'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail' tells story of only bank indicted after 2008 mortgage crisis

The new documentary from the director of 'Hoop Dreams' follows the Sung family as they are criminally charged, put on trial and finally found not guilty of fraud and grand larceny.
'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail' premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2016. (Blue Ice Docs)
Listen22:46

In the aftermath of the 2008 mortgage crisis, one message was clear: Some banks, no matter what crimes they may have committed, were too big to fail. But the public was angry. They had been through the worst catastrophe to hit the world economy since the Great Depression. Someone had to pay. 

In 2012, 184 criminal charges were brought against Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small family-run bank in New York City's Chinatown. Abacus was the only financial institution to be criminally indicted after the 2008 mortgage crisis. 

The Manhattan District Attorney said Abacus had engaged in "a systematic and pervasive mortgage fraud scheme," selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fraudulent loans to the national mortgage security packager, Fannie Mae.

They were ultimately found not guilty on all charges. 

A screen capture from 'Abacus.' Abacus Federal Savings Bank was the only financial institution to be criminally indicted after the 2008 mortgage crisis. (Blue Ice Docs)

The story of the bank and the family who founded it is the focus of a new documentary called "Abacus: Small Enough To Jail." It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday. 

Director Steve James, of "Hoop Dreams" fame, and a member of the bank's founding family, Vera Sung, joined As It Happens guest host Helen Mann in studio for a feature interview about the documentary. Here is part of their conversation:

The documentary's director, Steve James, earned acclaim early in his career for 1994's 'Hoop Dreams.' (Blue Ice Docs)

Helen Mann: At the beginning of the documentary we see them [your parents] watching 'It's A Wonderful Life,' a movie so many of us have seen over and over again. Can you tell us about what it is about the film and what it is about your father that drove him to start the bank?

Vera Sung: When he started off as an attorney, he was an immigrant himself and wanted to, therefore, help other immigrants gain legal status in the United States. He realized as he was helping immigrants get their status, buy their homes, it was very hard for them to get loans. He himself encountered the same issue. He couldn't get a loan either. He would deposit money, as well as the rest of Chinese immigrants, but when it came to borrowing money, they weren't able to do it, for one reason or another. Either the language issue or a lack of credit. He really wanted to help others to be able to get mortgages, to be able to buy their homes, which is one of the most important things for a Chinese immigrant. 

HM: What was it about the Sung family, and Abacus bank, that made you think this would be a good documentary?

Steve James: Well, it's a great story . . . that virtually no one knows about unless you're fluent in the Chinese-American press . . . you have a small bank with a fraction of the assets of the big banks. You have a case where they discovered the fraud, they reported it, not only did they report it, but they initiated their own private investigation to root out further fraud, which they did, and they have one of the lowest default rates of any bank in the country, and this is the bank that gets brought to "justice" and put on trial. 

HM: Steve, when we look at who the victims are supposed to be here, it's hard to find any, isn't it?

SJ: It does seem to hard to find. Fannie Mae is the victim of record for the trial because the mortgages were sold to Fannie Mae, the mortgages accused of being fraudulent. It was a real struggle for the prosecution to make that stick. Fannie Mae was quite reluctant to be perceived as the victim in this because they had made hundreds and millions of dollars off these loans that had performed and they were also aware of the unique circumstances of how the bank needed to operate in their community . . . So yeah, who was the victim, besides the Sung family? 

HM: The day the jury returned with the verdict, after all of these months, all the tension, all the things your family had gone through. What happened that day? 

VS: Everything is a blur. My father was not present. He was out taking a continuing education class. We had to hear all of it that day, the "not guilty, not guilty, how say you, not guilty, not guilty" . . . The judge told us not to have any emotional reaction. I told my mother to not make any sounds . . . but she started sniffling as they were saying "not guilty." I seem to remember our court reporter crying, our attorney cried. There's still a lot of anger that this has happened. Why? What must we do to prevent this from happening again, not just to us, but other people in the community? The criminal justice system really needs reform. We're not the only ones who have been wrongfully accused of a crime. 

For more on 'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,' listen to our full interview. 
 

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