Matt Taibbi spoke to Democracy Now's Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales about the latest revolving door between Wall Street and Washington: Matt Taibbi: Eric Holder Back to Wall Street-Tied Law Firm After Years of Refusing to Jail Bankers:
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the latest sign of the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington. Recently retired U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is returning home—to the corporate law firm Covington & Burling, where he worked for eight years before becoming head of the Justice Department. During his time at Covington, Holder’s clients included UBS and the fruit giant Chiquita. The law firm’s client list has included many of the big banks that the Justice Department under Holder’s leadership failed to criminally prosecute for their role in the financial crisis, including Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup. [...]
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine, who writes about Eric Holder’s time at Covington & Burling and much more in his book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, which is now out in paperback.
It’s great to have you back, Matt.
MATT TAIBBI: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: So you were tweeting up a storm yesterday as this news came of the former attorney general, Eric Holder, going back to Covington & Burling. Talk about the significance of this.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I mean, I think this is probably the single biggest example of the revolving door that we’ve ever had. And we’ve had some whoppers in our past. I think previously the worst one was probably Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin leaving Congress and taking a $2-million-a-year job with PhRMA, right after he helped pass the prescription drug benefit bill. But what Holder just did just blows Tauzin away. I mean, he spent six years essentially guiding all of these Wall Street firms, which many of them are clients of this company that he’s now working for—he guided them all back to profitability. He allowed bankers to escape prosecution. And now he’s going right back to that firm, where he’s going to enjoy a very lucrative partnership, whether he ever works again, you know, for the rest of his life.↓ Story continues below ↓
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Holder also sort of became a point person for these, quote, "extrajudicial settlements."
MATT TAIBBI: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you explain what those are and how they worked?
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, Holder, in general, pioneered a number of different ways that essentially a lot of these too-big-to-fail companies were allowed to buy their way out of trouble. And one of the most notorious, I think, was that he concluded a number of the biggest settlement deals with banks like JPMorgan Chase in ways that were not reviewed by a judge. Because we did have some instances during this time period where pesky judges—I think one of the most infamous, in the eyes of Wall Street, was Jed Rakoff, who threw out a settlement with Citigroup because he thought it wasn’t harsh enough—well, to fix that problem, Holder just started striking deals and not submitting them for judicial review. So he did a $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase where no judge signed off on the deal. The whole thing was done in secret. He essentially institutionalized the back room. This was just a deal where a bunch of bankers got together with a bunch of Justice Department officials, money changed hands, and that was it. The whole—all of their criminal problems went away. This is a very different way of doing business than what we’ve ever seen before, and it’s very dangerous, I think.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And he also took the term "collateral damage" into the financial world out of the military world, didn’t he, as well?
MATT TAIBBI: Right, yeah. He actually predated the collateral damage idea back when he was a lawyer in the Clinton Justice Department. He wrote a memo that—you know, it’s now known as the Holder Memo, where he outlined a policy that is called "collateral consequences," and basically all this says is that if you’re a prosecutor and you’re worried about prosecuting a company that employs a lot of people and you’re concerned that innocent people might suffer as the result of a prosecution, you may pursue noncriminal remedies when you go after this company.
The problem was that when—by the time he became attorney general, the economic landscape was dotted all over with these enormous, too-big-to-fail companies, and there was a real threat that if you prosecuted these firms, that it might cause serious damage to the overall economy. Obviously we saw what happened with Lehman Brothers, for instance. So this became sort of the unofficial policy of the United States. We started taking companies that had done very bad things—you know, HSBC is probably the biggest example, laundering money for drug dealers—and instead of throwing people in jail and extracting huge individual penalties from the guilty parties, we just got the banks to pony up a big fine that shareholders paid, and they got to stay in business.
AMY GOODMAN: As you were tweeting your criticism yesterday, a lot of Obama supporters were also on social media pushing the line that Holder did not send anyone to jail because there were no laws broken.
MATT TAIBBI: Right, yeah, and this is—this comes, I think, directly from something that Barack Obama himself said on 60 Minutes once. He said some of the worst behavior on Wall Street was not illegal, some of the least ethical behavior was not illegal. But he crafted that phrase very carefully. He didn’t say all of it was not illegal. He said some of the worst behavior, and that’s true. But some of it was very illegal.
And again, just to go back to some of the worst cases, HSBC admitted to laundering $880 million for a pair of Central and South American drug cartels, including the Sinaloa drug cartel, which is infamous all over the world for these torture videos. So, we have HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, is washing hundreds of millions of dollars for people who chop people’s heads off with chainsaws. That’s a crime. I mean, there’s no—that’s the worst crime that a bank can possibly commit. And anybody who thinks that Holder didn’t send people to jail because they didn’t commit crimes is not really paying attention to what went on during this time.
AMY GOODMAN: Also at Covington & Burling, Eric Holder will be reunited with Lanny Breuer. Explain who he was and the significance of them together.
MATT TAIBBI: Well, Lanny Breuer worked at Covington & Burling along with Eric Holder. He went to Holder to become his deputy for the early part of his tenure as attorney general. He was the head of the Criminal Division. Lanny, from the sources that I spoke to while I was researching all this material, was terrified of going to court when he didn’t have an absolute, guaranteed, sure victory. And so, what happened very early in their tenure together was that they did take one case to trial. They went to trial against a pair of guys from Bear Stearns who were accused of defrauding their clients. And they lost. It ended in an acquittal, even though they had very solid documentary evidence. From that point forward, they didn’t take anybody to court. And all of these cases involving all of these banks, they went the settlement route instead, presumably because they were afraid of going into a courtroom. They were worried that juries didn’t understand this material. They were worried that it was too complicated. And so, rather than risk losing and getting a bad headline, they let off all of these people who had done very, very bad things, and so we have this legacy of cash instead of punishment.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Can you talk also about how the Justice Department and other regulatory groups have changed the composition of the staffing, the high-level staffing, of these agencies during this period when Holder has been there?
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. This is something that I heard over and over again over the years, which is that a certain kind of person who used to work in the regulatory agencies, you know, who was a kind of a career civil servant, particularly the law enforcement types, the people who grew up through the ranks, you know, just trying to get the criminal at all costs—they’re primarily motivated by trying to extract justice from wrongdoers—that kind of person is gradually disappearing from the ranks of the regulatory bodies, and they are being replaced, increasingly, particularly at the higher levels, by people from the corporate defense community. And Holder was very profoundly a symbol of that kind of person.
And the difference was, when you have people who come from the corporate defense world, like Holder, like Lanny Breuer, they tend to approach these settlements not to get a pound of flesh out of the wrongdoers, but instead they want to emerge with a settlement that leaves everybody happy when they walk out of the room. But that’s really not a good approach to fighting crime. That’s not the kind of attitude you want in your top crime fighter in the country. And as a result, that’s how we got so many of these settlements, which, again, were concluded in secret, in the back room. And people like Jamie Dimon were walking out of these settlements, saying, "Well, this wasn’t so bad." And their share price would go up the day after these settlements were concluded. That’s really not what we want from the top cop in the country.Read on...