Steve James, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” says that political ambition “clouded” the decision by prosecutors to go after a small Chinese bank in Manhattan.
The movie tells the story of what happened to the Abacus bank, which was targeted by New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. for fraud in 2012. It was the first and only bank to face prosecution stemming from the mortgage crisis, but the movie presents the argument that Abacus was unfairly singled out because of its small size and because it catered to the immigrant community.
“I think his judgment was seriously clouded by I think his ambition, and the ambition was to be a DA who prosecuted a bank in the wake of the crisis of 2008 because none the big banks were prosecuted,” James tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. “I think his ambition clouded his judgment to bring a case that had no business being brought.”
A jury found the bank not guilty of mortgage fraud and a host of other charges in 2015. Also acquitted were two of its senior officers, who argued that they were not aware that loan originators in the bank had a scheme to produce false mortgage documents and collect commissions.
Vance, who appears in the movie, defends the decision to prosecute as a responsible move to root out corruption, and he denies that the bank was unfairly targeted.
The movie presents that argument, but focuses on the family of Thomas Sung, the founder of the bank, as they went through the ordeal of fighting the charges. Sung, pictured above, is presented as a George Bailey-like figure who had his community’s interest at heart, and the movie even opens with Sung and his wife watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The family plans to attend the Oscars with James on March 4.
A spokesman for Vance responded to “Abacus” and James’ comments.
“You would be hard-pressed to find a prosecutor’s office that would not have brought this case,” the spokesman said. “This matter originated in 2010 with a complaint by an Abacus Bank borrower to the NYPD, who referred it to our office. The ensuing grand jury investigation revealed widespread fraud. When confronted with loan after loan in which the paperwork was allegedly falsified, a grand jury voted to indict the bank and other individuals. Eight individuals publicly accepted criminal responsibility for their roles in this conspiracy by pleading guilty to crimes they committed while employed in Abacus Bank’s loan department.”
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs from 2-3 p.m. ET/11 a.m.-noon on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.