WASHINGTON The size of a financial institution will never disqualify it from prosecution, although the Department of Justice does face certain "complexities" when considering criminal action against a megabank, a senior DOJ official told lawmakers Wednesday.
Mythili Raman, an assistant attorney general, testified before the House Financial Services oversight subcommittee more than two months after her boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, suggested publicly that some banks are "too big to jail."
"Is size of the institution ever a meaningful element as to whether or not you prosecute?" Rep. McHenry, R-N.C., chairman of the subcommittee, asked Raman.
Raman conceded that there are particular issues at play when considering an action against a larger entity versus a smaller one, but said an institution's size is not the only factor.
"The Attorney General was clear that no institution and no individual is immune from prosecution because of their size," Raman said at the hearing. "Of course there are complexities that come along with larger institutions. But the complexities do not equal immunity."
Holder's comments in March set off a firestorm of controversy, intensifying the debate over the perceived advantages the largest banks have not only in the marketplace but also in Washington. He later attempted to clarify his statements, arguing that no company could ultimately avoid DOJ scrutiny because of their size or any other factor.
In her prepared remarks, Raman noted that the department will "continue our aggressive pursuit of financial fraud with the same strong commitment with which we pursue other criminal matters of national and international significance."
"Over the past four years, we have stood firm in our approach that no person or corporation is above the law," she said.
Still, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle continued to sound skeptical, raising concerns about perceived inequities in the criminal justice system between the largest institutions and smaller ones about the decision of whether prosecutors bring criminal charges.
Raman said that the Justice Department often works in consultation with financial regulators, including the Treasury Department, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve Board, when pursuing cases.
Rep. Maxine Waters, the top Democrat on the full House committee, cited a major settlement with HSBC late last year on allegations the bank turned a blind eye to money launderers including in drug cartels that did business with the bank. The episode drew criticism from some commentators who thought the case justified prosecution, rather than a monetary settlement.
"In our cases we are focused on ensuring that we understand how much of these drug proceeds have flowed through a bank and when we determine that we seek to forfeit the money," Raman said.
But Waters said there was still a perceived double standard.
"These kids that go to jail for crack cocaine, you are telling me they are more guilty than the presidents of banks? I don't think so," she said.