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Lanny Breuer Deputizes Banks Rather than Prosecuting Them

Back when DOJ’s head of criminal prosecutions, Lanny Breuer, let HSBC off without indictments, I noted that he didn’t even mention HSBC’s significant ties to funding terrorists.

When it came to one of the world’s biggest banks, the Assistant Attorney General chose to simply ignore the threat DOJ’s been singularly dedicated to defeating since 9/11, terrorism.

But the Statement of Facts on the HSBC settlement wasn’t quite as reticent as Breuer himself. It said this about HSBC’s ties to terrorist financing:

In addition to the cooperative steps listed above, HSBC Bank USA has assisted the Government in investigations of certain individuals suspected of money laundering and terrorist financing.

That is, the court documents on the settlement talk about HSBC helping to investigate terrorist financing, rather than HSBC playing a key role in making up to a billion dollars available for terrorist financing. DOJ turned HSBC’s complicity in the central threat of our time into purported assistance pursuing it.

Poof! DOJ turned a criminal bank into a law enforcement partner, all through the secret exercise of so-called prosecutorial discretion.

Which is important background for the story about DOJ with which NPR’s Carrie Johnson has begun the year, describing how Lanny Breuer is asking banks–the same banks who crashed the economy with a bunch of criminal scams that have gone unpunished–to serve as “quasi cops.”

Every year, banks handle tens of millions of transactions. Some of them involve drug money, or deals with companies doing secret business with countries like Iran and Syria, in defiance of trade sanctions.

But if the Justice Department has its way, banks will be forced to change — to spot illegal transactions and blow the whistle before any money changes hands.

[snip]

But [former OCC head Eugene] Ludwig, who now consults for banks at the Promontory Financial Group [which makes huge money not finding crimes for the banks], says prosecutors and bank regulators can’t catch all the fraud, so they’re depending on the banks themselves to do a better job.

“Banks are not set up historically really to be kind of quasi law enforcement enterprises, which is really what the U.S. government’s asking of them,” he says.

Every time a financial institution makes a fix, criminals try to work around it. Ludwig calls it a cat-and-mouse game. “Fair or not, it’s what the government is demanding of our enterprises, and everybody has to face up to that reality, I think,” he says.

Ludwig may be publicly complaining. But his firm has already gotten consulting fees to hide the scale of Standard Chartered Bank’s fraud, and the government is about to give up on the badly-conflicted foreclosure abuse review for which Promontory consulted with Bank of American and Wells Fargo. It seems clear that Promontory will get rich whitewashing bank crimes so Lanny Breuer can pretend banks are cops, not robbers.

But that’s not the most lucrative scam here. After all, HSBC was able to reap billions because it served a key role in providing cash that went, in part, to terrorists. And yet it, unlike Muslim men, seems guaranteed under Lanny Breuer to wipe that slate clean by flipping on their former clients at a convenient time (and given that DOJ has taken no action against Al Rajhi bank, in only a limited fashion).

All this remains unstated. In fact, I guarantee you if it were ever asked, DOJ would refuse to divulge precisely what kind of quasi cop HSBC is playing, as it could under a law enforcement exception to FOIAs. Even Carl Levin’s otherwise meticulous report on HSBC was silent about what happened when Treasury’s former Under Secretary for Terrorist Finance went to HSBC.

But as part of the scam, it appears both a criminal bank and our buddies the Saudis have avoided any punishment for funding terrorism.

Which is how it works when the crooks get deputized rather than prosecuted.

 

 

Democratic and Republican Agreement: Prosecute HSBC

Apparently, Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald and Matt Stoller and Howie Klein and I aren’t the only hippies who believe HSBC should be treated like any other legal person who helped drug gangs and terrorists launder money.

Both Chuck Grassley and Jeff Merkley have written Eric Holder letters complaining about this treatment.

Here’s Grassley (who, as he notes elsewhere in the letter, is the Ranking Member on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has demanded a briefing):

I write today to express my continuing disappointment with the enforcement policies of the Department of Justice (Department). On December 12, 2012, the Department entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) with HSBC, a global bank that has now admitted to violating federal laws designed to prevent drug lords and terrorists from laundering money in the United States. While the Department has publicly congratulated itself for this settlement, the truth is that the Department has refused to prosecute any individual employees or the bank responsible for these crimes. This troubling lack of real enforcement will have consequences for the health of our economy and the safety and prosperity of the American people.

[snip]

In spite of this egregious criminal conduct, the DPA fails in finding the proper punishment for the bank or its employees.  Under its terms, the DPA obligates HSBC to pay $1.92 billion to the federal government, improve its internal AML controls, and submit to the oversight of an outside monitor for five years.   Despite the fact that this is a “record” settlement,  for a bank as gigantic as HSBC this is hardly even a slap on the wrist.  It only amounts to between 9 and 11% of HBSC’s profits last year alone,  and is a bare fraction of the sums left unmonitored.

[snip]

Even more concerning is the fact that the individuals responsible for these failures are not being held accountable.  The Department has not prosecuted a single employee of HSBC—no executives, no directors, no AML compliance staff members, no one.  By allowing these individuals to walk away without any real punishment, the Department is declaring that crime actually does pay.  Functionally, HSBC has quite literally purchased a get-out-of-jail-free card for its employees for the price of $1.92 billion dollars.

[snip]

Past settlements with large banks prove that they do nothing to change what appears to be a culture of noncompliance for some businesses.According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, jail time is served by over 96 percent of persons that plead or are found guilty of drug trafficking, 80 percent of those that plead or are found guilty of money laundering, and 63 percent of those caught in possession of drugs.[6]  As the deferred prosecution agreement appears now to be the corporate equivalent of acknowledging guilt, the best way for a guilty party to avoid jail time may be to ensure that the party is or is employed by a globally significant bank  In March 2010, the Department arranged a then-record $160 million deferred prosecution agreement with Wachovia based on its laundering of more than $110 million from Colombian and Mexican drug cartels.   Officials at the time stated that “blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations.”   In this case, a bank escaped with a record monetary settlement and a conspicuous absence of individuals behind bars.  If the story sounds eerily similar, that’s because it is.  It happened again with HSBC. [my emphasis]

And here’s Merkley (who is on the Senate Banking Committee):

I do not take a position on the merits of this or any other individual case, but I am deeply concerned that four years after the financial crisis, the Department appears to have firmly set the precedent that no bank, bank employee, or bank executive can be prosecuted even for serious criminal actions if that bank is a large, systemically important financial institution. This “too big to jail” approach to law enforcement, which deeply offends the public’s sense of justice, effectively vitiates the law as written by Congress. Had Congress wished to declare that violations of money laundering, terrorist financing, fraud, and a number of other illicit financial actions would only constitute civil violations, it could have done so. It did not.

[snip]

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, jail time is served by over 96 percent of persons that plead or are found guilty of drug trafficking, 80 percent of those that plead or are found guilty of money laundering, and 63 percent of those caught in possession of drugs.[6] As the deferred prosecution agreement appears now to be the corporate equivalent of acknowledging guilt, the best way for a guilty party to avoid jail time may be to ensure that the party is or is employed by a globally significant bank. [my emphasis]

Note, unlike Lanny Breuer, both Senators mention terrorism (though Merkley seems unaware how serious HSBC’s ties to Islamic terrorist financing are).

More importantly, they sound like the rest of us dirty hippies, making the audacious argument that banks ought to be subject to laws.

Lanny Breuer Covers Up Material Support for Terrorism

I noted last week how prosecutors were claiming they were being extra tough on HSBC for all its money laundering because of the seriousness of the charge they were going to defer: money laundering. Yesterday, with great fanfare, DOJ rolled out their deferred prosecution for money laundering, as if it were a good thing to ratchet up the charges you excuse.

But I was struck even more by how DOJ treated HSBC’s crimes they chose not to indict. Here’s how Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer described HSBC’s crimes:

HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight – and worse – that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars through HSBC subsidiaries, and to facilitate hundreds of millions more in transactions with sanctioned countries.

From 2006 to 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, the Norte del Valle Cartel in Colombia, and other drug traffickers laundered at least $881 million in illegal narcotics trafficking proceeds through HSBC Bank USA.  These traffickers didn’t have to try very hard.  They would sometimes deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows in HSBC Mexico’s branches.

In total, HSBC Bank USA failed to monitor over $670 billion in wire transfers from HSBC Mexico between 2006 and 2009, and failed to monitor over $9.4 billion in purchases of physical U.S. dollars from HSBC Mexico over that same period.

In addition to this egregious lack of oversight, from the mid-1990s through at least September 2006, HSBC knowingly allowed hundreds of millions of dollars to move through the U.S. financial system on behalf of banks located in countries subject to U.S. sanctions, including Cuba, Iran and Sudan.  On at least one occasion, HSBC instructed a bank in Iran on how to format payment messages so that the transactions would not be blocked or rejected by the United States.

That is, Breuer says HSBC 1) helped Mexican drug cartels launder money and 2) helped Cuban, Iranian, and Sudanese banks avoid US sanctions.

But that’s not all, according to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, that HSBC did. The four main sections of the PSI report on HSBC’s Bank Secrecy Act and money laundering violations pertain to:

  1. Money laundering for Mexican cartels
  2. Helping banks evade sanctions
  3. Processing masses of travelers checks from Hokoriku bank in Japan which had suspicious ties to Russian “businessmen”
  4. Maintaining correspondent accounts with banks that had ties to terrorism, most notably the Al Rajhi bank

One of the things, according to Carl Levin, that HSBC did was help banks involved in terrorist financing get US dollars (that section takes up 53 pages of a 340 page report). And yet, Breuer’s speech did not once mention the word terrorism. The US Attorney’s release used the word “terror” once, though not in conjunction with HSBC. And the Statement of Facts mentions terrorism in conjunction with a description of the laws HSBC violated and in this one paragraph.

In addition to the cooperative steps listed above, HSBC Bank USA has assisted the Government in investigations of certain individuals suspected of money laundering and terrorist financing.

In short, Lanny Breuer and his prosecutors did not mention that this bank they were letting off without prosecution provided a terrorist-connected bank with US dollars for years.

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The New Measure of DOJ Seriousness: The Charges It Defers

In an article on the upcoming HSBC settlement, Reuters seems impressed with the fine the bank may pay for the assistance it gave to drug gangs and terrorists and other crooks by  laundering their money: $1.8 billion. It goes on to talk about “how big a signal” DOJ wants to send with this settlement.

The emphasis, of course, should be on that word “settlement.” One that will likely result in a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, in which no one gets charged, not even for the egregious conduct HSBC engaged in.

Because ultimately, Reuters is measuring this big signal by the seriousness of the criminal charges DOJ doesn’t file.

In regulatory filings, HSBC has said it could face criminal charges. But similar U.S. investigations have culminated in deferred prosecution deals, where law-enforcement agencies delay or forgo prosecuting a company if it admits wrongdoing, pays a fine and agrees to clean up its compliance systems. If the company missteps again, the Justice Department could prosecute.

[snip]

The agreements “have become a mainstay of white collar criminal law enforcement,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in September during an appearance at the New York City Bar Association.

“I’ve heard people criticize them and I’ve heard people praise them. DPAs have had a truly transformative effect on particular companies and, more generally, on corporate culture across the globe.”

If U.S. prosecutors agree to a deferred agreement, they still could wield a powerful legal tool by accusing the bank of laundering money.

That would be a much more serious charge than if prosecutors, in a deferred agreement, charged HSBC with criminal violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, a law that requires banks to maintain programs that root out suspicious transactions.

[snip]

A charge of money laundering would be a rare move by the Justice Department and would send a signal to other big banks that the agency is intent on cracking down on dirty money moving through the U.S. financial system. [my emphasis]

No, seriously. A legitimate report just said that DOJ will send “a signal” based on ratcheting up the seriousness of the crimes it makes disappear with one of Lanny Breuer’s flaccid DPAs. It will send “a signal” with the seriousness of the charges it will effectively excuse.

Heck. If we’re not going to really charge these banksters, why not add on murder or drug trafficking or terrorism charges, or any of the other crimes they abetted? That would really send “a signal” now, wouldn’t it, deferring even more serious charges that real people would do hard time for?

The Senate has already accused HSBC of money laundering. But mere accusations–even with promises to do better–do nothing.

No matter how serious a charge those accusations involve excusing.

Lanny Breuer Admits That Economists Have Convinced Him Not to Indict Corporations

I’ve become increasingly convinced that DOJ’s head of Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer is the rotting cancer at the heart of a thoroughly discredited DOJ. Which is why I’m not surprised to see this speech he gave at the NYC Bar Association selling the “benefits” of Deferred Prosecution Agreements.  (h/t Main Justice) He spends a lot of his speech claiming DPAs result in accountability.

And, over the last decade, DPAs have become a mainstay of white collar criminal law enforcement.

The result has been, unequivocally, far greater accountability for corporate wrongdoing – and a sea change in corporate compliance efforts. Companies now know that avoiding the disaster scenario of an indictment does not mean an escape from accountability. They know that they will be answerable even for conduct that in years past would have resulted in a declination. Companies also realize that if they want to avoid pleading guilty, or to convince us to forego bringing a case altogether, they must prove to us that they are serious about compliance. Our prosecutors are sophisticated. They know the difference between a real compliance program and a make-believe one. They know the difference between actual cooperation with a government investigation and make-believe cooperation. And they know the difference between a rogue employee and a rotten corporation.

[snip]

One of the reasons why deferred prosecution agreements are such a powerful tool is that, in many ways, a DPA has the same punitive, deterrent, and rehabilitative effect as a guilty plea:  when a company enters into a DPA with the government, or an NPA for that matter, it almost always must acknowledge wrongdoing, agree to cooperate with the government’s investigation, pay a fine, agree to improve its compliance program, and agree to face prosecution if it fails to satisfy the terms of the agreement.  All of these components of DPAs are critical for accountability.

But the real tell is when he confesses that he “sometimes–though … not always” let corporations off because a CEO or an economist scared him with threats of global markets failing if he held a corporation accountable by indicting it.

To be clear, the decision of whether to indict a corporation, defer prosecution, or decline altogether is not one that I, or anyone in the Criminal Division, take lightly.  We are frequently on the receiving end of presentations from defense counsel, CEOs, and economists who argue that the collateral consequences of an indictment would be devastating for their client.  In my conference room, over the years, I have heard sober predictions that a company or bank might fail if we indict, that innocent employees could lose their jobs, that entire industries may be affected, and even that global markets will feel the effectsSometimes – though, let me stress, not always – these presentations are compelling. [my emphasis]

None of this is surprising, of course. It has long been clear that Breuer’s Criminal Division often bows to the scare tactics of Breuer’s once and future client base. (In his speech, he boasts about how well DPAs and NPAs have worked with Morgan Stanley and Barclays, respectively.)

It’s just so embarrassing that he went out in public and made this pathetic attempt to claim it all amounts to accountability.

Anonymous DOJ Statement: “Trust Us”

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing today to review the results of the Schuelke report on the prosecutorial misconduct in the Ted Stevens case and to entertain the Lisa Murkowski bill requiring disclosure. In response, DOJ submitted a statement for the record, opposing any legislation enforcing its discovery obligations.

When concerns were first raised about the handling of the prosecution of Senator Stevens, the Department immediately conducted an internal review. The Attorney General recognized the importance of ensuring trust and confidence in the work of Department prosecutors and took the extraordinary step of moving to dismiss the case when errors were discovered. Moreover, toensure that the mistakes in the Stevens case would not be repeated, the Attorney General convened a working group to review discovery practices and charged the group with developing recommendations for improving such practices so that errors are minimized. As a result of the working group’s efforts, the Department has taken unprecedented steps, described more fully below, to ensure that prosecutors, agents, and paralegals have the necessary training and resources to fulfill their legal and ethical obligations with respect to discovery in criminal cases. These reforms include a sweeping training curriculum for all federal prosecutors and the requirement–for the first time in the history of the Department of Justice–that every federal prosecutor receive refresher discovery training each year.

In light of these internal reforms, the Department does not believe that legislation is needed to address the problems that came to light in the Stevens prosecution. Such a legislative proposal would upset the careful balance of interests at stake in criminal cases, cause significant harm to victims, witnesses, and law enforcement efforts, and generate substantial and unnecessary litigation that would divert scarce judicial and prosecutorial resources.

In short, DOJ is saying, “trust us. We don’t need a law requiring us to do what case law says we need to.”

Right off the bat, I can think of 5 major problem with this statement:

No one has been held accountable

We are three years past the time when Stevens’ case was thrown out. Yet none of the prosecutors involved have been disciplined in any meaningful way.

No doubt DOJ would say that it will hold prosecutors responsible if and when the Office of Professional Responsibility finds they committed misconduct. But in the interim three years, DOJ as a whole has sent clear messages that it prefers protecting its case to doing anything about misconduct. And–as Chuck Grassley rightly pointed out at the hearing–thus far no one has been held responsible.

This statement may claim DOJ is serious about prosecutorial misconduct. But its actions (and inaction) says the opposite.

Even after this training, discovery problems remain

As the DOJ statement lays out, in response to the Stevens debacle, DOJ rolled out annual training programs for prosecutors to remind them of their discovery obligations.

And yet, last year, Leonie Brinkema found that prosecutors in the Jeff Sterling case had failed to turn over critical evidence about prosecution witnesses–one of the problems with the Stevens prosecution. The prosecutor involved? William Welch, whom Schuelke accused of abdicating his leadership role in the Stevens case (note, DOJ says the CIA is at fault for the late discovery; but Welch is, after all, the prosecutor who bears responsibility for it).

If William Welch can’t even get discovery right after his involvement in this case and, presumably, undergoing the training DOJ promises will fix the problem, then training is not enough to fix the problem.

Eric Holder won’t run DOJ forever

The statement focuses on Holder’s quick decision to dismiss the case against Stevens, as if that, by itself, guards against any similar problems in the future. But before Holder was AG, Michael Mukasey was–and Judge Emmet Sullivan grew so exasperated with Mukasey’s stonewalling on this case, he ordered him to personally respond to questions about the case.

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Lanny Breuer’s Theory of Chatting Accountability for CEOs

This whole video is worth watching. Eliot Spitzer, former US Attorney Mary Jo White, and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer discuss financial crimes, with SIGTARP head Neil Barofsky moderating. I was fairly troubled, in general, of the hesitations White and Breuer expressed over actually prosecuting financial crime.

But I found the passage just after 46:00, where Lanny Breuer argues you don’t need prosecutions for deterrence among CEOs, to be stunning.

Look, I want to be clear, I don’t want to suggest for a moment that we don’t–and we will–aggressively pursue cases criminally but, I guess both as a defense lawyer, which I was for many years, a white collar defense lawyer and now as AAG, I don’t think we should completely discount the deterrent effect when we investigate cases even if we don’t bring them.

If a CEO or CFO of a major institution feels that he or she is subject to criminal liability, when we interview them or put them in the grand jury, they have lawyers and this is hanging over their head for years and years. It may be at the end we decide not to prosecute the company or the individual but I think it’s really inaccurate to suggest that that doesn’t have a very strong effect. I’m not sure CEOs on Wall Street right now feel as if they can do what they want and there’s no deterrence.

He returns to a discussion of “going in and out” between corporate representation and DOJ after 52:00 and he avoids talking about robo-signing at 1:00.

As you read that, think about what has happened with Lloyd Blankfein. He bullshitted Carl Levin’s investigatory committee back in April 2010. Levin released a report last year stating he had lied, and referred his investigation to DOJ.

And Lloyd Blankfein, who almost two years ago didn’t take Congress sufficiently seriously to tell the truth, is still running around free profiting off of European countries’ debts.

Does Breuer really think seeing Blankfein treat Congress and regulators with utter disdain served as a deterrent to anyone? On the contrary, what appears to have been Lanny’s Chatting Accountability for CEOs only serves to show that these MOTUs are above the law.

William Welch Probably NOT One of the Attorneys Who Engaged in Gross Prosecutorial Misconduct in Stevens Case

As Ryan Reilly reported, Judge Emmet Sullivan is moving forward with his plan to release the scathing report on the Ted Stevens prosecution showing the prosecution was “permeated by the systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence.”

Back when descriptions of this report first surfaced, I asked, “Why Is William Welch, Whose Team Is Accused of Intentional Prosecutorial Misconduct, Still at DOJ?

Given Sullivan’s latest order, I think the answer must be that Welch is not one of the four DOJ lawyers most badly implicated in the report. That’s because DOJ, which after all still employs Welch to prosecute whistleblowers, had no objection to the report being released on March 15.

The Department of Justice’s Notice advised the Court that it “does not intend to file a motion regarding Mr. Schuelke’s report” and that “[t]he government does not contend that there is any legal prohibition on the disclosure of any references in Mr. Schuelke’s report to grand jury material, court authorized interceptions of wire communications, or any sealed pleadings or transcripts that have now been unsealed.” Notice of Dep’t of Justice Regarding Materials Referenced in Mr. Schuelke’s Report, at 1-2 (“DOJ Notice”). In addition, the Department of Justice informed the Court that it was not asserting any deliberative process or attorney-work product privilege with respect to the information contained in Mr. Schuelke’s Report.

Criminal Division head Lanny Breuer has already proven himself more than willing to hide the misconduct of his prosecutors; I have no doubt he’d do so here if it badly implicated any of his current attorneys.

So I’m guessing–though that is a guess–that Welch is not one of the four fighting to prevent this release.

DOJ Charges Former CIA Officer for Exposing CIA’s Torture

It would be too simple to say that Jon Kiriakou was a whistle-blower. His initial leaks to journalists seemed like sanctioned leaks to minimize the effect torture had.

But whatever role he played, DOJ just charged him for leaking information–almost certainly about the Abu Zubaydah torture–to journalists.

A former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, was charged today with repeatedly disclosing classified information to journalists, including the name of a covert CIA officer and information revealing the role of another CIA employee in classified activities, Justice Department officials announced.

The charges result from an investigation that was triggered by a classified defense filing in January 2009, which contained classified information the defense had not been given through official government channels, and, in part, by the discovery in the spring of 2009 of photographs of certain government employees and contractors in the materials of high-value detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The investigation revealed that on multiple occasions, one of the journalists to whom Kiriakou is alleged to have illegally disclosed classified information, in turn, disclosed that information to a defense team investigator, and that this information was reflected in the classified defense filing and enabled the defense team to take or obtain surveillance photographs of government personnel. There are no allegations of criminal activity by any members of the defense team for the detainees.

I’ll have more shortly. But one thing to remember is that Lanny Breuer represented Kiriakou in the two years leading up to 2009. And Patrick Fitzgerald is the prosecutor on this case.

Update: Here’s the NYT story cited in the press release. It’s a Scott Shane article on Deuce Martinez.

Update: Here’s one detail Kiriakou is alleged to have leaked (the quote is from the Shane story).

Armed with Abu Zubaydah’s cellphone number, eavesdropping specialists deployed what some called the “magic box,” an electronic scanner that could track any switched-on mobile phone and give its approximate location. But Abu Zubaydah was careful about security: he turned his phone on only briefly to collect messages, not long enough for his trackers to get a fix on his whereabouts. [my emphasis]

First of all, this information was readily available–they will have an interesting time proving this was classified. But I find it particularly ironic given the Jones decision that came down today.

Update: I’ve corrected the title and text to indicate that Kiriakou was charged, but not yet indicted.

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.