In his attorney general confirmation hearings today, Sen. Jeff Sessions was asked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., whether he would appoint a special prosecutor to administer the multiple Justice Department investigations against Deutsche Bank, given their financial ties to president-elect Trump. Sessions responded by saying he didn’t know how to respond, because “I’m not aware of that case.”
He should be.
Like practically every major financial institution, Deutsche Bank stands accused of peddling securities during the housing bubble backed by toxic mortgages, without telling investors about the risks. Other settlements over similar misconduct by Citigroup, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase have led to billions of dollars in fines.
But Deutsche Bank is notable, because it is Trump’s lender of last resort for his many real estate properties. Trump has borrowed at least $2.5 billion from Deutsche Bank since 1998, including $364 million in mortgages for four properties in the past few years. With not only the mortgage securities fraud investigation but other legal cases pending, it is natural to speculate whether Trump would use his powers as president to intervene. And a special prosecutor would at least grant nominal independence to the cases.
Perhaps because of the imminent conflict of interest, the Justice Department reached a tentative agreement with Deutsche Bank last month for $3.1 billion, far below the $14 billion prosecutors initially threatened to impose. Another $4.1 billion would be pledged to homeowners with struggling loan balances — but Deutsche Bank wants to pay that off through investing in private equity firms who then buy up distressed loans and renegotiate the mortgage balances. Since they could earn money investing in the private equity firms, it’s hard to call that a penalty.
The case is another example of the Obama Justice Department’s weak legacy on accountability for corporate crime, which usually involves settlements rather than individual prosecutions. But at least Attorney General Loretta Lynch is aware of the existence of Deutsche Bank, and its various instances of official misbehavior. Sessions would as attorney general not only finalize the mortgage securities fraud case, but also complete an investigation into the banks’ “mirror trades” that aided money laundering by Russian nationals, among others. His ignorance of the issues doesn’t bode well for an adequate resolution.
Moreover, Sessions’s breezy dismissal of a major corporate fraud case reveals his priorities more generally. Sessions covered many weighty discussions at the hearings in detail, from voting rights to immigration to torture to police brutality. Corporate fraud — even the kind that nearly brought down the global economy — was of lesser importance. For Americans seeking justice for these crimes, the transition from Obama to Trump will likely be one from disappointment in relatively light enforcement to anger at no enforcement at all.