How America’s biggest banks took part in a nationwide bid-rigging conspiracy – until they were caught on tape
June 21, 2012
By Matt Taibbi
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.
Once opening statements began, it was easy to see why the press might stay away. One of the main lines of defense for corrupt Wall Street institutions in recent years has been the extreme complexity of the infrastructure within which these crimes are committed. In order for prosecutors to win convictions, they have to drag ordinary Americans, people who watch and enjoy reality TV, up the steepest of learning curves, coaching them into game shape with regard to obscure financial vehicles like swaps and CDOs and, in this case, Guaranteed Investment Contracts.
So it was no surprise that both the prosecution and the defense began their opening remarks to the jury by apologizing for the hellishly dull maze of “convoluted” and “boring” and “tedious” financial transactions they were about to spend weeks hearing about. Only Wendy Waszmer, the feisty federal prosecutor with straight brown hair and an elfin build who presented the government’s case, succeeded in cutting through the mountainous dung heap of acronyms and obfuscations and explaining what the case was about. “Even though some aspects of municipal bond finance are complex, the fraud here was simple,” she told the jurors. “It was about lying and cheating cities and towns in a bidding process that was in place to protect them.”
The “simple fraud” Waszmer described centered around public borrowing. Say your town wants to build a new elementary school. So it goes to Wall Street, which issues a bond in your town’s name to raise $100 million, attracting cash from investors all over the globe. Once Wall Street raises all that money, it dumps it in a tax-exempt account, which your town then uses to pay builders, plumbers, the chalkboard company and whoever else winds up working on the project.
But here’s the catch: Most towns, when they raise all that money, don’t spend it all at once. Often it takes years to complete a construction project, and the last contractor isn’t paid until long after the original bond is issued. While that unspent money is sitting in the town’s account, local officials go looking for a financial company on Wall Street to invest it for them.
To do that, officials hire a middleman firm known as a broker to set up a public auction and invite banks to compete for the town’s business. For the $100 million you borrowed on your elementary school bond, Bank A might offer you 5 percent interest. Bank B goes further and offers 5.25 percent. But Bank C, the winner of the auction, offers 5.5 percent.
In most cases, towns and cities, called issuers, are legally required to submit their bonds to a competitive auction of at least three banks, called providers. The scam Wall Street cooked up to beat this fair-market system was to devise phony auctions. Instead of submitting competitive bids and letting the highest rate win, providers like Chase, Bank of America and GE secretly divvied up the business of all the different cities and towns that came to Wall Street to borrow money. One company would be allowed to “win” the bid on an elementary school, the second would be handed a hospital, the third a hockey rink, and so on.
How did they rig the auctions? Simple: By bribing the auctioneers, those middlemen brokers hired to ensure the town got the best possible interest rate the market could offer. Instead of holding honest auctions in which none of the parties knew the size of one another’s bids, the broker would tell the prearranged “winner” what the other two bids were, allowing the bank to lower its offer and come in with an interest rate just high enough to “beat” its supposed competitors. This simple but effective cheat – telling the winner what its rivals had bid – was called giving them a “last look.” The winning bank would then reward the broker by providing it with kickbacks disguised as “fees” for swap deals that the brokers weren’t even involved in.
The end result of this (at least) decade-long conspiracy was that towns and cities systematically lost, while banks and brokers won big. By shaving tiny fractions of a percent off their winning bids, the banks pocketed fantastic sums over the life of these multimillion-dollar bond deals. Lowering a bid by just one-100th of a percent, called a basis point, could cheat a town out of tens of thousands of dollars it would otherwise have earned on its bond deposits.
That doesn’t sound like much. But when added to the other fractions of a percent stolen from basically every other town in America on every other bond issued by Wall Street in the past 10 to 15 years, it starts to turn into an enormous sum of money. In short, this was like the scam in Office Space, multiplied by a factor of about 10 gazillion: Banks stole pennies at a time from towns all over America, only they did it a few hundred bazillion times.
Given the complexities of bond investments, it’s impossible to know exactly how much the total take was. But consider this: Four banks that took part in the scam (UBS, Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo) paid $673 million in restitution after agreeing to cooperate in the government’s case. (Bank of America even entered the SEC’s leniency program, which is tantamount to admitting that it committed felonies.) Since that settlement involves only four of the firms implicated in the scam (a list that includes Goldman, Transamerica and AIG, as well as banks in Scotland, France, Germany and the Netherlands), and since settlements in Wall Street cases tend to represent only a tiny fraction of the actual damages (Chase paid just $75 million for its role in the bribe-and-payola scandal that saddled Jefferson County, Alabama, with more than $3 billion in sewer debt), it’s safe to assume that Wall Street skimmed untold billions in the bid-rigging scam. The UBS settlement alone, for instance, involved 100 different bond deals, worth a total of $16 billion, over four years.
Contracting corruption has been around since the construction of the Appian Way. The difference here is the almost unimaginable scope of the crime – and the fact that it’s mobsters from Wall Street who are getting in on the action. Until recently, such activity has traditionally been the almostexclusive domain of the Mafia. “When I think of bid rigging, I think of the convergence of organized crime and the government,” says Eliot Spitzer, who prosecuted two bid-rigging cases in his career as a New York prosecutor, one involving garbage collection, the other a Garment District case involving the Gambino family. The Mafia moved into bid rigging, he says, because it observed over time that monopolizing public contracts offers a far more lucrative business model than legbreaking. “Organized crime learned their lessons from John D. Rockefeller,” Spitzer explains. “It’s much more efficient to control a market and boost the price 10 percent than it is to run a loan-sharking business on the street, where you actually have to use a baseball bat and collect every week.”
What Spitzer saw was gangsters moving in the direction of big business. When I ask him if he is surprised by the current bid-rigging case, which looks more like big business moving in the direction of gangsters, he laughs. “The urge to become a monopolist,” he says, “is as old as capitalism.”
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