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Will Weak Wall Street Reforms Wreck the Economy Again?

Fraud was a huge part of the financial crisis-- so why isn't the government going after the fraudsters?

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) unveiled his latest financial reform proposal on Monday, and the stakes for the new legislation couldn’t be higher. After consumer groups raised a major ruckus, Dodd has dropped one of his most egregious concessions to the bank lobby—cutting enforcement authority from the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). That’s good news: Without a major regulatory overhaul, the U.S. economy’s destructive boom and bust cycle will start all over again.

We’ve been down this road before. The Enron fiasco should have served as a wake-up call for policymakers, but instead, the weak federal response to Enron’s major fraud helped pave the way for the current economic slump.

What does Enron have to do with the crisis?

As Megan Carpentier emphasizes for The Washington Independent, one of the key “reforms” Congress enacted in the Enron aftermath was a law requiring every CEO to sign-off on their company’s accounting statements—but it has accomplished almost nothing.

Enron collapsed due to accounting fraud. Its executives weren’t stupid or careless—they made their money by engaging in deliberate and coordinated acts of illegal deception. But CEOs of companies like Enron had always been able to deny that they knew about the shenanigans that were playing out in their accounting departments. By forcing CEOs to sign off on their accounting statements, Congress was attempting to “deny them plausible deniability,” as Carpentier puts it.

But accounting fraud has plagued the U.S. economy, even after the Enron scandal. It also plays a major role in the Wall Street crisis. A recent court report from Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy examiner reveals that the company arranged a series of complicated transactions to hide $50 billion in debt, making Lehman appear healthier than it was. By hiding this debt, Lehman was able to make bigger bets on the mortgage market. The defense issued by Lehman CEO Richard Fuld? He apparently didn’t know the accounting hijinks were happening

An epidemic of fraud

Most U.S. policymakers are still having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that our financial system is rife with fraud at almost every level. Writing for AlterNet, Joe Costello reports on a recent Roosevelt Institute conference featuring several major economic luminaries. Costello argues that some of Wall Street’s biggest problems were driven by run-of-the-mill fraud. And a key vehicle for this fraud, Costello notes, was the derivatives market—the same market that allowed Enron to perpetrate its own frauds. Many of the scams aren’t even particularly new or creative. They’re simply the same cons that helped usher in the Great Depression.

“If we’re going to get our economy up and running again, the first thing we’re going to have to do is end the fraud,” Costello writes.

Protecting Whistleblowers

But astonishingly, even after the worst financial crisis in history, bigwig bankers have been able to avoid fraud charges and investigations. Even when the Justice Department went after Swiss banking Giant UBS for a massive tax evasion scheme, they let the company’s U.S. executives off the hook and instead jailed the very whistleblower who told the government about the fraud.

The whistleblower, Bradley Birkenfeld, is by no means innocent of wrongdoing—he even smuggled diamonds in a toothpaste container for a wealthy UBS client. But as Corbin Hiarr notes for Mother Jones, jailing the man who blows the whistle sends exactly the wrong message to anybody in Big Finance who recognizes a problem. Not only will your employer come at you with everything it has, but the government you aid will actually send you to prison. The fraudsters you finger get to retire to the Caymans.