President Trump's 2018 budget proposal released Tuesday would dramatically cut funding for a small government agency that has built a track record for sending bankers to prison.
The agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, was established to monitor the $700 billion taxpayer bailout effort following the 2008 financial crisis. In the years since, it has charged 96 bankers from across the country with a crime and sent at least 36 to prison.
Now, Trump's budget proposes cutting the agency's funding in half — from about $40 million this year to about $20 million in fiscal 2018. The number of people conducting investigations for the agency, known as SIGTARP, would fall from 136 this year to 73 next year, under the proposal.
The Trump administration did not explicitly explain the cut to the agency's budget, but noted that there isn't much of the bailout money left and that a foreclosure prevention program funded through the bailout has stopped accepting new applications.
Still, the head of the agency, Christy Goldsmith Romero, who was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2012, took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the cut.
It “effectively removes the resources necessary” for the agency to conduct ongoing and new criminal investigations, Goldsmith Romero said in a comment attached to the budget proposal. “This places critical federal government interests at risk, and substantially inhibits the OIG in carrying out its duties and responsibilities,” she wrote.
SIGTARP is a small law enforcement agency with powers similar to the FBI. Its agents can conduct searches and make arrests. While it was established to police taxpayer bailouts, it also has the power to investigate any financial crime at a company that took TARP money.
The budget proposal “substantially inhibits [SIGTARP] from performing the duties of the office, including audits and criminal investigations,” Goldsmith Romero said.
The agency has often bragged about its track record for pursuing criminal cases against bank chief executives, but Romero has recently asked Congress for help going after those running the biggest banks. The agency has succeeded in prosecuting senior executives of mid- to small-sized banks for various misdeeds, but has failed to do the same to the CEOs of large Wall Street firms. Those executives, according to SIGTARP, are insulated by a culture that keeps its leaders in the dark about potential fraud.
Goldsmith Romero has recommended that Congress pass legislation that would make it easier to prosecute CEOs in those cases, but has received little response from lawmakers.
The organization has also warned that while the TARP program is nearing its end, some of the country's largest banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, will continue to receive billions in bailout money over the next few years. The banks remain eligible for money set aside to help distressed homeowners by lowering their interest rates and monthly payments.
Trump's proposed budget is not expected to pass in its current form and has already been criticized by Democrats and even some Republicans. But the potential cut to SIGTARP's budget was a surprise to some.
The budget proposal also includes cuts for Wall Street's financial regulators. The proposal would save $35 billion “through reforms that prevent bailouts and reverse burdensome regulations that hinder financial innovation and reduce access to credit for hardworking Americans,” according to proposed fiscal 2018 budget released by the Office of Management and Budget.
It, for example, eliminates a $50 million a year fund used by the Securities and Exchange Commission to make technology upgrades. The Reserve Fund was created under a 2010 financial reform law, the Dodd-Frank Act, and has been called a “slush fund” by some Republicans. Democrats and supporters of the agency have said the fund was created to help the agency catch up with the technological advancements made by the companies it regulates.
The budget also takes aim at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, proposing to reduce the agency's funding by $6.8 billion between 2018 and 2027. The watchdog agency is an “unaccountable bureaucracy controlled by an independent director with unchecked regulatory authority and punitive power,” the budget document said. The agency needs to be restructured and limiting its budget in 2018 would “allow for an efficient transition period.”
Republicans in Congress have already proposed stripping the agency of many of its powers, including scaling back its ability to enforce rules against financial institutions or even keep a database of consumer complaints.