud prosecutions, and probably at a lower level than Jamie Dimon. I think it would be hard to prove, although who knows? Because they didn’t try. In a normal drug case, what you would do is you would take everybody who was guilty, and you would try to roll them up the chain and see how far you could go. And that’s exactly what they did not do in this case. They didn’t aggressively go after everybody. They didn’t follow every lead. Instead, they just sort of went into a back room, decided on a number and made the whole thing go away. And yes, that is a kind of justice, it’s a kind of resolution, but I think it’s insufficient.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In fact, as you note in your article, after the settlement agreement with JPMorgan Chase, the stock of the company went up dramatically, the stock price of the company went up dramatically, and Jamie Dimon ended up getting a huge raise from his board of directors.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, yeah, in the first weeks after the settlement was announced, the market capitalization of JPMorgan Chase went up 6 percent, which translated into about $12 billion worth of value. So that’s most of your settlement right there. Actually, it’s more than almost—more than the entire settlement, if you look at it as a $9 billion settlement. And yes, Jamie Dimon, just a few weeks after being dinged for the largest regulatory fine in the history of capitalism, got a 74 percent raise by the board of—by the Chase board.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to break. When we come back, we’ll hear Senator Elizabeth Warren asking questions of Jamie Dimon about that raise. Stay with us.

Juan González is the co-host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!.

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