March 13, 2012

Investigating Financial Crime

A Retrospective

In the 1970s, financial fraud cases began to rise, as shown in this excerpt from the 1975 annual report.

In the 1970s, financial fraud cases began to rise, as shown in this excerpt from the 1975 annual report.

Charles Bonaparte was clearly onto something.

When he created a “special agent force” in 1908—the forerunner of the FBI—the progressive attorney general made sure that a dozen of his first 34 investigators were bank examiners specializing in financial crimes. No doubt to the satisfaction of the muckrakers of the day and his own trust-busting boss, President Teddy Roosevelt.

These experienced financial agents hit the ground running, investigating antitrust activities (now part of our public corruption program) in the meat processing and sardine canning industries. They also tackled a variety of financial frauds—from bankruptcy scams to accounting frauds in federal prisons and courts. The Bureau was also responsible for investigating several national banking law violations.

Over our first six or seven decades, the financial crimes we investigated were fairly small potatoes by today’s standards. There were plenty of them, to be sure. Like the “Lady with the Big Heart” who embezzled some $150,000 from her bank in Trenton, New Jersey in the 1940s and used the stolen loot to pick up dinner tabs and buy expensive gifts for herself and her friends. Like the New York City music producer who convinced an investor to give him $35,000 in 1942 to finance a Nutcracker ballet movie, only to pocket the money and file for bankruptcy. And like Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can fame, who as a teenager began passing bad checks across the nation and eventually around the world before being arrested in France in 1969 and landing in a U.S. federal prison in 1971.

Financial crime became a pressing priority in the mid-1970s, when Director Clarence Kelley made white-collar crime—which in the fallout of Watergate included public corruption—a top focus of the FBI. By 1976, Director Kelley noted that 15 percent of our agents were working white-collar crime cases, and the next decade saw the beginning of a wave of agent-intensive, high-dollar, and high-impact financial fraud investigations with our partners that continues to this day. A few examples:

  • The savings and loan crisis that arose in the early 1980s became our first massive national financial fraud probe. By the end of the decade, hundreds of FBI agents were investigating more than 530 banks to determine if fraud or embezzlement were involved in their failures.
  • Health care fraud exploded in the early 1990s, leading to more than 100 arrests in our first major case—Operation Gold Pill—in 1992.
  • Telemarketing fraud also took off in the 1990s, resulting in significant cases like Operation Disconnect and Operation Senior Sentinel.
  • Insider trading scandals made national news in the 1980s with the probes of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. The FBI joined its first major investigation of a Wall Street executive soon after, helping to convict powerful municipal finance banker Mark Ferber in 1996.
  • The collapse of Enron in 2001 and the ensuing investigation led to a series of major corporate fraud investigations in the following decade.

The threat remains…and our work goes on. As evidenced in our latest Financial Crimes Report—buttressed by last week’s conviction of Robert Allen Stanford, who misappropriated $7 billion from his own company—we continue to address the threat of financial fraud…everything from insider trading to insurance fraud, from mortgage fraud to bank failures, from mass marketing scams to health care and corporate fraud.