Film review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017)

This is a must-see documentary about one overlooked story on the financial crisis of 2008. I did not hear about it until last week when it was discussed on the radio as one of the Academy Awards nominees for best documentary. There have been many good films about that crisis that I have reviewed before, such as Inside Job, Requiem for the American Dream, The Big Short, Margin Call, Capitalism – A Love Story. In each of them, the viewer is left furious at the fact that the top officials at the big banks were not criminally prosecuted and were able to escape scot-free while so many people suffered as a result of their actions.

This film is different. It tells the story of the only case where the top officials of a bank were charged with felony crimes for issuing fraudulent mortgage loans. Given the fact that I have been railing against the absence of such prosecutions, you would expect me to cheer for the prosecution, right? Wrong. I was rooting for the government to fail and fall flat on its face. Why? Because the bank involved is a small community bank with just six branches that serves largely the Chinese community in New York’s Chinatown. It ranks at 2,651 in size of US banks. It was founded by an immigrant Thomas Sung who came to the US as a young man of 16 and who, although he became a successful lawyer, saw that the banks in Chinatown were willing to take the deposits of the people in the community but would not extend credit to them and thus people could not buy homes or expand their businesses. The immigrant Chinese community consisted of largely street vendors, small shop owners, and the like who lived in a cash economy and often they did not have the kind of documentation that would satisfy regular banks. But since he was a member of the community and moved freely among them, he knew them personally and could judge who were good risks and who were not. As he said, he knew that the owner of a small noodle shop was good for a loan because he ate there, could see the crowds, knew him personally, and could judge how industrious and hardworking he was. His small bank prospered.

But then things went sour. The top officials at Abacus discovered some fraud by low-level employees in issuing mortgage loans. The bank investigated the matter, fired the employees involved, and reported the matter to the regulators. This was as they should have done. But when the matter reached the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, Cyrus Vance, Jr decided to throw the book at the bank and claimed that the entire bank was corrupt from the top down.

As the film’s website says:

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail tells the incredible saga of the Chinese immigrant Sung family, owners of Abacus Federal Savings of Chinatown, New York. Accused of mortgage fraud by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., Abacus becomes the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The indictment and subsequent trial forces the Sung family to defend themselves – and their bank’s legacy in the Chinatown community – over the course of a five-year legal battle.

The trailer is very good at stating the facts of the case.

Neil Barofsky, who served as chief of the federal government’s office to monitor the use of the bailout money and who wrote an excellent book that I reviewed where he lambasted the government for how they handled the financial crisis and let the big banks off the hook, and journalist Matt Taibbi who has been unrelenting in his criticisms of the criminality of the banking sector, were both scathing about the decision of Vance to throw a massive amount of public resources to go after a tiny community bank for what seemed like fairly small offenses while not touching the big banks. In fact, the mortgage foreclosure rates at Abacus were some of the lowest in the nation. If the big banks had those numbers, there would have been no crisis.

So why was Abacus singled out? Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is the son of the former secretary of state and is a hack politician. When I saw at the beginning of the film that he was the one who had brought the prosecution against Abacus with great fanfare, I was certain that the target would be people who were not influential. I have long been aware of Vance as a grandstander who makes examples of the defenseless while protecting the powerful. He is a good example of how Wall Street controls Democrats as well and Republicans. He has been accused of not prosecuting powerful people like Harvey Weinstein and Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. and other who contribute mightily to his election campaigns and are movers and shakers in in the city.

These are dark times for Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., as two high-profile investigative reports—about Harvey Weinstein and Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr.—have revealed that Vance has a suspicious habit of declining to prosecute some of New York’s most powerful people, while, uh, also accepting campaign donations from their lawyers.

Last week, a joint bombshell by The New Yorker, WNYC, and ProPublica revealed Ivanka and Donald Jr. narrowly avoided criminal fraud charges in 2012 for allegedly misleading potential buyers at the flailing Trump Soho Hotel—because Vance dropped the mounting case after a meeting with Donald Trump Sr.’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz. Kasowitz had donated $25,000 to Vance’s reelection campaign before the meeting (money Vance later returned) and went on to donate and raise a total of more than $50,000 in the months after the case against the Trump kids disappeared. Vance now says that, roughly five years later, he’ll return that money, too—but even a lawyer who was on the Trump defense team said Vance’s intermingling with Kasowitz “didn’t have an air you’d like.”

Now, that fishy air is surrounding Vance for the second time in as many weeks after The New Yorker’s disturbing report on Weinstein revealed that the NYPD had been gathering evidence to charge Weinstein with a misdemeanor sex crime in 2015 for groping model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, but Vance had declined to charge him. Vance cited a lack of evidence—even as Gutierrez, in a police sting operation, had caught Weinstein on tape apologizing for groping her the day before. In a bit of déjà vu, the International Business Times reports that Weinstein Company lawyer David Boies, a former Vance donor, contributed $10,000 to Vance’s campaign in the months after the district attorney decided not to prosecute Weinstein, and that, during Vance’s political career, Boies, his son, and his law partners have donated more than $182,000 to him.

All the major banks that pretty much wrecked the financial sector are right within Vance’s jurisdiction but the only bank, I repeat, the only bank that was ever charged with any felony was Abacus. All the big banks, which committed massive fraud on a huge scale, were given deals where they merely paid fines and no felony charges were filed against the banks or its top officers. No such deal was offered to Abacus. It was demanded that they plead guilty to felony charges as well.

The way the authorities created literally a chain gang of accused employees was a disgrace. They handcuffed 19 low-level employees and tied them together in a long line with chains and marched them down a long hallway and into the street in front of the media that had clearly been told in advance. It was a telling example of the contempt with which Vance’s office viewed the Chinese community as being powerless. Only one of the 19, a person who had been fired by the bank for fraud, was actually later convicted of a crime. As investigative journalist David Lindorff said, Vance would never have dared pull such a media stunt with a bank that was owned and run by the black community because of the massive backlash from that community that he would face when he next went up for election. But the Chinese were easy targets to make a spectacle of. He must have thought that they would succumb to his pressure and humiliation tactics. He was wrong. This is a David and Goliath story in which he is the villain.

The film interviewed two jurors who revealed some of the discussions. There was apparently one juror who wanted to find the bank guilty mainly because he was angry about the financial crisis and ‘wanted to send a message’ to the banking sector. But this is the danger of not thinking things through. For one thing, you should not sacrifice innocent people to send a message to guilty ones. The second is that such an action would have sent exactly the wrong message. If Abacus had been found guilty, the top people at the big banks would have just laughed because it would have confirmed that powerful are exempt from punishment and it would have reduced the pressure for the government to prosecute them. The only message they will understand is when the top officials at Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, CitiCorp, and Wells Fargo are looking at serious jail time. That is the only message that is worth sending.

The filming was done while the trial was taking place and so much of it was not re-enactments but covered in real time. The family seems to have given the Frontline crew access to them during the five-year period covering the prosecutions and trial so we see them going through all the tumultuous emotions. The 80-year old patriarch comes across as calm, quiet, and stoic but the five women in his life (his wife and four daughters) are anything but, as they argue with him and the others about what to do. It is obvious that they are all fiercely devoted to him and are willing to fight hard to save his good name. Three of his daughter are lawyers (two work at the bank) and the fourth is a physician The family dynamics, often shown while they eat meals together, were fascinating to watch because they are all voluble but have a sense of humor

This PBS interview with film director Steve James is also well worth watching

This interview with FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath is also interesting.


  1. Storms says

    Thanks Mono. I’ll have to watch the whole thing. This is exactly what I’ve come to expect and lothe in those who seek power and position.

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