If Citi Were a Person, It Would Be in Prison

When will the U.S. Justice Department begin to take serial lawbreakers on Wall Street as seriously as it takes petty criminals on Main Street?

By Pam Martens and Russ Martens of Wall Street on Parade

Since its financial meltdown in 2008 and unprecedented bailout by the U.S. taxpayer, Citigroup (parent of Citibank) has been repeatedly charged by its Federal regulators with odious crimes against its pooled mortgage investors, credit card and banking customers, student loan borrowers, and for its foreclosure frauds. It has paid billions of dollars in fines for its past misdeeds while new charges pile up. In 2015, it became an admitted felon for participating in rigging foreign exchange markets. In short, Citigroup is a lawbreaking recidivist. If it were a mere human, it would be serving a long prison term. Instead, its fines for charges of egregious acts are getting smaller, not larger.

Last Tuesday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which typically has a good track record of holding the big Wall Street banks accountable for their misdeeds, imposed an unusually feeble fine against Citibank for a litany of abuses against student loan borrowers. The CFPB ordered Citi to pay $3.75 million in restitution and to pay a $2.75 million fine. When combined with the fact that the CFPB did not make Citibank admit to the charges, this amounts to a slap on the wrist to a serial lawbreaker. (See Citigroup/Citibank’s history of misconduct below.)

Adding further insult to the American public, the Board of Directors of Citigroup has kept the same CEO in place for more than five years as these serial abuses of the public trust piled up. Michael Corbat has been CEO of Citigroup since October 2012.

The CFPB’s latest action against Citibank, where it was charged with abusing vulnerable and unsuspecting college students, brought to mind a Harper’s article by Andrew Cockburn in April 2015. Cockburn had traced the history of how Sandy Weill had parlayed Commercial Credit into the too-big-to-fail Citigroup, which continues to own the commercial bank, Citibank. Cockburn wrote:

“Weill had recently been eased out from Shearson Lehman/American Express [in 1985], a financial conglomerate he had helped to build. Eager to get back in the game, he bought a Baltimore firm called Commercial Credit. In the view of Weill and his protégé, Jamie Dimon [now CEO at JPMorgan Chase], their new acquisition was in the beneficent business of supplying ‘consumer finance’ to ‘Main Street America.’ Their office receptionist, Alison Falls, thought otherwise. Overhearing their conversation at work one day, she called out, ‘Hey, guys, this is the loan-sharking business. Consumer finance is just a nice way to describe it.’

“Falls had it right. Commercial Credit made loans to poor people at predatory interest rates. Strapped to pay off their loans, borrowers were encouraged to refinance, with added fees each time. Gail Kubiniec, who was then an assistant sales manager at the company’s branch office in Tonawanda, New York, remembers that the basic aim was to lend money to ‘people uneducated about credit. You could take a five-hundred-dollar loan and pack it with extra items like life insurance—that was very lucrative. Then you could roll it over with more extra items, then reroll the new loan, and the borrower would go on paying and paying and paying.’ ”

This is what the CFPB charged Weill’s progeny, Citibank, with last Tuesday:

“Citibank misled borrowers into believing that they were not eligible for a valuable tax deduction on interest paid on certain student loans. The company also incorrectly charged late fees and added interest to the student loan balances of borrowers who were still in school and eligible to defer their loan payments. Citibank also misled consumers about how much they had to pay in their monthly bills and failed to disclose required information after denying borrowers’ requests to release loan cosigners.”

When will the U.S. Justice Department begin to take serial lawbreakers on Wall Street as seriously as it takes petty criminals on Main Street?

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