Late last week, word leaked out that Mr. Mozilo, who had co-founded Countrywide Financial in 1969 — and, for nearly 40 years, presided over its astonishing rise and its equally astonishing fall — would not be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Not for insider trading. Not for failing to disclose to investors his private worries about subprime loans. Not for helping to create a culture at Countrywide in which mortgage originators were rewarded for pushing fraudulent loans on borrowers.This is the "new normal" in the country, as blowhard Chris Christie likes to say.
In its article about the Justice Department’s decision, The Los Angeles Times said prosecutors had concluded that Mr. Mozilo’s actions “did not amount to criminal wrongdoing.”
Just months earlier, the Justice Department concluded that Joe Cassano shouldn’t take the fall for the financial crisis either. Mr. Cassano, you’ll recall, is the former head of the financial products unit of the American International Group, a man whose enthusiasm for credit-default swaps led, pretty directly, to the need for a huge government bailout of A.I.G. There was a time when it appeared that there was no way the government would let Mr. Cassano walk. But it did.
And then there’s Richard Fuld, the man who presided over Lehman Brothers’ demise. Though he was the subject of an investigation shortly after the Lehman bankruptcy, it appears that prosecutors are moving on.
Most of the other Wall Street bigwigs whose firms took unconscionable risks — risks that nearly brought the global financial system to its knees — aren’t even on Justice’s radar screen. Nor has there been a single indictment against any top executive at a subprime lender.
The only two people on Wall Street to have been prosecuted for their roles in the crisis are a pair of minor Bear Stearns executives, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, whose internal hedge fund, stuffed with triple-A mortgage-backed paper, collapsed in the summer of 2007, an event that anticipated the crisis. A jury acquitted them.
Two and a half years after the world’s financial system nearly collapsed, you’re entitled to wonder whether any of the highly paid executives who helped kindle the disaster will ever see jail time — like Michael Milken in the 1980s, or Jeffrey Skilling after the Enron disaster. Increasingly, the answer appears to be no. The harder question, though, is whether anybody should.
It seems safe to say that the government’s failure to convict those two Bear Stearns executives has caused prosecutors to shy away from bringing other cases. After all, the case against Mr. Cioffi and Mr. Tannin was supposed to be the easy one. By contrast, a case against Angelo Mozilo would have been, from the start, a much harder one to win.
Although the Justice Department never filed charges against Mr. Mozilo, one can assume that its case would have been similar to the civil case brought earlier by the Securities and Exchange Commission. (On the eve of the trial date last fall, the S.E.C. blinked and settled with Mr. Mozilo.) One of the S.E.C.’s charges was insider trading — that Mr. Mozilo sold nearly $140 million worth of stock after he knew the company was in trouble. But the defense countered by pointing out that Mr. Mozilo was selling his stock under an automatic selling program that top corporate executives often use — thus mooting the insider trading accusation.
Like the Bear Stearns executives, Mr. Mozilo had written his share of e-mails expressing worries about some of Countrywide’s loan practices. He called one of Countrywide’s subprime products “the most dangerous product in existence, and there can be nothing more toxic.” The government argued that Mr. Mozilo had a legal obligation to share that information with investors.
But this case, too, would have been awfully difficult to make. Countrywide’s descent into subprime madness was hardly a secret. It made all sorts of crazy adjustable rate mortgages that required no documentation of income; its array of products was also well known and disclosed to investors. Indeed, Mr. Mozilo was quite vocal and public in saying that the housing market was due to fall, and fall hard. But he always assumed that whatever its losses, Countrywide was so strong that it would be one of the survivors and would feast on the carcasses of its former competitors. No internal e-mail he wrote contradicted that belief.
Was there outright fraud at Countrywide? Of course there was. That is a large part of the reason that Bank of America, which bought Countrywide in early 2008, has struggled so mightily with the legacy of all the Countrywide loans now on its books. But most of the fraudulent actions at Countrywide took place at the bottom of the food chain, at the mortgage origination level. It has been well-documented that mortgage brokers induced borrowers to take loans that they never understood, and often persuaded them to lie on their loan applications.
That kind of predatory lending is against the law — and it should be prosecuted. But going after small-time mortgage brokers isn’t nearly as satisfying as putting the big guy in jail, especially a big guy like Mr. Mozilo, who symbolizes to many Americans the excesses and wrongdoing embodied in the subprime lending mess. The problem is that Mr. Mozilo, though he helped create the culture that made such predatory lending acceptable, never made the fraudulent loans himself. Legally, if not morally, he’s off the hook.
A few days ago, I listened to a recording of a lengthy interview with Mr. Mozilo conducted by investigators working for the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and posted recently on the commission’s Web site. It was a remarkable performance; Mr. Mozilo expressed no regrets and no remorse. He extolled subprime loans as a way to allow lower-income Americans to get a piece of the American dream and “really build wealth” — just like people used to do during the housing bubble. He bragged that Countrywide, unlike the too-big-to-fail banks, never took a penny of government money. He said that Countrywide had helped put 25 million Americans in homes.
His voice rising passionately, he said finally, “Countrywide was one of the greatest companies in the history of this country.”
Which is a final reason Mr. Mozilo would have been difficult to prosecute. Delusion is an iron-clad defense.
The REAL culprits in the financial crisis of 2007-2008 get off scott free.
Public employees and teachers vilified across the country as the problem.
Meanwhile Angelo Mozilo - the scummiest of the Wall Street scum - is free to live off his ill-gotten gains.
Maybe he'll look to rehab his public persona by getting into philanthropy work - you know, like education reform.
What the hell - it's worked for monopolist Bill Gates, slave laborer Steve Jobs, and all the hedge fund criminals at Democrats for Education Reform.