UBS

Sherrod Brown and Chuck Grassley Watch Frontline, Too

Citing this line from Lanny Breuer in last week’s Frontline program,

I think I and prosecutors around the country, being responsible, should speak to regulators, should speak to experts, because if I bring a case against institution, and as a result of bringing that case, there’s some huge economic effect — if it creates a ripple effect so that suddenly, counterparties and other financial institutions or other companies that had nothing to do with this are affected badly — it’s a factor we need to know and understand.

Sherrod Brown and Chuck Grassley have sent a list of questions they want Eric Holder to answer by February 8.

The questions are:

  1. Has the Justice Department designated certain institutions whose failure could jeopardize the stability of the financial markets and are thus, “too big to jail”?  If so, please name them.
  2. Has the Justice Department ever failed to bring a prosecution against an institution due to concern that their failure could jeopardize financial markets?
  3. Are there any entities the Justice Department has entered into settlements with, in which the amount of the settlement reflected a concern that markets could be impacted by such a settlement?  If so, for which entities?
  4. Please provide the names of all outside experts consulted by the Justice Department in making prosecutorial decisions regarding financial institutions with over $1 billion in assets.
  5. Please provide any compensation contracts for these individuals.
  6. How did DOJ ensure that these experts provided unconflicted and unbiased advice to DOJ?

I’m interested in their focus on contractors. Has someone like Promontory Financial Group been making these decisions too?

In any case I await Holder’s non-responsive answer with bated breath.

Bittersweet Justice for Bradley Birkenfeld

Today, the IRS awarded whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld $104 million to reward him for having exposed UBS’ methods of helping US tax cheats hide their loot, tax free, in Switzerland.

It’s a bittersweet award, I’m sure. As Birkenfeld’s lawyer, Stephen Kohn, reminded at the ceremony, Birkenfeld was imprisoned by the Obama Administration for fraud in spite of what now is clear confirmation he acted as a whistleblower; he got out early on August 1 from his 40 month sentence.

The IRS reward will help undo the tremendous damage caused by the ill-conceived decision of the U.S. Department of Justice to ignore the whistleblower laws and prosecute Mr. Birkenfeld. Mr. Birkenfeld was the only UBS banker to blow the whistle and the only UBS banker to be prosecuted. By doing so the DOJ sent the wrong message to international bankers. They caused a chilling effect on the willingness of employees in the international banking industry with direct knowledge of illegal offshore banking practices to step forward to report these crimes.

The National Whistleblower Center carefully investigated the basis upon which the DOJ justified its prosecution. The DOJ did not tell the truth about Mr. Birkenfeld. At his sentencing hearing, the DOJ justified its decision to indict Mr. Birkenfeld based on its position that Mr. Birkenfeld had failed to inform the government about the illegal activities of his largest client, billionaire Igor Olenicoff.

But this charge against Mr. Birkenfeld was false and defamatory. The NWC carefully reviewed court records concerning the Olenicoff case, internal emails regarding Mr. Birkenfeld’s disclosures, and a confidential transcript of sworn testimony Mr. Birkenfeld provided to the U.S. Senate in 2007 about the illegal activities of Mr. Olenicoff. These materials absolutely verify that Mr. Birkenfeld did in fact blow the whistle on Mr. Olenicoff, and that the charges made by the DOJ were false. The NWC finds it very troubling that the prosecutor who leveled these charges in court against Mr. Birkenfeld has left his government job and taken a position with a major law firm that defends tax cheats. The DOJ also granted immunity to the top-ranking official at UBS who was responsible for the UBS tax frauds and permitted this official, Martin Liechti, to leave the United States and obtain safe-haven in Switzerland where, to this day, he has escaped justice. Mr. Liechti invoked the 5th amendment in testimony before the U.S. Senate.

There’s even a WikiLeaks cable suggesting we prosecuted Birkenfeld as a favor to the Swiss.

And it’s not just Birkenfeld who has gotten limited justice out of this–though obviously he is by far the worst off. While the IRS got over $5 billion in owed taxes as a result of his whistleblowing, no one else went to prison, not even the several individuals about whom specifically Birkenfeld blew the whistle. And a bunch of rich people–potentially including a Presidential candidate–enjoyed an amnesty that didn’t even require them to admit they had been cheating their country.

In short, like so much else with the Obama Administration, it’s an example where the real criminals go free while the whistleblowers get prosecuted.

Big US Banks Have Gained Market Share in the Looter Assistance Business

As I noted earlier, the Tax Justice Network just released a study showing that there is somewhere between $21 and 32$ Trillion that tax cheats have hidden in tax havens. Really obscenely rich people like Mitt Romney make up for $9.8 trillion of that–or about 18% of the total liquid net worth in the world, hidden away in tax havens.

But there are two other tables from the study that bear notice. The study suggests that the money stashed in tax havens has been growing steadily at a rate of 16% a year.

Our analysis finds that at the end of 2010 the Top 50 private banks alone collectively managed more than $12.1 trillion in cross-­‐border invested assets for private clients, including their trusts and foundations. This is up from $5.4 trillion in 2005, representing an average annual growth rate of more than 16%.

But that’s sort of misleading. As the table above makes clear, the amount in tax havens grew by 67% between 2002 and 2004, then grew by 40% in the following two years, then by another 23% in the last year of the bubble. Then it crashed, basically losing that 23% and plateauing for a year. And then it started growing again, 18% between 2009 and 2010. And who knows how much in the last year?

The banksters paid a price for 2 years, but the looting has begun again.

What I find particularly interesting–though I’m not sure what to make of it–is the changing share of looter service the big banks are doing. While UBS’ tax shelter dollars continued to grow, they lost market share among tax cheats. Meanwhile Goldman Sachs’ tax shelter dollars almost quadrupled in that time. Bank of America and Wells Fargo made big gains too (though Morgan Stanley’s tax cheat business shrank and JP Morgan’s was somewhat flat.

Like I said, I don’t know what to make of it. But it sure seems like since the crash at least some of the banks have decided to recover by catering to tax cheats.

Lovely. Some of the same banks that are still in business because tax payers bailed them out are increasingly some of the biggest players in facilitating the looting of our own–and every other–country.

Update: This Title was changed.

Wells Fargo, Freddie, Bank of America, and UBS at DOJ

As a number of people have noted, Reuters has an important story on a potential conflict of interest at DOJ: Covington and Burling, where Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer worked before coming to DOJ in 2009, wrote key memos leading to the creation and title transfer abuses of MERS.

A particular concern by those pressing for an investigation is Covington’s involvement with Virginia-based MERS Corp, which runs a vast computerized registry of mortgages. Little known before the mortgage crisis hit, MERS, which stands for Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, has been at the center of complaints about false or erroneous mortgage documents.

Court records show that Covington, in the late 1990s, provided legal opinion letters needed to create MERS on behalf of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and several other large banks. It was meant to speed up registration and transfers of mortgages. By 2010, MERS claimed to own about half of all mortgages in the U.S. — roughly 60 million loans.

But evidence in numerous state and federal court cases around the country has shown that MERS authorized thousands of bank employees to sign their names as MERS officials. The banks allegedly drew up fake mortgage assignments, making it appear falsely that they had standing to file foreclosures, and then had their own employees sign the documents as MERS “vice presidents” or “assistant secretaries.”

Covington in 2004 also wrote a crucial opinion letter commissioned by MERS, providing legal justification for its electronic registry. MERS spokeswoman Karmela Lejarde declined to comment on Covington legal work done for MERS.

In the two years before they joined the Administration, Holder did over $5,000 of legal work for Bank of America and UBS. Breuer did over $5,000 of legal work for Freddie Mac and Wells Fargo.

That of course doesn’t reveal whether they were involved in the key 2004 letter–but it shows they did some kind of work for the most corrupt banks during the financial crash.

But Cynthia Kouril explains why the normal 2-year disclosure rules on this issue aren’t enough.

If DOJ were to bring criminal charges against the big banks for all the mortgage fraud, it would be really tough to do so without attacking MERS and the status of the alleged transfers made within MERS. A conclusive finding that MERS is and always was the dumbest idea on earth and that any L1 law student should have been able to see that, will destroy the law firm.

Even if Holder and Breuer are not planning to return to Covington after their stint in public service, their pensions are presumable tied to the viability of the firm.

That is, whoever signed off on the legal justification for MERS is a shitty lawyer. And for DOJ to go after the banks, a key part of that argument would require arguing that their former firm is a shitty lawyer. They may have big reasons not to want to do that.

Update: Recall that during the fight over Cheney’s interview report, Breuer did not disclose that he had helped Jon Kiriakou avoid testifying about who ordered him to investigate the Joe Wilson trip at the CIA. While temporally, he complied with his ethical guidelines, it was still the kind of thing he should have disclosed.

Cheney/Obama Justice: 3 Detainees + 1 Jailed Whistleblower = 19,000 Rich Tax Cheats

As a July 1, 2009 Wikileak cable released by Norway’s Aftenposten makes clear, the US and Switzerland included the acceptance of three Gitmo detainees and a settlement in a suit accusing UBS of harboring tax cheats–along with an effort to shut down a Swedish company’s business with Iran–in negotiations “resolving all issues between our countries.”

1. (S) Summary: Swiss Minister for Economics and Trade Doris Leuthard called CDA in to advise that the Swiss Federal Councilors had decided in a special session to shut down Swedish firm Colencos commercial activities in Iran. The Minister also reaffirmed the commitment of the Swiss government to accept several detainees from Guantanamo Bay for resettlement in Switzerland. Minister Leuthard made it clear that these two activities were linked to the achievement of a political settlement in the case of Swiss banking giant, UBS. The US court is scheduled to hear arguments in the civil case on July 13 and it is clear that the GOS hopes a settlement can be reached before the hearing date. End Summary.

2. (S) Minister Leuthard began the meeting by describing todays special session of the Federal Council which was focused on what steps the Swiss government could take to advance a political solution of the UBS case. The Council considered action on the Colenco case, long advocated by the USG and a major topic during the February meeting between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Calmy Rey, was one proactive measure the Swiss government could take in this direction.

[snip]

4. (S) Leuthard then turned the topic of discussion to Swiss willingness to accept several detainees from Guatanamo for resettlement and encouraged us to provide as much data as possible quickly so that the Swiss could move forward. CDA advised that more bio and medical data had been received today and was being delivered via a separate channel.

5. (S) At this point, Leuthard emphasized that these two actions were “elements showing that Switzerland is committed to resolving all issues between our countries.” To bring home the point, she reiterated that this resolve extended especially to finding a political solution to the UBS case. [my emphasis]

One of the recipients of the cable was Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bruce Swartz.

Mind you, the Swiss minister in question has denied there’s a “direct link.” So maybe not a direct quid pro quo–just Switzerland “indirectly” doing us two big favors in exchange for our DOJ limiting how many of the rich tax cheats we pursue in Switzerland. But the favors may go both ways: among those reportedly involved in the UBS scandal were American politicians.

It’s bad enough that we traded 3 detainees (two were some of the Uighurs not even the US government claims had anything to do with terrorism, so we should have been able to settle them in the US) for a deal that ended up shielding most of the tax cheats first targeted in the UBS probe.

But not long after the negotiations, we sentenced the whistleblower in the case, Bradley Birkenfeld, to 40 months in prison.I’m still wandering through the docket, but there’s a bunch of sealed documents in it starting the month before this Wikileak cable and continuing up to the point where the judge gave Birkenfeld more time in prison than prosecutors requested.

Birkenfeld’s imprisonment is considered one of the most egregious examples of the government prosecuting whistleblowers rather than the criminals they expose. Perhaps there’s more to Birkenfeld’s troubling imprisonment than it first appeared?

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @PatrickCToomey @csoghoian @WSJ @dannyyadron Jeebus, the All Writs Act?? Owsley is right though, notable that magistrate issued opinion.
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bmaz @arcsine @mirriam71 @LisaBloom From another prosecution? No.
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bmaz I love that Richard Sherman is sitting there eating Madden turkey on Harbaugh's logo. Couldn't happen to a bigger turkey than Harbaugh.
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bmaz @arcsine @mirriam71 @LisaBloom Since he voluntarily appeared, yes. Even if he later refused, his GJ testimony likely admissible against him.
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bmaz RT @LisaBloom: Wilson at station right after shooting says he told cops he'd been punched in the face. Their response: "where?" Bc they cdn…
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bmaz .@mirriam71 @LisaBloom No, and neither Wilson nor any other defendant owes that. But Bob McCulloch sure does. He and Nixon owe many answers.
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emptywheel RT @EFF: We're thankful to Senator @MarkUdall, for years of defending digital rights on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. We'll …
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emptywheel Confession: reading abt struggles of shitty airports makes me thankful. http://t.co/4quSITgumg Next up? All NYC airports!
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emptywheel @NC_Prime Brady and I pretty much coincided (if that can happen w/backup) tho only year I got tx was 99. @attackerman
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emptywheel @attackerman It's okay. I come from an extended family of 5 PSU grads and 1 PSU prof, but do okay.
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emptywheel @attackerman Is he a UM guy?
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