03:07 - Source: CNN
Wells Fargo CEO pummeled by House committee

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CEOs are kept almost entirely free from serious consequences for their wrongdoing, writes Jonathan Tasini

Bank executives haven't paid the price for the misdeeds that led to the 2008 financial crisis, he says

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Tasini has been a frequent commentator on CNN and is a former national surrogate for Bernie Sanders. He is the author of “The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America,” president of the Economic Future Group and the publisher/editor of Working Life. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) —  

It’s not the illegal behavior by top executives of Wells Fargo that makes it clear the people of the country are not safe from the rapacious behavior of Wall Street.

It’s largely because, in the wave of Wall Street scandals culminating in the Great Recession, we’ve seen the same scenario play out: The people at the top essentially get away with their crimes while the rest of America suffers.

Jonathan Tasini
Jonathan Tasini
Jonathan Tasini

Let’s recap: Wells Fargo engineered a widespread scam on its customers, opening up as many as 1.5 million bank accounts and hundreds of thousands of credit card accounts that their customers never authorized, partly to inflate the perceived value of the company.

After it was caught, the bank had to shell out $185 million in penalties and fines to settle charges brought by the city attorney in Los Angeles, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Los Angeles city attorney. To be clear, the fines paid to authorities effectively come out of the pockets of shareholders and consumers, not the executives who were responsible for the fraud.

Until Tuesday, the bank’s CEO, John G. Stumpf, remained untouched. That’s when the company announced that Stumpf would have to forego pay and stock awards valued at $41 million. Understandably, many people might see losing such a pile of money as a monumental hit. In my view, it’s a joke.

To begin with, Stumpf is already a very wealthy man. In 2012, to pick one year out of his CEO tenure, his compensation package totaled $22.87 million – a 15% hike from the previous year, even outpacing Lloyd C. Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Getting dunned $41 million might force him to skip buying the fourth or fifth house or upgrading his jet.

But he has already amassed a fortune, pocketing millions in pay and tapping into the far more lucrative money pot for CEOs through pension benefits and stock options. He could walk away with more than $100 million even if he’s fired.

Even more important, Stumpf obviously does not understand or prefers to explicitly disavow the seriousness of the crime. When he testified recently before the Senate Banking Committee, he responded to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s blistering critique of his role in the scam by saying, “I disagree with the fact this is a massive fraud.”

I’m not sure whether he disagreed with the definition of “massive” or “fraud,” but the scale and the severity of the scheme clearly make the two words fit together quite nicely.

The average person would rightly ask: along with denying him some more spending money, why wasn’t Stumpf fired? Here, we get a window into the world of the coddled CEO. He stacks his board of directors with a majority of cronies, either friends or business associates, all of whom nod and ascent to obscene levels of compensation and adopt a hands-off approach to wrongdoing. I suspect that, behind the scenes, key directors huddled with Stumpf to figure out a financial clawback that would preserve his job.

The central point here is that, like all high-level CEOs, Stumpf may well avoid criminal charges. Putting aside insider-trading charges, if you leaf through the wreckage of the past decade of criminality on Wall Street, not a single Wall Street executive has gone to prison for the mortgage scandal, interest-rate rigging or other frauds that hurt millions of Americans.

From Standard and Poor’s paying $1.5 billion to settle charges of fraudulent credit ratings to Bank of America shelling out tens of billions in fines, settlements and restitution as part of its illegal role in the mortgage crisis, executives of miscreant Wall Street firms have kept their jobs or maybe gotten better-paid ones – all while continuing to reap huge paychecks and pile up vast fortunes.

In a criminal justice system, penalties are presumably both a punishment for past behavior and a warning to others who might be considering similar behavior.

Financial penalties are not a deterrent in the culture of Wall Street. When you are already stunningly rich, paying a fine is just the cost of doing business and an annoyance. Why not hold them criminally responsible for the wrongdoing at their companies, the way a handful of executives were at firms like Enron and WorldCom?

Until one or two of the heads of Wall Street firms go to jail, exchanging their mansions and elite lifestyles for a small cell and a few bucks a month working in the prison kitchen, Americans will continue to be the victims of the plundering of the wealth of the country by a few.