Sen. Warren Asks Bank Regulators If “Too Big To Fail” Has Become “Too Big For Trial”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren grilled bank regulators on their failure to take banks to trial.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren grilled bank regulators on their failure to take banks to trial.

In her first hearing as a member of the Senate Banking Committee, Massachusetts Senator and longtime Consumerist favorite Elizabeth Warren grilled a panel of regulators on their tendency to settle with law-breaking banks rather than go to trial.

“We all understand why settlements are important, that trials are expensive and we can’t dedicate huge resources to them,” said the Senator during today’s hearing on Wall Street reform and regulatory oversight. “But we also understand that if a party is unwilling to go to trial — either because they’re too timid or because they lack resources — that the consequence is they have a lot less leverage in all the settlements that occur.”

Sen. Warren explained her stance that if banks reap billions of profits while breaking the law, then later settle and pay that settlement money out of those same profits, “they don’t have much incentive to follow the law.”

She also pointed out that when a trial is avoided, so is all the important, possibly revealing testimony that would have come out of that trial.

The witness panel at today’s hearing included FDIC chairman Martin Gruenberg, CFPB director Richard Cordray, SEC chair Elisse Walter, and Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry.

“The question I really wanna ask is about how tough you are,” said Warren to this regulatory A-list. “Tell me about the last few times you have taken one the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street all the way to trial… anyone?”

Her request was met by applause from people in the audience and tense silence from the panel.

Comptroller Curry attempted to explain that his office has issued a large number of consent orders that allowed allegations to be resolved without the need for a trial.

“I appreciate you saying you didn’t have to take them to trial,” responded Sen. Warren. “My question is when did you bring them to trial?”

“We have not had to do it as a practical matter to achieve our supervisory goals,” replied Curry, who looked like a kid who had been caught trying to hide a bad report card from his parents.

Warren poised the same question to SEC chair Walter, who explained that “Among our remedies are penalties but the penalties we can get are limited and we have actually asked for additional authority… to raise penalties… We look at the distinction between what we could get if we go to trial and what we could get if we don’t.”

“I appreciate that,” said the Senator, who repeated her question: “I’m really asking is can you identify when you last took the Wall Street banks to trial?”

Unable to provide an answer, Ms. Walter replied, “I will have to get back to you with the specific information but we do litigate.”

Senator Warren closed out the issue with a statement that sums up how a lot of American consumers feel about the way banks are treated by our justice system and federal regulators:

“There are district attorneys and U.S. attorneys who are out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens, on sometimes very thin ground, and taking them to trial in order to ‘make an example,’ as they put it. I’m really concerned that ‘too big to fail’ has become ‘too big for trial’”

You can watch video of the entire hearing HERE. Senator Warren’s questions come around the about 110 minutes in.