Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A decade on from a financial crash that tore the wheels off an economy maxed out on credit, much of the West still finds itself in recovery mode. Ten years after an elite group of multi-national financial institutions committed a litany of crimes and not one has been prosecuted. There was, however, one bank that was brought up on mortgage fraud charges. In New York’s Chinatown, the Abacus Federal Savings Bank – the 2,651st-largest in the United States – could never be classed as being ‘too big to fail’ but very much the opposite, as the title alludes to.
Director Steve James – known for the recent Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself (2014) and of course Hoop Dreams (1994) – paints a detailed portrait of the Sung family while examining a legal system built to deny, rather than sustain, the dreams of small immigrant business owners. Arriving in America at the age of 16, Thomas Sung became a lawyer before founding Abacus some 30 years later. The aim was to do something for the community through a local bank that helped them build a personal and professional life in a new country. Thomas is calmness personified, never once betraying his cool demeanour, even when facing up to over 200 charges that dragged him and his family into a five-year battle against the local DA office.
And yet, this entire drama started because of the Sung family’s willingness to report the dishonesty found within a small group of its own staff members. A subsequent police investigation soon widened and shifted from the accused ex-employees to implicate Thomas and three of his daughters who also worked at the bank, which left them facing charges of bribery, embezzlement and larceny. Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. saw this as the perfect opportunity to make a name for himself, by making an example of a small, Chinese-American owned business, as Abacus became the first bank taken to trial since the mortgage crisis.
Not satisfied with throwing an unwarranted amount of resources at a matter that should have been handled by the relevant financial regulatory bodies, Vance felt it necessary to publicly humiliate all of those charged. Watching them paraded in front of the media, led into court in handcuffs on a chain gang, truly makes the blood boil. Especially when legal and media experts remark that this level of treatment is unprecedented in modern times. At worst it appears that the Sung’s were guilty of little more than being unaware of the criminal activity being conducted within the banks loan department.
It is near impossible not to warm to the Sung family and support their willingness to fight back against such bullying tactics. Although the film is pitched from their position of innocence, James does offer the prosecution a chance to put forward their side. Vance attempts to justify their reasons for bringing the case and we also hear from two of the jurors involved in the trial, who produce a fair and succinct counter argument. The story also brings us closer to the surrounding Asian-American community in Chinatown, a place and culture rarely seen outside of location set-pieces in Western cinema. The presence of a bank like Abacus is vital to the aspirations of those hoping to build a life in the ‘land of opportunity’ although as local community activist Don Lee comments “This proves that in the America we believe in, we still have a chance – but it’ll cost you $10million” – which was the Sung family’s final legal bill.
Abacus will no doubt remain the only bank to be put on trial and Steve James’ film puts forward a very persuasive case that there was never a legitimate reason for doing so. Recently Barclays became the first bank to be charged with anything related to the 2007 crash, although it has nothing to do with the actual causes of the financial disaster. While the tide of opinion may have swung against the financial behemoths that underpin our economy, the power clearly remains in their hands.