Updated March 27 at 6:35pm

Who decided U.S. megabanks are too big to jail?

Guest Column:
Simon Johnson
Tom Hanks has a knack for playing the roles that define American generations. In “Saving Private Ryan,” he embodied the courage of the men who landed on the Normandy beaches under heavy fire. In “Apollo 13,” he conveyed calm and ingenuity under intense pressure: “Houston, we have a problem.” And Forrest Gump revealed much about America before, during and after the Vietnam War. More

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OP-ED/LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Who decided U.S. megabanks are too big to jail?

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Tom Hanks has a knack for playing the roles that define American generations. In “Saving Private Ryan,” he embodied the courage of the men who landed on the Normandy beaches under heavy fire. In “Apollo 13,” he conveyed calm and ingenuity under intense pressure: “Houston, we have a problem.” And Forrest Gump revealed much about America before, during and after the Vietnam War.

If Hanks turns his attention to our most recent decade, which character should he choose? My suggestion is Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, the head of the criminal division at the Justice Department and the man responsible for determining whether anyone should be prosecuted for the financial crisis of 2008.

In an on-camera interview, which aired recently, Breuer stated plainly that some financial institutions are too large and too complex to be held accountable before the law. Bipartisan pressure is now being applied on the Justice Department to reveal exactly how this determination was made. Breuer, however, has announced he will leave government March 1.

Breuer made the comments for a documentary aired by the PBS program “Frontline.” The investigative report, titled “The Untouchables,” asked why no senior Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for apparently well-documented illegal acts, such as authorizing document forging, misleading investors and obstructing justice. Breuer was shockingly candid.

“Well, I think I am pursuing justice,” he said. “I think I and prosecutors around the country, being responsible, should speak to regulators, should speak to experts, because if I bring a case against Institution A, and as a result of bringing that case, there’s some huge economic effect – if it creates a ripple effect so that suddenly, counterparties and other financial institutions or other companies that had nothing to do with this are affected badly – it’s a factor we need to know and understand.”

Attorney General Eric Holder expressed similar views in the context of discussing why more severe charges weren’t brought against Zurich-based UBS AG last year for manipulating the London interbank offered rate. And Neil Barofsky, a onetime senior prosecutor and former inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program that administered the bank bailouts, provided a scathing assessment of Justice Department policy.

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