Impunity: here’s how Webster’s College Dictionary defines the word. “Freedom from punishment, penalty or harm.” Simple, direct, almost perfectly clear, but to my mind, also, incomplete, because impunity is one of the few forms of freedom that is anti-existential, that is to say, impunity is not a freedom you can gain for yourself, it was to be given to you.
Take, for example, the top executives of the American financial industry, their impunity is evident. Not a single one of these Wall Street moguls has been held personally responsible, much less punished, penalized or harmed for the many documentable misrepresentations, manipulations, or double-dealings at the heart of the Great Recession, the world-damaging economic crash of 2007 and 2008.
But this is not something the Dimons and Blankfeins, the Fulds, O’Neal’s, Princes and Cassanos achieved on their own, although some would argue their active careers as political benefactors bought them protection, their perfect impunity came from policies set at the Obama White House, and executed by Obama appointees at the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Justice Department and the Federal Reserve.
Without the kindness of Mary Schapiro and Mary Jo White, Eric Holder and Ben Bernanke and their next rung of executives the billionaires of banking might well be the not the beneficiaries of Federal negligence, but the guests of Federal prison hospitality.
It’s not like Uncle Sam and his agencies didn’t bring cases against Wall Street’s big banks and financial institutions, it’s just that they settled them for cash, to be paid by citizens and shareholders and left the perpetrators of financial disaster with their ill-gotten gains in bubble-inflated salaries and unconscionable bonuses untouched, and their freedoms unrestricted.
The SEC did, of course, bust a guy named Fabrice Tourre, officially a Vice President of Goldman Sachs, really just a sleazy seller of toxic mortgage portfolios, a fool who bragged, in e-mails, no less, about ripping off “widows and orphans” with his garbage products. But even he was not charged with a crime. In a civil settlement he had to cough up $850,000 and leave the financial industry forever. Instead of jail, he went to grad school.
Tourre was a tiny cog in a big billion dollar deal called ABACUS, and our guest today, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Jesse Eisinger of the brilliant investigative news-gathering collective Pro Publica, the New York Times’ Dealbook and The New Yorker, has spent years looking at ABACUS and scores of other scams that made billions for finance industry insiders and damn near destroyed the global economy. Most recently, he’s been writing about some new evidence that shines a harsh light on the SEC mindset that swapped justice for impunity.
Jesse Eisinger is a senior reporter at ProPublica. He writes a regular column for The New York Times’s Dealbook section (He is currently on book leave).
In April 2011, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a series of stories on questionable Wall Street practices that helped make the financial crisis the worst since the Great Depression. He won the 2015 Gerald Loeb Award for commentary. He has also twice been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, the Baffler and on NPR and “This American Life.” Before joining ProPublica, he was the Wall Street Editor of Conde Nast Portfolio and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, covering markets and finance.