Most movies don’t make me upset. In general, I don’t get emotionally involved because I feel some distance. However, I’m more involved when I watch the news on television. I’m reacting to it, thinking critically, cheering or complaining, and carrying on a monologue about issues. No one in my family likes to watch the news with me.
I was in “news” mode when I recently watched the movie Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. This documentary film from PBS Frontline, which is available now on video (nominated for an Academy Award and highly recommended), shows the unfortunate prosecution of a family who ran a community bank in New York City’s Chinatown. While the big banks received bailouts in the 2008 recession that they helped cause, this small, family-run bank serving the Chinese-American community became the only bank from that recession to be charged with a criminal offense.
The Sung family, operators of a small community bank prosecuted by Vance, in the "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail" movie.
Abacus had stringent loan standards and it had only 1/10 the default rate on loans that the big banks had. Despite having had one employee who had committed fraud, firing him immediately when they learned of it, and reporting this problem to the government, Abacus Bank was indicted on criminal charges. In the years that followed, the family stood tall as they were publicly shamed and dragged through a horrible prosecution that cost the taxpayers $10 million. The movie asks people not to reveal what happened in the end, so let’s just say it was a total waste of $10 million.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. let the big banks go (they received billions in bailouts from the federal government during the 2008 recession and he had ample time in which to hold them accountable for their damage after his election to the DA job in 2009). But he persisted in trying to take down one bank, ruining the lives of this family that had dedicated themselves to helping unbanked immigrants in New York’s Chinatown get loans, start businesses, and improve their lives. This prosecution was racially insensitive and it was disproportionate to the alleged crime.
I’ve rarely been more upset after watching a movie.
Prosecutors have a great deal of discretion, so it’s not easy to know when they make a mistake by choosing to prosecute or not prosecute one particular defendant. Cases are more difficult to prove than a layperson like me can know. But Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. has demonstrated a pattern of going after smaller, poorer defendants while the larger ones escape with no consequences for the damage they have caused (and after people associated with them have made payments to his campaigns).
While I like to give someone the benefit of the doubt, this movie finally sealed the deal for me: Vance is a dangerous opportunist. He has not used his office to hold powerful people and companies accountable. Instead he has taken their money in the form of political donations while he’s gone after smaller fish like Abacus.
Vance Had Harvey Weinstein in 2015 and Let Him Go
In 2015, an Italian model named Ambra Battilana Gutierrez reported to the NYPD that she had been sexually assaulted by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Despite having an audio recording in which Weinstein admitted his action (yes, the NYPD had her wired and it’s on tape), Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., declined to prosecute Weinstein. It was not until late 2017 that the floodgates opened and dozens of women came forward to report decades’ worth of rape and sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein, one of the most powerful figures in entertainment.
Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, the woman who reported an assault from him in 2015. Source: Thetimes.co.uk.
As District Attorney, Vance could have stopped this behavior. It didn’t take the New York Times or the New Yorker much investigation at all to find droves of complainants. Vance failed to bring justice and prevent further crimes even though he had a tape of Weinstein admitting what he’d done. Was there a good explanation for why he failed to do so? Not enough evidence, said the DA’s office. And I’d be willing to defer to their wisdom once on something like this if that was the end of the story.
Unfortunately, it’s not. I hope you brought your bribe money.
Later, it came to light that Vance’s former law partner, who had contributed to his campaign, was a defense attorney for Weinstein. Also David Boies, an attorney for the Weinstein Company, together with his son and his law partners, had contributed a total of $182,000 to Vance’s election campaigns.
Vance Had a Fraud Case Against Baby Trump and Ivanka; He Let Them Go Also
In 2012, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office was preparing a case for fraud against Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump, children of the current U.S. president. As Vogue reported, “Ivanka and Donald Jr. narrowly avoided criminal fraud charges in 2012 for allegedly misleading potential buyers at the flailing Trump Soho Hotel—because Vance dropped the mounting case after a meeting with Donald Trump Sr.’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz.”
The Trump SoHo project was not going well, but they misrepresented its success in order to con others to buy into it. ProPublica reported that Trump, Jr. had told a real estate publication that 55 percent of the units at Trump SoHo had been sold in April 2008. In June 2008, at an event for the foreign press at the Trump Tower in Manhattan, attended by Eric Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., and herself, Ivanka Trump announced to everyone present that 60 percent of the condos had been sold. In fact, the condo was performing badly in a tough market: by March of 2010, nearly two years later, only 15.8% of these condos had been sold.
Vance's office had a strong case against the Trumps. He dropped it after their attorney apparently bought him off. Screenshot: MSNBC.
But that wasn’t all. Propublica’s report added:
In one email, according to four people who have seen it, the Trumps discussed how to coordinate false information they had given to prospective buyers. In another, according to a person who read the emails, they worried that a reporter might be onto them. In yet another, Donald Jr. spoke reassuringly to a broker who was concerned about the false statements, saying that nobody would ever find out, because only people on the email chain or in the Trump Organization knew about the deception, according to a person who saw the email.
There was “no doubt” that the Trump children “approved, knew of, agreed to, and intentionally inflated the numbers to make more sales,” one person who saw the emails told us. “They knew it was wrong.”
Yes, there are crooks in the White House as well. By now, it should be obvious that the president himself seems to be stuck in middle school. But let’s stick to Vance for now.
The Manhattan DA’s office had been building this case for two years by 2012 when Cyrus Vance, Jr. decided to end it. As the New Yorker explained, “Vance ordered his prosecutors to drop a promising criminal-fraud investigation against Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., who were suspected of misleading potential buyers of condos in the Trump SoHo building; the order came after their father’s attorney, Marc Kasowitz, paid Vance a visit. Soon after Vance’s office dropped the investigation, Kasowitz donated and raised a combined total of more than fifty thousand dollars for Vance’s re-election campaign.”
Does that sound familiar? Vance dismissing another case against powerful people when a political donation to his campaign was made. Perhaps it was coincidence and there was a small circle of politically like-minded donors, but given that Vance is a Democrat in New York City who ran unopposed in his last election, it seems unlikely that he was having any trouble raising funds. Again, it stinks of corruption.
Kasowitz later bragged that it was “amazing I got them off.”
Instead, Vance Has Picked on Little Guys
Vance has gone hard after smaller defendants. For example, look how he has targeted people accused of possessing gravity knives. If you don’t know, switchblade knives are illegal in most U.S. states, and gravity knives have a sliding blade that also is capable of being opened with one hand. That makes them dangerous and governments don’t like dangerous. The state of New York has had a law against them. In other parts of the state, people are rarely prosecuted under it, but Vance has made a big point of doing so.
These knives can be used in crimes, but in some neighborhoods, they also are used for self-defense. Guess which neighborhoods those are. Enforcement of this law has had a disparately heavy impact against minorities. In the last 10 years, 70,000 people have been arrested for the possession of gravity knives. Vance has been the only prosecutor in his state who has been persistently bringing charges against these individuals, most from minority backgrounds.
Here are felony prosecutions for gravity knives in New York City just a 6-month period in 2015, nearly all of them in Manhattan, where Vance is the District Attorney. Source: Creative Commons via Flickr by JV Santore.
At the same time, he has never brought a single case against any of the 100 knife stores in Manhattan, many of which have no doubt been selling these knives to poor people. It’s a familiar pattern: prosecute the little guy and let the money people go free.
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”
That brings us back to the movie I watched about Abacus bank. After the 2008 recession, the big banks were known as “too big to fail”. Some received bailouts from the government after the subprime mortgage mess they helped create. None were ever prosecuted. In the movie, a journalist describes Abacus, this family-owned Chinese-American community development bank in New York’s Chinatown, as “small enough to jail,” which is a play on “too big to fail.”
Abacus Federal Savings Bank is a small community bank located next to a noodle shop. The Sung family started it because they wanted to help immigrants and ‘unbanked’ small businesses in Chinatown gain access to the banking system. This bank helped people get accounts and loans who had never had access to the financial system before. And its loan standards were so tight that Abacus had only 1/10 the failure rate of most banks.
High praise for the "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail" movie.
The movie followed the Sung family as they were brought to trial by Cyrus Vance, Jr.’s office for mortgage fraud and other charges. The bank’s fraud seemed to have centered on one employee who was fired after falsifying documents and accepting bribes, an issue that was remedied and disclosed immediately to the government regulators.
The prosecutors also argued that mortgage documents were improper, but using gift letters was quite common in the Chinese community (as it is in others also). There was a distinct failure to appreciate how the culture operated. Abacus was an easier target than the big banks, which had received a free pass. Vance’s office used the employee who had committed fraud as its star witness and he was caught lying under oath.
This prosecution appeared to be a zealous attempt to take down a bank at any cost and score points with the voters. Perhaps the most galling scene in the movie was when the defendants were publicly shamed by being brought into court in a chain gang, held together in a line of chains, supposedly for security reasons. One insider quoted in the movie said that in 25 years, he had never seen anything like that happen in such a case. This was a total humiliation at the behest of prosecutors who were racially and culturally insensitive towards these respected community leaders.
The whole saga was sickening enough that by the end of the movie, I was angry at the television. And I will tell everyone in New York that if I lived there, I would never cast a vote for Cyrus Vance, Jr. for any political office. Even if you happen to agree with someone’s views or if he has done some other good things while in office, those facts cannot justify choices like these. This guy seems like a real opportunist and I was left to wonder how people in New York can trust him as a public servant.
Abacus is a good movie and I recommend watching it. Here is a short intro to the film.
Abacus documentary site: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/abacus/
Business Insider on Weinstein and Trumps: http://www.businessinsider.com/cyrus-vance-harvey-weinstein-audio-trump-2017-10
Contributions to Vance: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/06/opinion/cyrus-vance-contributions-weinstein.html
New Yorker: Why didn't he prosecute? https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/why-didnt-manhattan-da-cyrus-vance-prosecute-the-trumps-or-harvey-weinstein
NY Times: Vance defends decision: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/11/nyregion/cy-vance-defends-weinstein-decision.html?mtrref=www.google.com
Vogue article: https://www.vogue.com/article/cyrus-vance-jr-didnt-prosecute-weinstein-ivanka-donald-trump-jr
Wikipedia Vance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrus_Vance_Jr.
Propublica report: https://www.propublica.org/article/ivanka-donald-trump-jr-close-to-being-charged-felony-fraud
NY Times Review of Abacus movie: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/18/movies/abacus-small-enough-to-jail-review.html
Marketwatch story on Abacus movie: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-story-behind-oscar-nominated-bank-documentary-abacus-small-enough-to-jail-2018-02-27#false
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. cannot be feeling too good these days. Source: New York Times.
Top image: Creative Commons via Wikipedia by Saffie55. Handshake images and donkey clip art are public domain from Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons, respectively.