Laramie Movie Scope: Abacus:
Small Enough to Jail
Documentary of lone bank indicted in 2008 financial crisis
by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
(2016, PBS Frontline) The only financial institution criminally indicted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis was the family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York City's Chinatown. The founder and chairman, Thomas Sung, with his daughters Jill, president and CEO, and Vera, director, were accused of mortgage fraud by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
A five-year legal fight ensued, costing the Sungs $10 million to defend themselves, their business, and their community from prejudicial charges. Unlike the major financial institutions - JPMorgan, Citibank, Wells Fargo, and the other enormous offenders "too big to fail" - guilty of mortgage fraud and toxic loans, that were fined but not indicted criminally, Abacus was "easy prey," a target to get a conviction.
Director Steve James compares Thomas Sung, a Chinese immigrant born in Shanghai in 1935, who after coming to the US at sixteen and becoming a prominent attorney in Chinatown realized the need for a local bank willing to serve Chinese customers, with George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Similar to Jimmy Stewart's character, following an embezzlement of $1 million from Abacus in 2003, Thomas as a trusted figure in the community calmed a run on the bank by panicked customers.
When Ken Yu, a loan officer at the bank, was found out to have been stealing and laundering money and lying, the Sungs fired him and reported the fraud to the authorities. However, a victimized borrower who lost money from a transaction with Yu complained to the police.
Assuming that the widespread corruption uncovered in the loan department must ultimately be the responsibility of the bank's executives, the DA's office made an unusual decision of arresting 19 employees, cuffing and chaining them together for a perp parade of humiliation. Chanterelle Sung, an assistant DA in Vance's office, refers to this as an act of "incompetence combined with arrogance" when quitting her job.
Tough and courageous, the Sungs wanted their day in court to protect the family's legacy, to prove they'd been wrongly accused, not realizing how many days there would be in a "daunting task" of battling the government's case against them. Ken Yu becomes the prosecution's star witness, perjuring himself on the witness stand.
The case came down to 30 loans Abacus sold to Fannie Mae in which either loan officers or borrowers (or both) falsified documents for loans, even though Abacus had one of the lowest default rates in the country - just nine out of 3,000 loans - from 2005 to 2010. A letter from Fannie Mae, the underwriter of the loans, acknowledged with approval to Jill "your culturally unique clientele."
Neil Barofsky, senior research fellow at NYU School of Law, in questioning Vance's decision to deploy resources against Abacus (comparable to going after jaywalkers when actual crimes of robbery were taking place): "Who got hurt?" In the final days of the trial in May 2015, the family confer over whether or not Jill should take the stand in defense. The jury, repeatedly deadlocked, had ten days to achieve a verdict or have a mistrial declared.
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Copyright © 2018 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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