Cuomo sues Lewis of Bank of America… Did Lewis act unethically or is Cuomo grandstanding?

February 9, 2010

Reported on in Bloomberg…(see the full article here).

The former Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America, Kenneth Lewis was sued by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for supposedly defrauding investors and the government when buying Merrill Lynch & Co.  Recently, the bank agreed to pay $150 million to settle a related lawsuit by U.S. regulators which is being considered by U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff.  Last year, Rakoff called the SEC’s initial settlement neither fair nor reasonable and questioned why the bank’s executives and lawyers weren’t sued. The agency said it lacked evidence to bring claims against specific individuals.

Cuomo also sued the bank’s former chief financial officer Joe Price and the bank itself for not disclosing about $16 billion in losses Merrill had incurred before it was bought by Bank of America in an effort to get the merger approved.  Afterward, Lewis demanded government bailout funds, Cuomo said.

“We believe the bank management understated the Merrill Lynch losses to shareholders, then they overstated their ability to terminate their agreement to secure $20 billion of TARP money, and that is just a fraud,” Cuomo said yesterday during a telephone press conference. “Bank of America and its officials defrauded the government and the taxpayers at a very difficult time.”

Interestingly enough, Cuomo is pursuing individuals at the bank while the SEC has declined to do so. The suit is being filed under the Martin Act, a New York securities law that permits both civil and criminal penalties.

Cuomo said he coordinated efforts with the SEC. “Our case will bring individuals to justice and will make a point to people that this is a very serious matter,” he said yesterday. “When you settle a case the way the SEC is settling today, the upside is you implement immediate regulatory reforms.”

Last month, the SEC expanded its claims against the bank, accusing it of failing to disclose Merrill Lynch’s mounting losses before holding a shareholder vote on the acquisition.

The proposed fine would be distributed back to harmed shareholders, the SEC said yesterday.

The SEC settlement “addresses the judge’s concerns of penalizing shareholders so it’s likely to pass muster,” said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “At the same time, it’s hard to show any monetary damage to shareholders at this point because the Merrill deal has turned out to be a good acquisition for the bank.”

The conduct of Brian Moynihan, the bank’s current chief executive, is not under investigation, said David Markowitz, Cuomo’s special deputy attorney general for investor protection. Moynihan, who became general counsel in the middle of events, was candid with Cuomo’s office in the probe, Markowitz said.

According to the complaint, Lewis and his lieutenants Moynihan and Price calculated that if they threatened “to get out of the deal, the federal government would counter with more taxpayer funds out of a concern for the greater economy.”

The U.S. injected $45 billion into Bank of America through the purchase of preferred shares, including $20 billion approved after the acquisition in January 2009 to keep the deal from collapsing. The bank redeemed the shares in December.

“We find it regrettable and are disappointed that the NYAG has chosen to file these charges, which we believe are totally without merit,” the bank said in a statement. “In fact, the SEC had access to the same evidence as the NYAG and concluded that there was no basis to enter either a charge of fraud or to charge individuals. The company and these executives will vigorously defend ourselves.”

Lawyers for Lewis and Price denied wrongdoing. “The allegation that Mr. Price deliberately caused Bank of America to withhold from shareholders information they were entitled to know is utterly false,” said William H. Jeffress Jr. and Julia E. Guttman of Baker Botts LLP in Washington, in a statement.

SOME QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

Is the decision to sue Mr. Lewis and other Bank of America Executives by Mr. Cuomo a political move that has more to do with advancing political aspirations than bringing justice?  Or, is Mr. Cuomo the only person to have the fortitude to bring justice to an unethical action by BofA executives?

“The decision by Mr. Cuomo to sue Bank of America, Mr. Lewis and other executives in connection with BofA’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch is a badly misguided decision without support in the facts or the law,” said Mary Jo White of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in New York, who represents Lewis. “There is not a shred of objective evidence to support the allegations by the Attorney General.”

Bank of America agreed to buy Merrill on Sept. 15, 2008, after just 25 hours of due diligence, according to the suit. When the board of directors met that day to approve the transaction, they thought they were going to buy Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the suit says.

WOW…is that true?  If so, and it is proven, then one would have to wonder about not only Mr. Lewis actions, but the actions of the Board of Directors. Who makes a decision like this with only 25 hours of due diligence?

Cuomo said Bank of America scheduled a shareholder vote to approve its plan to buy Merrill on Dec. 5, 2008. By that date, Merrill incurred losses of more than $16 billion, Cuomo said. Bank of America’s management, including Lewis and Price, knew of the losses and knew that more were coming, Cuomo said.

After the merger was approved, Lewis told federal regulators the bank couldn’t complete the deal without a taxpayer bailout because of accelerated losses from Merrill, Cuomo said. However, between the time the shareholders approved the deal and the time Lewis sought the bailout, Merrill’s losses only increased by $1.4 billion, Cuomo said.

Greed, Hubris

“The conduct of Bank of America, through its top management, was motivated by self-interest, greed, hubris, and a palpable sense that the normal rules of fair play did not apply to them,” Cuomo said in the lawsuit. “Bank of America’s management thought of itself as too big to play by the rules and, just as disturbingly, too big to tell the truth.”

But wait…is Bank of America the only culprit in this grand scheme?  We (the taxpayers) lost substantially more with AIG, so where is Mr. Cuomo when it comes to that grand deception?  I respect the grandstanding claiming “greed and hubris” but I’m not sure why the BofA – Merrill merger is being focused on when there seems to be much bigger fish to fry.  Any help here?

The suit claims Bank of America received more than $20 billion in taxpayer aid as a result of their misleading efforts. Cuomo’s statement said the bank can’t explain why they didn’t disclose the losses to shareholders though the merger “would have threatened the bank’s very existence if there had been no taxpayer bailout.”

Cuomo also claims management failed to disclose to shareholders it was allowing Merrill to pay $3.57 billion in bonuses. Nor did the bank’s management tell the bank’s lawyers about the extent of Merrill’s losses before the shareholder vote.

Here’s what appears to be the sad truth…  Lewis will be defended by attorney’s for Bank of America.  BofA received bailout money.  Merrill is now part of BofA.  And, even if found guilty, more than likely any fines assessed will be paid from BofA’s insurance.  Perhaps…this is all posturing for something else.  Bank of America likely was wrong, but I’m not sure that Attorney General Cuomo is truly motivated by bringing justice…

But then again…I could be wrong.  YOUR THOUGHTS?


President Obama and Those Fat Cats from Wall Street – 2009 Ethics a Year in Review (1 of 3)

January 1, 2010

Frankly I couldn’t believe what I heard on the news when President Obama, in an interview, called bankers into the White House to seek their help with the economy – having referred to them the day before as “Fat Cat” bankers.  Hum…the President of the United States resorting to labeling people in less than a professional manner.  Perhaps it is just his folksy style, but that type of approach seems much less than presidential.  But then I got to thinking…

Seems like in this administration there was some effort to curb the abuses that the banks have hurled at consumers when it came to credit cards.  That, for everyone but the banks, was hailed as “about time” legislation.  Ethically, the banks have played less than fair with consumers.  Personal example…my wife, who has spotless credit had a Bank of American card with a zero balance and substantial credit limit, received a letter from BofA increasing her interest rate to 22.9% from 8.9%.  She called asking why and was told it was a mistake, but one that could not be undone.  After expressing her deep dissatisfaction and then vowing (after she got off the phone not to ever use the card), she got a letter from Bank of America (just a week later) cutting her credit line by 75%.  Ethical actions by Bank of America – yea right.

According to Money Magazine senior writer – Donna Rosato – “Lawmakers gave issuers till February 2010 to fully comply with the new law. Meanwhile, issuers have rushed to raise interest rates, impose new fees and cut credit limits. The median rate on credit cards surged 13% to 23% from December 2008 to July 2009, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Meanwhile, a bill to expedite the credit card reforms, the Credit Card Rate Freeze Act, has gone nowhere. When the new law kicks in in 2010, consumers will have more protection.”

Maybe the term “Fat Cat” Bankers was justified.

Ah…but there’s more.

Fortune Magazine states:

What Ken Lewis wanted, Ken Lewis got. During his eight-year tenure as Bank of America’s CEO, he embarked on a dizzying series of acquisitions to create the nation’s biggest financial services company.

But when his last two big buys — toxic-mortgage giant Countrywide and dead-on-its-feet bank Merrill Lynch — drew too much scrutiny from regulators and shareholders, Lewis packed up his golden parachute last October and bailed.

Maybe I should be a bit kinder in my blog.  Perhaps after squandering Bank of American funds on losing propositions, they needed the rate increase on credit cards.  Of course, that assumes that folks use those credit cards.  In our case, I think not.

BUT TO TOP IT OFF…

When the government, back in the Clinton administration, asked Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to extend credit to many American who, otherwise, were not credit worthy – I have to ask the question – with rising deficits and massive government spending – why should anyone in the government call anyone names when the government is doing just what those Wall Street “Fat Cats” did – namely living above their means.  We have massive debt and seem to believe that living in debt is O.K.

Perhaps the ethical thing to do is say – NO to additional government debt and do what is being preached to the population – live within your means and act ethically and in a responsible manner.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?


Financial Meltdown? Where Were Our Government Leader’s Ethics? Comments by Ethics Speaker Chuck Gallagher

September 23, 2008

The words are “urgent action” as uttered by those in financial leadership in our country.  Action needs to be taken in order to avoid a financial meltdown.  Somehow, I would suspect that words similar to that were uttered immediately before the Great Depression.  Have we learned nothing from past history?

According to CNN:

“You know, I share the outrage that people have,” said Paulson. “It’s embarrassing to look at this, and I think it’s embarrassing to the United States of America.”

“There is a lot of blame to go around – a lot of blame with big financial institutions that engaged in this irresponsible lending … blame to the people who made loans they shouldn’t have made, people who took out loans they shouldn’t have taken out,” said Paulson, who served as CEO of Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs for seven years before he became Treasury Secretary in 2006.

Now I’m confused.  Treasury Secretary Paulson is a smart man…otherwise he would not have lead Goldman Sachs and been named Treasury Secretary.  Yet, now we face one of the most significant financial crisis of our generation and times and at the heart of the issue are actions taken by aggressive financial institutions.

“Blame to the people who made loans they shouldn’t have…”  Secretary Paulson shame.  Blame to the people.  The people don’t have control over what loans are available and which loans are marketed to them.  I agree there should be blame, but to blame people who responded to sophisticated marketing campaigns that were promulgated by financial institutions who have huge profits to earn is absurd!

The “people” bought what you sold and only by the grace of the federal reserve is your former company – Goldman Sachs still in business.  The sad reality is – we are where we are due to misguided efforts and actions by those institutions (financial and government) who should have known better.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is reported to have said that the central bank would prefer that the government not have to take an active role in raising capital needed by financial firms. But he said there was no alternative given current market conditions.

“Action by the Congress is urgently required to stabilize the situation and avert what otherwise could be very serious consequences for our financial markets and for our economy,” Bernanke said.

Ethics are defined as the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.  As an Ethics Speaker, I feel that those who lead have not only a moral duty but a supreme obligation to do what is good and in the best interest of those they serve.  At this moment the debate in Washington, DC directly relates to doing what is in the “good and best interest” of those they serve.  Sad that we had to arrive on the brink of a financial disaster in order for our leaders to take notice.

We can all make mistakes.  Leaders are not perfect.  But as I say in ever Ethics presentation I make – Every Choice Has A Consequence.  This is no different.  The self-serving profiteering choices of the past – loaning money to those who could not afford it and driving an economy on the back of those who are now blamed – is unethical and wrong.  I submit that had the same actions been made on a small scale – the government would have charged those involved with fraud and it would have been a “white collar crime” example.  But this is too big and now it is called a mistake with our top financial leaders and institutions being bailed out.

What do you think – Goldman, Merrill, Lehman, AIG, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – the government’s oversight – ethical or unethical?

An interesting commentary by Ron Paul can be found here…you might want to take a look.


Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley Survive! On The Back of Taxpayer Deposits?

September 21, 2008

Now let me state from the outset – I don’t claim to be a financial wizard, but I find it curious that in order for the last of our country’s investment banks to survive they must become – well – regular banks.

If somehow we haven’t gotten it thus far – AMERICA IS IN FINANCIAL CRISIS!  The scope of the crisis is truly unknown to the average citizen and while I am no doomsayer – it is not over.

The borderline unethical financial practices of these institutions are the root cause of their demise.  When you loan money to people who can’t practically pay it back in the interest of profits – you are, in my opinion, acting without sound business ethics.  But here’s the deal – if it were you or I, we would be conviced of some fraud or conspiracy.  That would mean jail time.  But when your crime (yes I said crime) is so large that it shakes the foundation of our financial markets – you get bailed out and make no mistake the Fed’s action today (on a Sunday) is a bail out.

Think about it – over the course of the past three weeks our government in one form or another has spent up to nearly 1 TRILLION of our taxpayer dollars to shore up our financial institutions so that we would not experience another GREAT DEPRESSION.  Wise or not remains to be seen.  All I report on here are the facts.

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are the remaining two investment backs surviving.  Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and will be sold to Barclays and Merrill Lynch was purchased by Bank of America.  Fascinating that little NCNB (former North Carolina National Bank) became Bank of America and now is the largest bank in the US with the Merrill acquisition.  Who said the South would not rise again.  But I digress.

According to a report by CNN:

The Fed announced that it had approved the request of the two investment banks. The change in status will allow them to create commercial banks that will be able to take deposits, bolstering the resources of both institutions.

It is clear that this change of status is designed to use “deposit” as a means of leverage giving them a stable source of funding.  The question is – who would want to deposit funds into either institution.

Answer:  In the surprise announcement late Sunday, the central bank said that to provide increase funding support to Goldman (GS, Fortune 500) and Morgan (MS, Fortune 500) during the transition period, they would be allowed to get short-term loans from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York against various types of collateral.

So let me get this straight in my mind – the federal reserve is going to make loans to both Goldman and Morgan giving them cash to offset their poor loan portfolio making them appear to be safe.  To me that is like paint a rotten fence with white paint and calling it new.  This is nothing more than a disguised bail out.

According to MSNBC: After the collapse of Bear Stearns and its forced sale to JP Morgan Chase last March, the Fed used powers it had been granted during the Great Depression to extend its emergency loans to investment banks as well as commercial banks. However, that extension was granted on a temporary basis.

But as commercial banks, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley will have permanent access to emergency loans from the Fed, the same privilege that other commercial banks enjoy.

So here are some questions to ponder – and feel free to respond!

Question 1: Should the Fed have taken the actions to allow Goldman and Morgan to survive by allowing “normal” banking deposits?

Question 2: Do you feel that the actions by the “investment banks” have been ethical or unethical?  Why?

Question 3: With the massive actions taken over the course of the past three or so weeks, do you feel more or less confident in our nations economy?

As a business ethics speaker, I can say that there has never been a time in my lifetime that demands more thought, focus and ethical consideration of actions taken than now.  Business is good and business done with right ethical intention can grow and prosper.  But, as I say in practically every presentation I make – Every choice has a consequence.  Now we are reaping the consequences of choices made – not so long ago.

For all our sakes let’s hope that we can weather the economic storm ahead.

Your comments are welcome!


Massive Government Bail-Out … Good Business or Bad Ethics? Ethics Speaker Chuck Gallagher Comments…

September 19, 2008

Unless you are on an island somewhere disconnected from society…you are no doubt aware that we are in the midst of one of the most massive government bail outs in US history!  While I wasn’t around during the great depression – from everything we read what is taking place now is second only to that and, folks, that is amazing.  I was around during the massive savings and loan scandal and, like most who read, know that we are far from over with this one.  In fact, I don’t know of many institutions (Savings and Loans that is) who did survive.  

If the past is to be repeated, our financial climate or landscape will be dramatically different in several years.  Further, seldom does the government estimate a number that is right.  You can count on the cost being several times what is proposed today.  200 Billion will likely be a drop in the bucket when it is all said and done.  

For months I have been reporting on mortgage frauds and the number seems to keep increasing.  Clearly, the “greed is good” mentality went far beyond the crooks who are being prosecuted today and spread far and wide.  The net is being cast wide for this financial disaster and many will not survive.

The question, however, here is – should the government being doing what it is doing.  Many popular writers of financial books say – YES.  “What took them so long?”  Yet others claim that the government has no business getting involved in private business – especially when there are companies who perhaps engaged in unethical behavior – knowing full well that the products they were selling would result in financial disaster for many.  When you loan money to someone who cannot afford to make the payments you are committing a financial unethical act.  Sure there is short term profit, but at what cost?   

What’s your opinion:  (1)  Were the financial institutions unethical in their actions related to the sub-prime mortgage issue? (2)  Should the government have taken the actions that are now underway?  (3) Would it have been better to let the free market take it’s own corrective action and let the chips fall where they may?

Good business or bad ethics – what’s your call?


A Merrill Lynch Analyst, A Postal Worker, Business Week Employees and An Exotic Dancer – That Equals Nearly Five Years In Prison!

January 7, 2008

Eugene Plotkin, age 28, was sentenced to four years and nine months in federal prison for insider trading. But this was no ordinary insider trading scandal – rather, it was a bizarre series of events that caused one (who’s old enough) to remember the days of Ivan Boesky.

Here’s the skinny:

  • In the first insider trading scheme, Plotkin and a former co-worker, David Pajcin, obtained tips from a former Merrill analyst Stanislav Shipigelman about up-coming mergers, including the Adidas-Saloman acquisition of Reebok International. Profits from the illegal tips – roughly $6.2 million.
  • Scheme two – Plotkin and Pajcin hire to folks who worked at a Business Week printing plant to provide information (illegally) on upcoming prepublication issues of the magazine.
  • Lastly, Plotkin and Pajcin traded on shares of Bristol-Myers Squibb based on information provided from a postal worker who was serving on a grand jury in the investigation of BMS.

Pajcin traded in several accounts including those of his girlfriend, an exotic dancer.

Every choice has a consequence!

I keep hearing the words to the song … money for nothing and the chicks for free. Dire Straits I think. Well, it seems like these boys are in dire straits with prison terms awaiting them.

Having been there, I know what they’ll be facing.  YouTube  You’re known as a number. You’re a nobody and most of the inmates have no patience for a Harvard educated white guy. You’re counted six times per day and no special privileges. You work five days per week. My first assignment was collecting garbage on a military base. Collecting other people’s trash is nasty and it seemed it took days to remove the stench.

Almost five years … that’s nearly 20% of Plotkin’s life thus far. And what happens when he emerges? He’ll likely emerge a changed man. Technology will pass him by (although he’s bright enough to catch up quickly). Perhaps he’ll emerge bitter and wear the title convicted felon for the rest of his life. Or, perhaps, he’ll emerge with a motivation and spirit of service figuring out while there how to help others upon his release.

I repeat – Every choice has a consequence. The cool thing is – we control the consequences by our choices. Bad choices yield negative consequences – something Plotkin will experience soon. On the other hand, good choices yield positive results – something I have experienced – even as a convicted felon.

Chuck Gallagher, Ethics Speaker

Today, I am the founder of the Choices Foundation, a non-profit foundation whose purpose is to education young people about the effect of choices and consequences. Likewise, I am a motivational speaker (http://www.chuckgallagher.com) – speaking nationally to business organizations and associations about business ethics and sales. For information about speaking to your organization please visit my web site and request a promotional video.