It is pretty astonishing - one could say appalling - that five years after the financial crisis nearly brought this country to its knees, the federal Justice Department has not been able to rack up one successful criminal prosecution against Wall Street executives.
The PBS documentary series "Frontline" has been doing a laudable job tracking the government's pathetic efforts.
Investigative journalists working on the series have suggested federal prosecutors became reluctant after losing one case involving two Bear Stearns hedge fund managers charged with deceiving investors. And prosecutors also may have become wary of the ramifications for big banks and the financial markets if they went after top executives.
These reasons, if true, are inexcusable. The taxpayers have taken a bath. They have bailed out all sorts of big financial institutions, and the least they deserve are full-throttle investigations into the possible fraud that occurred when banks packaged home loans into securities and knowingly sold off junk to investors.
Former New York governor and attorney general Eliot Spitzer told "Frontline," "There was a definite sense that (the Department of) Justice backed off and that they became timorous when it came to making the cases that would really have gone to the heart of what did happen in the crisis of '08."
Former U.S. Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware said, "That is not the job of a prosecutor, to worry about the health of the banks, in my opinion. The job of the prosecutors is to prosecute criminal behavior. It's not to lie awake at night and kind of decide the future of the banks."
Indeed. In stark contrast, the country saw numerous criminal prosecutions in the wake of the savings and loan debacle in the 1980s - and during the Enron and related scandals during the early part of the last decade.
It's true the government has imposed substantial fines in civil cases and has worked to bring about reforms to limit the potential for such a financial collapse again. Yet, while President Obama and Congress have approved regulations aimed at tightening financial rules for large institutions, the implementation of these rules has been the source of much contention and debate and that continues today. What's more, financial institutions receiving big taxpayer bailouts have not been required to do nearly enough on behalf of those caught up in the mortgage mess, such as helping homeowners trying to avoid bankruptcy and foreclosure.
From beginning to end, the government has been too soft. The financial crisis cost investors, homeowners and the American taxpayer - dearly. Not all of it was the fault of Wall Street bankers, for sure. But the Justice Department's failure to land even one criminal conviction shouldn't go unnoticed, shouldn't be ignored. It just doesn't pass the sniff test, and the American public deserves better before the financial crisis gets relegated to the history books.