Why haven't any senior executives gone to jail? This is such a familiar question by now that anyone asking it for the first time needs to be more specific. Name names, and the laws allegedly broken.
"The Untouchables" stops short of doing so. It paints an unflattering portrait of former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo, who presided over a blithe "Fund 'Em" strategy for mortgage lending. It leaves the viewer thinking Rubin might have responded to that "URGENT" email with slightly more alacrity and in so doing could have helped Citigroup avoid an eventual $45 billion in government bailouts. We see Congressional testimony from Blankfein and Dimon. But it's left to the audience to infer that some of these executives should be on the government's short list for prosecutions – and which bankers, under which statutes? (The show also ignores some of the more recent industry scandals, from Libor-rigging and money-laundering violations at several big banks to the London Whale trading losses at JPMorgan. Once again, the U.S. government has yet to hold any senior bank executives personally responsible for those problems.)
Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's criminal division and "Frontline's" designated villain for the government's inaction, was "overly fearful" of losing any criminal cases, the program says, citing two former department prosecutors (neither identified by name).
Breuer tells Smith that when the government doesn't have enough evidence to bring a case, "we have … an ethical obligation not to bring those cases. But it's not for lack of trying."
Ultimately, while "The Untouchables" ably catalogues plenty of bad behavior, it sets itself up for the nearly impossible task of proving on television what the government, with its awesome powers and vast resources has been unable (or afraid to try) to prove in court: That specific individuals committed specific crimes.
Why haven't any bankers been criminally prosecuted for the financial crisis? Every time that question is asked, it seems to become more and more unanswerable.
Maria Aspan is the National Editor at American Banker. The views expressed are her own.