In the aftermath of the economic shockwave of the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and other banking giants were deemed “too big to fail.” None of them was ever criminally prosecuted in connection with the crisis.
Only one bank was. Abacus Federal Savings Bank.
Small, community-focused, and owned by the Sung family that includes alumnae Vera ’90 and Chanterelle Sung ’04, the bank was an easy target—some would later say, the crisis’ scapegoat—after Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. brought the bank (but not any family members) up on felony charges for mortgage fraud.
Five long and painful years later, the bank, which serves a predominately Chinese American clientele in Manhattan’s Chinatown, was acquitted by a jury in 2015.
The family’s battle to clear their bank’s name is the subject of a new film by award-winning filmmaker Steve James in collaboration with PBS’s investigative documentary series Frontline. It’s called Abacus: Small Enough to Jail [see trailer below], and is directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters). Vera and Chanterelle Sung are featured in the film as is their father Thomas Sung, who founded Abacus in 1984 and still serves as chair.
The Coolidge Corner Theatre run of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail begins June 16, with a special screening June 18 at 2 p.m.
The Sungs’ ordeal began when bank officials fired an employee for embezzlement and alerted the authorities. Their attempt to comply with the law cost them dearly—not only $10 million in legal fees, but also mental and emotional anguish, theirs as well as their innocent employees’.
The too-big-to-fail banks got off with a non-prosecution or a deferred prosecution agreement and a fine. “And here we are,” Vera says, “a small community bank serving the immigrant community with no defaults—literally less than half a percent of our loans defaulted, and we discovered the wrongdoing in the first place and reported it to law enforcement—how is it that we were getting prosecuted?”
Both Vera and Chanterelle had spent part of their careers in DA offices. Chanterelle, in fact, had been working for the Manhattan DA for seven years when Vance took over and started prosecuting her family’s bank.
She left eighteen months later for a job at the New York City Department of Investigation. “When you’re in a position of power like the district attorney,” Chanterelle says, “and unfortunately you’re not focused on integrity and appropriate use of discretion, you will be swayed by things like politics and try to make a case out of something like this to make a name for yourself, to be the only prosecutor to have prosecuted a bank after the financial crisis, for example. And then racism—all of that seeps in whether its subconscious or overt and conscious.”
Chantarelle says that the lessons she learned when she was a student in the criminal law clinic taught by Associate Clinical Professor Evangeline Sarda helped her come to terms with what was happening with her family. Law students need to learn that “if you have a case that shouldn’t be prosecuted, if there’s no evidence, then you shouldn’t go forward,” Chanterelle says. “Education is really important.”
Vera worked for the Brooklyn DA’s office for two-and-a-half years after graduating law school. She now works at Sung & Co., PC, her father’s real estate law firm, and is a director of Abacus bank.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is an “official selection” at a number of film festivals around the world, including Toronto, Sydney, Hong Kong, Boston, and Los Angeles. It is showing at selected theaters across the country starting May 19 in New York, and opens a run at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA, on June 16. On June 18, there will be a special screening there and a post-show Q&A with Sung family members and filmmakers moderated by BC Law Professor Brian Quinn. Abacus will also be aired on television on PBS’s Frontline in the fall.
Pictured at top: Vera ’90, Jill, and Thomas Sung. Photograph: Courtesy of Sean Lyness