A family-owned bank. A community that relies on that bank. A financial meltdown that threatens to take them all down.
Parallels between George Bailey and Bailey Building and Loan of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Thomas Sung and his Abacus Federal Savings Bank are drawn early in the Frontline documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.”
The film, which premieres Tuesday on PBS, tells the story of Sung and the financial institution he founded — the first Chinese-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown. Loans from the small bank to first-generation immigrants (Sung is from Shanghai) helped build the community, a population that might otherwise have been overlooked by big lenders or too intimidated to navigate the American banking system.
Directed by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself”), the documentary contends that Sung and his American-born daughters, who now run the bank, were unfairly targeted by the New York County D.A.’s office. Prosecutors needed to indict someone following the subprime mortgage meltdown, when $4.8 trillion worth of fraudulent loans were issued by U.S. banks. Those loans, among other factors, led to the financial meltdown of 2008 and the devastating recession.
But behemoths such as Citigroup, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs were too big to fail, explains the film, so authorities targeted Abacus, a bank that was small enough to jail.
“If you wanted a bank to pick on, a family-owned one between a couple of noodle shops in Chinatown is the one to pick,” says journalist Matt Taibbi, who wrote about the subprime mortgage scandal in his book “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.” He’s interviewed here along with jurors, district attorney prosecutors, defense lawyers, other financial journalists and the Sung family.
The 90-minute film follows Sung, now in his 80s, his wife and his four daughters for a year as they go to trial, fighting to exonerate the bank and their reputation.
“Abacus” focuses as much on the case as the effect it had on the tightknit family and the Chinese immigrant community. Footage of small businesses and entrepreneurs around Chinatown show the Sungs’ past, current and potential clientele — the vegetable vendor, the shoe repairman, the duck noodle restaurant owner, the nail lady at the beauty salon.
New York County Dist. Atty. Cyrus Vance says Abacus was not singled out because it was easier prey than the big banks but because of fraudulent activity over a number of years.
The problem stemmed from loan officer Ken Yu. He took bribes from borrowers, falsified mortgage applications and laundered money and was eventually sentenced for his crimes. The film explains that his actions went undetected by upper management and the Sungs because he spoke a different dialect than most of the bank’s employees, and many of the transactions were in cash.
The Sungs say they knew nothing about his crimes until 2009, after a customer complained about missing money. They brought their findings to law enforcement and began providing the documents needed to go after Yu.
Instead, the D.A. leveled a 180-plus count indictment against the bank, including grand larceny. And in a media circus moment, law enforcement paraded 15 employees of Abacus through a New York courthouse, handcuffed to one another, like a chain gang.
It was a spectacle that veterans of the banking, legal and law enforcement system had never seen before.
An attorney for Sung says his client wasn’t offered the same chance the big banks were — to pay a fine. The D.A. instead insisted they accept a felony plea because, the lawyer says, “they wanted a conviction.”
The irony is that Abacus has one of the nation’s lowest default rates on its loans. And, as one expert explains in the film, fraud is where loans are sold with little to no chance of them being paid.
He likens going after Abacus, especially when big banks had inflicted trillions of dollars in damage to the economy and their customers, as a waste of resources, small potatoes, the equivalent of arresting someone for jaywalking.
You don’t need to understand the subprime mortgage meltdown of the last decade to become invested in this film. It’s a David and Goliath story, and a window into the miscarriage of justice during the most damaging economic crisis of the century.
Early in the film, Sung stands amid rows of safe deposit boxes at his bank — 8,000 boxes to be exact. He explains that immigrants who come here live in tight quarters with one another and have nowhere else to keep their money safe. “The trust starts here, at the safe deposit box,” he says
His family and the community’s trust in the American banking and legal system was shaken by the ordeal. But the Sung family fought and won its case in 2015 (no spoiler here). A happy ending, like “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“It’s more than Abacus bank being cleared,” says Sung. “It’s about exonerating the whole community.”
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)