Brocker.Org: A new movie exposes the ‘ridiculous’ case against the one bank charged after the 2008 crisis

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Thomas Sung in “Abacus: Small Enough to
Jail.”

Sean
Lyness.


Following the 2008 mortgage crisis, which led
to a $700 billion government bailout, the biggest financial
institutions in the country were given a light tap on the wrist
in fines and penalties. None were brought to criminal court.

But that wasn’t the case for a small, family-owned bank tucked
inside Chinatown in New York City.

In 2012, Abacus Federal Savings Bank was indicted on charges of
fraud in relation to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of
mortgages that had been sold to Fannie Mae from 2005 to 2010.
It’s the only bank to be indicted in connection to the 2008
crisis.

The case of Abacus, a reliable institution for thousands of
Chinese immigrants that is run by Thomas Sung, who’s considered
the George Bailey of Chinatown, was a shock for many in the
community, while for the rest of the country the news seemed to
tell a story of a dishonest bank that was finally getting its
comeuppance.

But as we see in the new documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to
Jail” by Steve James (“Hoop
Dreams,” “Life Itself”), the bank’s surprising decision to fight
the charges from the New York County District Attorney’s Office
led to a David-versus-Goliath court battle that revealed how thin
the case against Abacus really was. James spent the length of the
three-month trial following the Sung family and trying to clear
their name (the charges were dismissed in 2015).

“The point of view of this film is clear from the start — it’s
kind of clear from the title,” James told Business Insider. “We
think this was a miscarriage of justice.”


ABACUS PBS
“Abacus: Small Enough to
Jail.”

PBS

James learned of the case through his producer Mark Mitten, who
knew the Sungs. The filmmaker had an initial meeting with Sung
and his daughters, Jill and Vera — who are executives at the bank
— and Heather, who actually worked at the New York DA’s office
when the bank was charged (she left shortly after). Then James
knew he wanted to tell their story. But he didn’t want it to be
one-sided, which started the long road to get people from the
DA’s office to talk on camera.

“We didn’t get them to talk for the film until after the trial,
though we tried throughout,” said James, who felt it was crucial
to have the other perspective in the movie, even if he didn’t
agree with it. “There are not two equal sides of the story, but
that aside, it doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to really
articulate the case against the Sungs, because my feeling is by
really laying out the case against them you also not just hear
the case — you see how weak the case against them was.”

Because James wasn’t allowed to film in the courtroom during the
trial, he had to come up with another way not just to show what
happened inside but also to make it compelling.

“We actually hired a courtroom artist to go in several days and
make some baseline illustrations,” James said. “Then we
embellished them. There’s angles in those sequences that no
courtroom artist could ever get.”

Showing over-the-shoulder sketches and detailed reactions of the
Sungs matched the compelling testimony. Especially the DA’s star
witness, former Abacus loan manager Ken Yu (who was fired after
bank executives learned he was committing fraud), practically
admitting how he pulled off his illegal acts behind the backs of
everyone at Abacus while on the stand. Yu became the figure who
ultimately unraveled the prosecutors’ case.

Another hurdle was simply telling a story set in the financial
world that would keep audiences interested — always a challenge.
James recalls a day when he and the crew were shooting in an
empty courtroom and an officer with them asked which case they
were doing the movie on.

“I told him Abacus, and after I explained he said, ‘Oh, that’s a
paper trial,'” James recalled. “That was translation for a boring
trial. It’s not sexy. And that was the challenge. This wasn’t one
of the big banks being put on trial, but we felt a duty to tell
the story and the ridiculousness of the DA’s case.”

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” opens in select theaters
Friday.

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