ABACUS: Small Enough To Jail (Documentary)

All the banks involved in the 2008 financial crisis were given fines and a slap on the wrist – except for one. The family owned Abacus Bank of Chinatown was prosecuted by the Manhattan District Attorney for mortgage fraud, securities fraud and conspiracy. This was surprising, as out of the 3000 loans Abacus made, only nine became delinquent.

The owner of Abacus is Thomas Sung. He was a very successful lawyer but found himself unable to get credit due to his status as a Chinese immigrant. Recognizing a need in his community, he decided to open his own bank, and the residents of New York’s Chinatown flocked to his doors. As his business grew, he employed more staff, and in 2005 he hired a Loan Officer named Ken Yu, which is when the story starts.

ABACUS: Small Enough To Jail (Documentary) 1

Unknown to the bank, Yu is asking customers for cash tips to falsify their mortgage application. He is also banking company checks in his personal account. When this is discovered by Jill Sung, Thomas’ daughter and company CEO, she immediately fires Yu and alerts the bank regulator.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. instructs his office to investigate Abacus and they continue to do so for five years. Subsequently, Vance decides to offer Ken Yu immunity in return for testifying against the bank. So the fraudster, embezzler and all-around-crook gets a pass and the bank is indicted.

Thomas Sung is offered an opportunity to plead guilty to fraud and pay a fine but, to him, his honor is too important to compromise and he decides to duke it out with Goliath. Fortunately, he isn’t alone. His four lawyer daughters jump to their father’s defense, one of who has to resign her position at the District Attorney’s office before she can join the foray.

There are many poignant moments in this film but the scene that epitomizes the reason why the filmmaker decided to tell this tale happens on the first day of the trial. The 19 indicted Chinese bank employees are chained together and paraded past the waiting press, en route to the courtroom. In the living history of the court, this is a spectacle that had never been seen before.

When Vance, the District Attorney who brought the prosecution, is asked why these people were humiliated this way, he insists that it has nothing to do with race. Quote – “They aren’t being treated any differently than if they were from a South American bank, or a Native American bank.” And that’s where his comparison ends. I wonder at what point he realized what he said?

Filmmaker Steve James
From Cinetic Media
Distributed by PBS

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