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LET TRIAL LAWYERS NAIL THE THRIFT THIEVES

When President Bush proposed to bail out the savings and loan industry, he promised an aggressive pursuit of the officers and directors who squandered depositors' money through fraud, mismanagement and negligence.

We're still waiting.These individuals lived high on the hog on their depositors' money. They mugged America's taxpayers to the tune of $500 billion. There were kickbacks, payoffs and phony appraisals. We should not just shrug our shoulders and let them get away with it.

Astonishingly, the government bureaucracy has adopted the line that there's not much we can do about it. Prosecutors are understaffed and overwhelmed, and besides, the money is gone - either squandered or illegally sent overseas.

Nonsense. If the administration is serious about going after the crooks and recovering what money remains, there is a simple remedy: free enterprise. The government should turn over the task to trial lawyers, who have the time and expertise to follow the money trail wherever it leads.

To get the process started, the administration need only take the preliminary investigations already done by the Resolution Trust Corp. and the Justice Department, and make them available to private law firms around the country.

The administration would invite the most skillful investigators and trial lawyers to bring lawsuits on behalf of the government, on a contingency basis, against the corrupt S&L officers and directors. There would be so much interest in these cases, and the amount of money to be recovered would be so great, that these lawyers would work at reduced fees.

This plan would have a number of advantages. First, it would bring some of the best legal minds in the country into the fray.

Second, it would pose no risk for the government. Private lawyers would work strictly on a contingency basis. They would get paid only if they won their cases and made money for the government.

Third, it would give us a method for going after the individuals who caused the problem. The officers and directors who bilked their depositors at taxpayer expense should pay personally with every cent they have. And when those funds are exhausted, let their insurance policies - virtually every officer and director carries liability insurance - pay.

Liability insurance is a potentially huge pool of funds that no one seems to have considered. How huge? Take the government's estimate of 600 corrupt thrifts and assume that each institution had 10 officers and directors insured for up to $1 million a year against losses stemming from fraud, negligence or mismanagement. Assume also that the chicanery extended over a five-year period. In that case, insurers could be liable for up to $50 million at each of the 600 thrifts - a total of $30 billion.

If done on a contingency basis, the lawyers would have a great incentive to move quickly. That's good for the taxpayers as well, because the federal government is issuing bonds to pay for the bailout, and the majority of the $500 billion will be used to pay interest on the debt. The faster we're able to accumulate funds to pay off the debt, the less it's going to cost.