Holding individuals responsible for the financial crisis

Bank of America

Bank of America was charged Wednesday with roughly $1.3 billion in fines and only a handful of individual penalties.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, there have been relatively few individuals held responsible for the roles they played, or the bad mortgages they issued and bundled together to pass along to investors. However, a former employee of the mortgage lender Countrywide Financial was fined Wednesday as part of a civil fraud case.

It was nicknamed "the Hustle" – a program in which Countrywide is alleged to have passed bad mortgage products onto investors. Since Bank of America acquired Countywide in 2008, the bank was fined nearly $1.3 billion for the fraud. Additionally, a former Countrywide employee, Rebecca Mairone, was fined $1 million, which the judge specified she should pay herself.

Unlike previous financial crises, pursuing individuals for their misdeeds has not been the norm in recent years, says Ken Thomas, an independent bank consultant and economist.

“We’re seeing companies paying fines, but little actions against the people involved,” he says. “After the savings and loan crisis, there were many savings and loan executives that went to jail. Here, we don’t see that.”

Countrywide’s former CEO and CFO were also fined coming out of the financial crisis.

However, most individuals who have been targeted are typically lower-level employees who worked directly on the bad deals, says Michael Santoro, a professor at Rutgers Business School.

“It’s a little more difficult to present evidence against people who have set policies in motion or who might turned the other way or who may have winked at something,” he says.

According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, 174 companies or entities have been charged arising from the financial crisis. About 40 percent of those charges have been against CEOs, CFOs or other senior executives. 

Many of those actions were on a different scale than this case, says David Zaring, associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“Ms. Mairone, she’s in a unique place,” says Zaring. “There’s an actual jury verdict that came in against her and a fine that was duly awarded after that verdict. Almost everything the SEC has done has been a settlement.”

Zaring says earlier failed criminal cases against a pair of Bear Stearns employees might have been a deterrent, and that if the wrongdoing was such a widespread practice in the financial industry, it can be hard to single out individuals. 


What other individuals have paid fines?

It's exceedingly rare for an individual to be singled out by the SEC and it's just as rare for those folks to pay any more than a couple hundred thousand dollars -- chump change. There are only a few other exceptions: here are the biggest penalties levied by the SEC in the wake of the Great Recession:

  • Angelo Mozilo, former CEO of Countrywide, is the biggest exception to the rule by far. As part of a settlement with the SEC, Mozilo agreed to pay a record $22.5 million penalty, on top of another $45 million in "ill-gotten gains" to be returned to investors. Mozilo was also banned from running a public company for life. His CFO paid a relatively puny $130,000 penalty.
  • Former Brookstreet CEO Stanley Brooks didn't settle with the SEC and a federal judge hit him with a $10 million fine. In addition to the penalty, the maximum allowed for his charges, Brooks had to pay another $110,000 to investors.
  • From here, the penalties drop pretty quickly and leave the executive suite. Fabrice Tourre, a Goldman Sachs trader turned academic, was accused of defrauding investors and became a symbol of the economic crisis for many. The SEC sought nearly $1 million in fines from "Fabulous Fab," but he was eventually ordered to pay $825,000.
  • Former Bear Stearns portfolio managers Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin were notably aquitted of securities fraud in 2009, but they settled in a later civil case, agreeing to pay about $1.05 million.

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