The only financial institution indicted on criminal charges following the 2008 economic meltdown was a family-owned bank with six branches based in New York’s Chinatown and assets of under $300 million.
It was the 2,651st largest bank in the country.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the latest documentary from award-winning filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself), is the story of how the Abacus Federal Savings Bank and a number of its former employees were hit with a 240-count indictment alleging grand larceny, fraud, conspiracy, falsifying business records, and residential mortgage fraud.
The film, which opens May 19 in New York followed by a national rollout, tells a tale of cultural misunderstanding compounded by possible racism and prosecutorial overreach. It’s the ultimate David vs. Goliath story, pitting the Sung family, owners of the bank, against the power of the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
The case was “about this community, comprised of Chinese immigrants, and a lack of willingness to understand the community,” says Jiayang Fan, who wrote about Abacus for The New Yorker.
“[The Manhattan DA] took a heavy-handed approach from the beginning, and refused to change their opinion.”
District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and his office “saw this as a major PR move kind of case,” says filmmaker James. “In his indictment he talks about how this is the first bank to be indicted, and he links it to the mortgage crisis, which is ridiculous, because Abacus refused to get into all the credit default swaps that were going on.”
Abacus’ troubles began in 2009, when a loan officer with the bank was accused of stealing money from a mortgage closing. He was fired, as were two other crooked loan officers the bank discovered. The district attorney’s office soon became involved, and in 2012 brought charges against the bank and 19 former employees, alleging they had inflated the income of mortgage applicants and falsified documents in order to obtain mortgages through the Federal National Mortgage Association, otherwise known as Fannie Mae.
Several of the defendants pled guilty, and agreed to testify for the prosecution. The only deal the DA offered the Sung family was to plead guilty to a felony and pay a large fine, which would have effectively meant the end of Abacus. The Sungs refused and went to trial.
“I knew this was not how they normally go about things, this was not how cases were supposed to go,” says Chanterelle Sung, a lawyer who at one time worked for the same DA’s office which indicted her family. Sung alleges that the DA told the family of the indictment “literally one day before the indictment and the arraignment,” which meant the Sungs had no time to offer any kind of response.
“I realized this was political, this was going to be a show,” she says. “[The DA] was going to be the first prosecutor to indict a bank. He wanted to have the first word out to the media, that’s why I felt they didn’t give us advance notice.”
Sung is not engaging in hyperbole when she talks about “a show.” The most gasp-inducing sequence in James’ film is the “perp walk” of those indicted, with former Abacus employees marched through the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in front of the New York media. The perp walk is a common practice in New York criminal justice circles, but the sight of over a dozen Asian men handcuffed and chained together seemed a deliberate attempt to humiliate them in the most hurtful, and in some eyes most racist, way.
“I felt very powerless,” says Sung. “As much as I had worked in that office, I felt there was nothing I could do to stop this from happening. And I thought ‘this is how far they are taking things.’ They were willing to take things to the extreme.”
“There are certainly plenty of people who felt there was a racist aspect” to the perp walk, says James. “Racism like that is rarely intentionally meant, that someone in that position would set out in an overly racist way to treat these people the way they were treated. But it’s hard to look at that and not see the profound insensitivity.”
Whether or not racism was involved in the Abacus case, it is obvious that a certain amount of cultural insensitivity and misunderstanding definitely was. The bank’s customers, many of them recent immigrants, came from a repressive society where financial dealings were based on trust, not paperwork, cash was favored over credit, and there was a blurry line between a gift and a loan. In this respect, they were like many other immigrant communities.
“This is not unusual, historically or otherwise,” says James. “I can’t believe [the DA’s office] didn’t become aware of these realities, and then decided to dismiss them as not relevant, that fraud was fraud. And this fraud has historically gone on in communities that predate the Chinese. Most have found their footing in cash economy jobs.”
What this meant in particular was that many of the Abacus mortgage applications contained income figures the DA considered fraudulently inflated, but were actually based on cash the applicants did have, but had not reported to the IRS. In fact, during the five years between arraignment and the end of the Abacus trial in 2015 (the trial lasted four months, but no spoilers here as to the outcome), the bank sold 3,000 loans to Fannie Mae, and only nine defaulted—one of the lowest default rates in the entire country.
“Fannie Mae was aware of all this,” says James. “They told Abacus, ‘We understand the unique nature of the community you serve,’ and the reason they did that was Abacus had an outstanding record with mortgage loans.”
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail ultimately asks the question why the Manhattan DA went after Abacus and none of the “too big to fail” banks more complicit in the meltdown. “The other banks would have been more difficult cases to pursue,” says Fan. “Abacus was confined to one community, and doesn’t have tentacles in other places. Going after banks like Bank of America would have been a very daunting endeavor. If there was going to be a bank that would be an easy win, it would be this one.”
James points to the doctrine of “collateral consequences,” or what the criminal conviction of a major corporation and its officers could mean to the company’s employees, the community at large, investors, etc. “Is it better to put them out of business, or fine them, have then correct their practices, and let them go on?” says James.
Given these standards, the potential demise of a community bank like Abacus with its minority clientele could only mean one thing, according to James: “We have such different standards regarding the application of justice in this country.”