In 2009, less than a year after its $300 million taxpayer-funded rescue, the United Commercial Bank burned through the cash to become America’s first bailout-boosted bank to fail during the financial meltdown.
But this week, one of the imploded bank’s former senior executives was sentenced to eight years in prison for covering up its collapsing loans, becoming one of the few high-ranking bankers to face punishment for crisis-era crimes.
Ebrahim Shabudin, a former chief credit officer for the San Francisco-based bank, falsified records to hide major loan losses from auditors and investors in what prosecutors called a “delay-and-pray” scheme, even as the bank sought and pocketed cash from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
The bank, which once managed nearly $11 billion in assets and ran more than 50 branches across the United States, China and Taiwan, became the ninth largest to fail since 2007 even with help from the multitrillion-dollar bailout. Its dramatic failure cost the federal fund that insures Americans’ deposits more than $675 million.
The bailout’s chief watchdog called the years-long investigation into Shabudin “one of the most significant prosecutions” for crimes in the shadow of the financial meltdown. In March, after a six-week trial, a federal jury convicted Shabudin, 66, of seven counts of conspiracy and corporate fraud, making him one of the rare high-level bankers to head to court due to crisis-era crimes.
“Shabudin had every opportunity to do the right thing, but he was motivated instead to preserve the bank’s reputation at all costs, even if it meant committing a crime,” said Christy Goldsmith Romero, the special inspector general for TARP. “He was essentially gambling with taxpayers’ bailout dollars, and it was taxpayers who ultimately lost.”
But his sentencing may do little to quiet criticism that few big fraudsters have been punished in the meltdown’s long aftermath. The watchdog has secured convictions against 200 bank officers and other officials, but most were involved in smaller community banks, not Wall Street titans like those that used taxpayer money to pave over bad bets or dole out big bonuses.
Originally specializing in lending to Chinese Americans, the bank grew aggressively through commercial real-estate loans, becoming the first U.S. financial institution to buy a Chinese bank.
Its high-risk lending nearly doubled the bank’s loan portfolio between 2004 and 2007, to more than $8 billion, and made a rising star of chief executive Thomas Shiu-Kit (“Tommy”) Wu, who in 2006 was named auditing giant Ernst & Young’s financial-services Entrepreneur of the Year.
But as the bank’s river of risky loans began to fail, Shabudin and Wu held off on downgrading loans they knew were falling apart, ordered subordinates to understate the bank’s losses by at least $65 million, and blasted out false information in press releases, earning calls and annual reports.
Federal watchdogs including from the Federal Reserve, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the FBI joined the case, making Shabudin and bank senior vice president Thomas Yu the first senior bank officials charged with fraud at a bailout-boosted financial institution.
Shabudin was the bank’s third officer to be criminally convicted, after Yu and chief financial officer Craig S. On pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges late last year. Wu, the chief executive, has not been charged.
Though credited with helping stabilize the wobbling economy, the bailout is remembered by many for its corporate largesse, including the hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses paid to the heads of failing banks rescued by taxpayer cash.
Yet many of SIGTARP’s cases have focused on brazen acts of accounting fraud and smaller banks’ misspent millions. In one case, the executive of Mainstreet Bank, a community bank in Missouri, used nearly $400,000 of the bank’s $1 million bailout to buy a waterfront Florida condo.
The first person convicted of stealing bailout funds, Charles Antonucci, pleaded guilty in 2010 to bribes, fraud and embezzlement while serving as president of the Manhattan-based Park Avenue Bank. He was sentenced last month to 30 months in prison, down from a potential maximum of 135 years, because prosecutors said he cooperated with the bank probe.
William K. Black, a former bank regulator and University of Missouri associate professor specializing in white-collar crime, said Shabudin’s role in only the ninth-largest bank failure highlights the failure of regulators to combat larger frauds.
The Justice Department has still “prosecuted no banking leader for leading the three epidemics of fraud that hyper-inflated the bubble, drove the financial crisis, and caused the Great Recession,” referring to appraisal, loan and secondary-market fraud.
“Thousands of elite bankers reported pathetically inadequate” estimates of their bad debts similar to this bank’s, “and they face no investigations, much less prosecutions,” Black said. “The larger bank frauds were all bailed out this time around.”