They Still Don’t Get It
August 24, 2011, 11:08am

By Eliot Spitzer, Slate Magazine

Some people on Wall Street, and at the Wall Street Journal, speak as if the financial crisis never happened.

The art of the “big lie” is to repeat something often enough, and with a powerful enough megaphone, such that your distortions are not challenged. So it is with the Wall Street Journal’s obsession with attacking and misrepresenting the multiple cases that I brought against both AIG and its former chairman and CEO, Hank Greenberg.

At stake is much more than the particular cases at issue. By trying to rewrite the narrative of the economic cataclysm we have lived through, the deniers are attempting to challenge the common-sense conclusions that flow from an accurate understanding of history. They are desperately trying to protect a particularly rabid, and ultimately damaging, anti-regulatory philosophy that has dominated the past 30 years. They are trying to protect a broken and misguided understanding of how markets really function, a view now openly rejected even by such staunch free-market advocates as Judge Richard Posner and former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. Acknowledging the propriety of any government prosecutions of corporate wrongdoing would make impossible their current effort to push back against even the government’s minimal responses to the financial crisis.

So, in view of the Journal’s recent editorial, a few facts are in order: Greenberg was removed as CEO of AIG by his own board – of its own volition – after his refusal to answer questions about his involvement in fraudulent reinsurance contracts that his company had created. Five people were convicted by a jury in Connecticut in 2008 for their role in these frauds. The federal prosecutor, in his summation, called Greenberg an unindicted co-conspirator in the scheme. In New York, the judge who will hear the case based on these facts, brought by the state when I was attorney general, called the case “devastating” and referred to AIG as a “criminal enterprise.” AIG as a corporate entity settled the case with my office in 2006 by restating its financial results and paying a fine of $1.6 billion. Shareholders are now awaiting judicial approval of an additional $750 million settlement to compensate them for damages they suffered from these accounting frauds.

Contrary to the claims of the Journal’s editorial, the cases against Greenberg and AIG have been both proper and successful. More to the point, perhaps, they have been necessary to the vindication of justice and ethics in the marketplace.

The Journal’s editorial also seeks to disparage the cases my office brought against Marsh & McLennan for a range of financial and business crimes. The editorial notes that two of the cases against employees of the company were dismissed after the defendants had been convicted. The judge found that certain evidence that should have been turned over to the defense was not. (The cases were tried after my tenure as attorney general.) Unfortunately for the credibility of the Journal, the editorial fails to note the many employees of Marsh who have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms, or that Marsh’s behavior was a blatant abuse of law and market power: price-fixing, bid-rigging, and kickbacks all designed to harm their customers and the market while Marsh and its employees pocketed the increased fees and kickbacks. Marsh as a company paid an $850 million fine to resolve the claims and brought in new leadership. At the time of the criminal conduct, Jeff Greenberg, Hank Greenberg’s son, was the CEO of Marsh. He was forced to resign.

What does it mean that supposedly thoughtful voices in the corporate world continue to deny the simple fact that irresponsible behavior should be addressed head on, and the rules of conduct altered sufficiently to permit a sound foundation for future economic growth?

I fear that we have still not constructed a social contract or general understanding of the role of government in the marketplace that will bring things into balance – in terms of both individual behavior and collective responsibility. Maybe we are still living in the remaining hours of a fading regime, still addled by the warped perspective of too many who have done perhaps too well over the past decade or two. A case in point is Steve Schwarzman, the founder and CEO of Blackstone, a private equity firm. Schwarzman recently compared the attempt to tax the often astronomical fees earned by private equity managers as ordinary income – as they should be – to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. This horrific statement, from someone who spent millions of dollars on his own birthday party, is an unfortunate reminder of the mind-set of at least some pockets of our corporate leadership. It is time for more enlightened voices in the corporate world to use their own megaphones.