Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Frontline tells the story of government going after a Chinese/American bank


Left to right: Vera Sung, Jill Sung and Thomas Sung,

DO YOU LIKE David and Goliath stories? How about stories about injustice? Scapegoating? Racism? Put them all together and you get a story - the American Dream turned into a nightmare for a Chinese/American family.

Contrary to popular belief, the government did go after one bank in the mortgage loan crisis that brought the U.S. to the Great Recession.

You've heard of the investment bankers, Countrywide, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and the bundlers on Wall Street.

The government chose to make an example of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a privately owned bank that serves New York's Chinese community. It is the 2,531 largest bank in the country.

Its story, "Abacus: Small Enough Jail" will air tonight in a documentary on Frontline (check your local listings.)

“We are pleased that this story will have a chance to reach an even wider audience,” says Thomas Sung, the founder of Abacus Federal Savings Bank. “For us, this was never just the story of our family bank. It’s a cautionary tale about the larger struggle for justice in our community.”

It’s a little-known chapter from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression: In 2009, shortly after the housing market crashed and the markets melted down, the owners of a small community bank in New York City’s Chinatown discovered fraud within their loan department.

The bank’s owners, the Chinese/American Sung family, fired a loan officer — and reported the fraud to their regulators at the federal Office of Thrift Supervision.

But two-and-a-half years later, the bank was accused of mortgage fraud by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office — making Abacus Federal Savings the only U.S. bank to be prosecuted in relation to the financial collapse and the first bank indicted in New York since 1991.

Why did Abacus face charges, while the biggest banks on Wall Street all avoided prosecution for fraud related to the sale of bad mortgages?

That’s the question at the heart of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, the newest film from acclaimed documentary director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters). Fresh off of a robust international film festival run and national theatrical release, the documentary has its national broadcast premiere tonight on FRONTLINE.

In vivid detail, Abacus chronicles the Sung family’s quest to clear their names, the district attorney’s case against the bank — and how 19 of the bank’s ex-employees, largely immigrants, were treated by the justice system.

In the attached clip, go inside the day of the indictment, when 12 ex-employees of the bank who refused to plead guilty were arraigned, handcuffed to each other, and in the words of one of their attorneys, “herded like cattle” down courthouse hallways.


“Reporters in this town were treated to this extraordinary photo opportunity, this almost Stalinist looking chain gang” of Asian Americans, says journalist Matt Taibbi.

The Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, Jr., says there were security issues behind the decision to march the former employees through the court’s hallways in handcuffs. “It was very unfortunate, but it happened,” said Vance.

But others who were there say the move was designed to humiliate.

“They actually staged it so much so that three of the people that were in that chain had already been arraigned, had already posted bond and were out awaiting trial,” investigative journalist David Lindorf says in the above clip from Abacus.

For one observer, the scene was particularly personal.

“I had never seen that in my entire time at the DA’s office,” says Chanterelle Sung, whose father, Thomas, is the bank’s founder. She had worked at the office as a prosecutor for seven years — in the very division that would end up prosecuting her family’s bank.

The story has attracted the attention of Hollywood director Justin Lin who wants turn it into a feature movie. “This is a quintessential American story told from a point of view that is rarely seen on screen. The Sung family’s collective act of courage needs to be told, especially now,” said Lin.

Get the full story on the case against Abacus, how the trial played out, and what it all says about America’s financial and justice systems in "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail," premiering tonight, Tuesday, Sept.12 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS stations (check local listings) and online.

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