Two critics of bank regulation say the criminal charges announced Thursday following a lengthy investigation into the failure of Sonoma Valley Bank is not an indication the federal government is finally pursuing the executives who contributed to the nation's financial crisis seven years ago.
Not only was Sonoma Valley Bank a tiny player on the national stage, but the critics said the alleged crimes seemed more reminiscent of an earlier fiasco, one that involved the nation's savings and loan companies three decades ago.
Federal regulators have required "zero accountability for any of the elite that actually contributed to the crisis," said William Black, a former banking regulator and now an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. No one, Black maintained, has yet gone to jail for contributing to a crisis that shook the world's financial systems and brought on a painful recession.
Since 2008, more than 480 U.S. banks have failed, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. In Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley Bank was the only financial institution taken over by federal regulators. The bank's assets and deposits were purchased in 2010 by Westamerica Bank.
On Wednesday, a top federal official in the Sonoma Valley Bank investigation said that 188 individuals have been charged with crimes related to the use of federal bailout funds that were provided to banks about five years ago.
"Americans should know that SIGTARP (the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program) is on watch and protecting their bailout dollars," said Special Inspector General Christy Romero.
Black questioned the accuracy of those numbers in light of a Justice Department audit last month that found what it termed "serious flaws" in the statistics that federal prosecutors had compiled on criminal mortgage fraud cases.
For example, in October 2012 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that 530 criminal defendants had been charged in mortgage losses estimated at $1 billion. But the audit by the department's Office of Inspector General concluded that the number of defendants was actually 107 and the losses amounted to only $95 million.
The financial crisis, said Black, was caused by a combination of "the three most destructive financial fraud epidemics in world history" — exaggerated home appraisals, "liar loans" based on inflated incomes of borrowers, and false representations on the quality of loans packaged and sold as securities.
Prosecutors in the Sonoma Valley Bank case have alleged that bank officials knowingly loaned money so that a developer could regain a condominium project on which he had defaulted — anonymously buying it back for a fraction of the original loan. That is similar to the kind of collusion that savings and loan officials undertook with developers in the 1980s.
"Nothing has really changed," said Stephen Pizzo, a Sebastopol resident and one of the authors of the 1989 book, "Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans."
Pizzo suggested that the lack of accountability for banking crime is in some ways understandable.
"They are really hard cases to prosecute," he said.
Prosecutors, he said, must prove fraudulent intent in complicated deals, even as the eyes of the typical juror "glaze over." Moreover, since 9/11 the FBI has shifted so much of its personnel to fighting terrorism that few agents are left to pursue financial crimes.