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Not so fabulous: SEC now 1-for-4 in financial crisis court cases

August 2, 2013: 9:00 AM ET

Fabrice Tourre's courtroom loss should be a reminder of just how pathetic the SEC's financial crimes record has been.

Fabrice Tourre

Fabrice Tourre

FORTUNE -- So that's one.

On Thursday, nearly five years after the financial crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission proved that it was able to hold one mid-level, thirtysomething former trader-turned grad student accountable for crimes of the financial crisis. Justice served!

But the fact that a jury found former Goldman Sachs (GS) trader Fabrice Tourre liable isn't enough to change this: The SEC's track record on prosecuting financial crisis crimes is pathetic. In nearly five years, the Wall Street regulator has brought just four court cases related to the financial crisis against a total of six individuals, all of whom were relative bit players. Of those, Tourre is the only one to be found liable.

"Their track [record] of the cases that have gone to trial has not be very good," says Thomas Gorman, a partner at law firm Dorsey and Whitney and a former SEC enforcement official

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And the SEC's actual record is more like 1-in-7. That's because the SEC settled charges against former Bear Stearns hedge fund managers Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin after the the two were acquitted in a criminal trial brought by the Department of Justice. A judge signed off on the SEC's settlement only after calling the fine the regulator imposed "chump change." In another instance, the SEC had to do an about-face and ask a judge to drop a case it had brought against Edward Steffelin, who had advised JPMorgan Chase (JPM) on a mortgage bond that went bust. In response, the New York Times wrote that "if Mr. Steffelin is going to emerge as a 'poster child' for anything, it will be as a victim of regulatory overreach."

And we know there were far more than nine people who made deals during the financial crisis that were less than they seemed. Private investors have brought cases that have uncovered e-mails and other evidence that prove bankers knew they were selling clients garbage, like the one against Morgan Stanley (MS) in which its bankers suggested a deal they were putting together be called "shitbag." Yet, Morgan Stanley had never paid a fine to the SEC related to a mortgage deal. The SEC has recently said it will take a look at some of these private cases to see if there is anything they missed. Good thinking.

The SEC has brought 55 other financial crisis related cases that were settled before they went to trial, in some instances for big fines. Goldman, for one, paid $550 million. But most of the settlements were with companies, not individuals. And the total amount comes nowhere near to what investors actually lost on Wall Street's crappy mortgage bonds, or the pain suffered by the people who got a mortgage funded by these Wall Street deals that they believed was safe but ended in foreclosure.

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Nevertheless, the SEC was quick to take a victory lap after the Tourre result. Andrew Ceresney, co-director of the SEC's Division of Enforcement, said in a statement, "We will continue to vigorously seek to hold accountable, and bring to trial when necessary, those who commit fraud on Wall Street."

But it's five years, and it's one. So, you know, hold the champagne.

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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