Far From Wall Street, Banks Are Being Punished For Misdeeds

Far From Wall Street, Banks Are Being Punished For Misdeeds

This story has been updated

A former bank president faces 15 years behind bars after being found criminally responsible for fraud that "contributed to the financial crisis." One of the world's most-admired banks is accused of forcing California state pension funds to cover its $95 million in losses on mortgage-backed securities. And a large bank's failed foray into complex investments went undetected for too long and doubled the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's holdings of such risky assets.

Though allegations of fraud on Wall Street inspire public outrage and grab the headlines due to big banks' outsize influence on the economy, the banks' mid-size competitors around the country played no small role in helping crash the economy. In just the last few days, three disturbing examples have surfaced.

On Friday, Jerry J. Williams pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud for his role in a scheme at Florida's Orion Bank to convince the Federal Reserve and FDIC that the bank was in better shape than it really was. Williams' goal was to make the bank's subprime loans look good by financing the sale of promissory notes secured by mortgages held by Orion. Two of his former vice presidents are already behind bars and were ordered by a federal judge to pay $33 million in restitution. "Williams is another senior bank executive being held criminally responsible for his actions in a fraud that contributed to the financial crisis," said Christy Romero, deputy special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

On February 1, Northern Trust Bank, which was ranked by Forbes in 2010 as the world's most admired company in the "Superregional Banks" category, was sued by the state of California. The Chicago-based firm is accused of making high-risk investments in mortgage-backed securities with money from the L.A. City Employees' Retirement System, losing $95 million on that bet and then demanding payment from the pension fund. According to the complaint, the firm's strategy was "heads we win, tails you lose," because Northern Trust took a share of the profits from its investments but stuck LACERS with the losses.

Northern Trust vigorously disputes the claims, saying in a statement that LACERS "did not lose money on its securities lending program."

And also on Monday, an audit by the Treasury Department's Inspector General revealed that Florida's Riverside National Bank engaged in questionable hiring practices, overly complex investments, and in the practice of writing off loans to board members who used company stock as collateral. "When Riverside began experiencing financial difficulty and the holding company's stock price fell, the bank charged off substantially all of the remaining loans to board members and their families, causing millions of dollars in losses to the bank," the report stated. The bank's assets should have been seized in 2007, when its portfolio of risky mortgage-backed securities was just starting to implode, rather than 2010, a delay that ended up costing taxpayers a lot more, said the inspector general. When the bank failed in 2010, its assets were sold to TD Bank.

Industry Forces Delay Of Study On Heath Effects Of Engine Fumes

Due to industry and congressional pressure, the publication of a 20-year-long government study that examines the link between diesel engine exhaust and the health of 12,000 miners has been delayed, reports iWatchNews.org.

Groups such as the Mining Awareness Resource Group, represented by D.C. lobbying powerhouse Patton Boggs, and the Truck & Engine Manufacturers Association have demanded that they get a chance to review what they call the "inaccurate and faulty" study before the Department of Health and Human Services makes it public. And a federal judge recently agreed, holding the agency in contempt for not producing all of the study materials to the groups. Public health experts say the pressure is unprecedented and is likely due to concern about the potential liability for lung cancer.

Train Safety Effort Derailed

Despite public pressure to improve rail safety in the wake of several tragic accidents, the railroad industry and some House Republicans have introduced a bill to delay the introduction of safety systems that override human error to prevent train crashes. The $13 billion cost of the implementation is often cited as a reason to postpone changes from 2015 to 2020, but major U.S. railroads can afford the changes, says Moody's Investor's Service. In a special report, the advisory firm said that rail companies "with $60 billion in annual revenue and several billion dollars in cash ... have the wherewithal" to pay for safety systems known as Positive Train Control, reports Fair Warning.

Quick Hits

* Mortgage company DocX faces forgery charges in Missouri foreclosures.

* Tennessee-based medical device company Smith & Nephew has agreed to pay more than $22 million to settle allegations that it violated anti-bribery statutes by making improper payments to Greek doctors and falsely recording the payments in its books and records

* In a speech to the British Bankes Association, the chief executive of the UK's main bank regulator, the Financial Services Authority, outlined Twin Peaks -- its dual supervision model for banks, building societies, insurers and major investment firms.

* The type of arcana that you find in the Federal Register -- the Coast Guard allowed the drawbridge over the Cheesequake Creek in New Jersey to stay closed for four days for scheduled repairs.

This article has been updated to include comment from Northern Trust.

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