If you are up too late, and the TV is on, chances are at some point you will hear the “bom bom bom bom bom” of Law and Order’s iconic intro music. In one particular episode, a delusional poet who’d lost her own daughter kidnapped a 10 year old girl who had been one of her students, taking her away from a life of neglect in a foster home. There was something about the way the woman had totally convinced herself that her actions were not only not illegal, but above reproach and ordained by God, that had me thinking about one Mr. Lloyd Blankfein, leader of that band of merry men known to the world as Goldman Sachs, who feels he is doing "God’s work" as chairman of one of the most powerful investment banks in the world.
In the Law and Order episode “Nurture”, which aired in 1994, the assistant D.A. Ben Stone was reluctantly forced to pursue criminal charges against poet Arnette Fenady who kidnapped a young girl, Wendy Sylvester, and took her away from an abusive foster home, even though he thought she should have received psychiatric care instead. The long running television show’s structure, reminiscent of the formula used by the creators of the 50’s drama Perry Mason, splits the action of the show into two parts—the emotionally engaging drama of police tracking down a suspect, and the intense intellectual challenges often presented by unique cases.
It would be apropos to take a New York crime story like the Goldman Sachs one and give it the Law and Order treatment. The Securities and Exchange Commission said in a civil complaint filed this week that Goldman failed to disclose that one of its clients helped create and then bet against subprime mortgage securities that Goldman sold to investors. Imagine that we are in the first half of the “Wall Street” episode, following the camera as the SEC traipses through the offices of Goldman Sachs, tracking down the Fabrice Tourre, the young trader who is supposed to be at the heart of a securities fraud case. This is the point in the Law and Order formula where the audience often cheers the police, the same way people across America are crowing about Goldman Sachs comeuppance.
It is in the second half of the show, when the legal battle begins, that things can get squirrely. Evidence can be thrown out. Witnesses can change their testimony. And in the background of every conversation between the D.A. and his staff lawyers is the specter of the jury, a body that can easily be swayed by an artful and plausible explanation of the facts.
Given the spate of recent disclosures about Goldman Sachs and the integral role it had in the Greek financial tragedy, the anecdotal evidence is starting to suggest that this SEC investigation could have the same effect on Wall Street that the Enron fraud case had on the accounting industry. Goldman Sachs is really on the ropes this time. And if New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gets involved, the firm will find themselves being assailed from all sides at a time when the public's confidence in Wall Street is at an all time low, while cable news stations replay highlights of company chairman Lloyd Blankfein testifying before Congress every night.
No one wants to say it, but in this climate, in this economy, where a big scapegoat is needed to assuage an increasingly agitated nation that feels Wall Street has paid no price for the pain it has inflicted on the average citizen, Lloyd Blankfein’s investment bank presents a very real target, even though his firm's operational policies can be found in all the major banks. The reality is, no one wants to imagine the world without a Goldman Sachs, but the people at Arthur Anderson never thought their firm would collapse either.
The SEC staffers are probably a lot like the prosecutors on Law and Order—smart, driven people who see the world in legal abstractions and criminal statutes, the kinds of things that are difficult to translate easily into a narrative the average man can wrap his arms around. Maybe they ought to release a witness list with the names of every institution that has lost money on this deal. Maybe they ought to find some little old ladies whose life savings where somehow connected to these institutions, and parade them in front of the jury while explaining how many cans of dog food they live on a week because their pensions have been wiped out. Whatever strategy the SEC decides, though, they need to carry out with the intent of extracting the maximum penalty from the defendant.
Because when the prosecutors in the case of the kidnapping poet on Law and Order decided they wanted to help her instead of vigorously prosecuting her…
…not only was she acquitted…
…she got to keep the kid too.