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Busted Vs. Bailed-Out: Should DEA and SEC Switch Jobs?

While the DEA is overzealous with drug busts, the SEC gives corrupt bankers a slap on the wrist.

Photo Credit: Songquan Deng / Shutterstock.com


Pick up a quarter-pound of outdoor organic Purple Kush, split it four ways, and sell it to some friends, and you might find yourself ratted out by a narc. Put under police surveillance. Surreptitiously recorded by a confidential informant. Tailed home from work by an unmarked car. Until the cops kick down your door, shoot your dog and handcuff your kids. And that's just low-level local bullshit.

Meanwhile, the big, bad Drug Enforcement Agency burns through roughly $2.5 billion in taxpayer money every year going after kingpins, cartels and the occasional cancer patient caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. By comparison, Congress allocates only around $1.6 billion per year to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal agency responsible for policing Wall Street.

Mary Joe White, President Obama's current nominee to head the SEC, most recently worked as a defense attorney, hired by the most powerful financial firms in the world whenever they landed in hot water. Which, if you're wondering, is way different than putting Pablo Escobar's lawyer in charge of the DEA. Of course, only time will tell whether White will turn around and bite the hand that once fed her so lavishly, or just slap it on the wrist occasionally, but the smart money is squarely on the latter.

“The size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them,” US Attorney General Eric Holder recently informed a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing investigating money laundering at the big banks. “If you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.”

Holder's clear surrender of any responsibility to hold too-big-to-jail bankers criminally accountable for their actions came in response to a question about the federal government's recent record $1.92 billion settlement with HSBC, negotiated after a long paper trail proved the British multinational spent years rather blatantly laundering huge sums of money for the world's most deadly drug dealers. As Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone and others have reported, the government's case against HSBC included evidence that couriers from the cartels repeatedly deposited "hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows."

That “record” fine, by the way, represents just five weeks of profits for HSBC, a pathetically small penalty for the crimes it committed, never mind all the blood money it pocketed along the way. No wonder when the settlement was announced in December, the bank's stock price spiked up.

As Senator Elizabeth Warren noted, nobody involved in HSBC's ongoing criminal enterprise spent so much as an hour behind bars, or even faced arrest, despite knowingly aiding and abetting not just the cartels' massive trade in cocaine and heroin, but by logical extension all of the prohibition-fueled violence that goes along with it, from turf war shootouts in Boise, Idaho to political assassinations in Sinaloa, Mexico. Given the fact that HSBC profited mightily from these dirty dealings, got caught, and suffered no serious consequences, why, exactly, shouldn't the bank do it again? And what message does that send to impressionable kids considering a career in high finance?

Perhaps our collective take-away should be that the system's no longer broken. We've moved far beyond that now, to fucked up beyond all repair. So how about instead of trying to reform these two irredeemably compromised institutions, we repurpose them instead, by having the DEA and the SEC switch jobs? Yes, just like that.