“ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL”

March 02, 2018 at 5:00 am

The “Frontline” documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” a 2018 Academy Award nominee in the “Documentary Feature” category, tells the story of a small family-owned bank located in Chinatown that was the only U.S. bank to be indicted for mortgage fraud related to the financial crisis of 2008. The film follows the bank’s indictment, subsequent trial and the defense of its legacy over the course of a five-year legal battle. The film’s director Steve James joins us ahead of the March 4th Oscar ceremony.

Aired on March 1, 2018. 

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>>> IT'S MORE THAN JUST -- IT'S
ABOUT EXONERATING OUR ENTIRE
COMMUNITY, NO MATTER WHAT WE DO.
BE IT A BANK THAT'S DOING
BUSINESS.
>> I TELL MR. SONG, I'M GLAD TO
PICK ON YOU BECAUSE YOU'RE A
FIGHTER.
>> IT'S JUST EASIER TO ATTACK,
ESPECIALLY IF IT'S A FAMILY
BANK.
BUT HE DIDN'T REALIZE, TOM ISN'T
EASY TO BE PUSHED AROUND.
AND MY GIRLS ARE SMART, CAPABLE
WOMEN.
>> THAT WAS A CLIP FROM THE
OSCAR NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY
ABBACU SURKS, SMALL ENOUGH TO
JAIL.
IT WAS THE STORY OF A SMALL
FAMILY OWNED BANK IN NEW YORK
CITY'S CHINATOWN, IT WAS THE
ONLY BANK TO BE PROSECUTED
SUBSEQUENT TO THE PUB PRIME
MORTGAGE CRISIS.
THIS IS THE SAGA OF THE FAMILY
AS THEY FIGHT TO CLEAR THEIR
NAME.
RECENTLY I HAD A CHANCE TO TALK
ABOUT THE DOCUMENTARY AND WHAT
IT TELLS US ABOUT THE STATE OF
THE CURRENT AMERICAN JUSTICE
SYSTEM.
I WAS SINGING THE PRAISES OF THE
DOCUMENTARY BEFORE THE CAMERAS
STARTED ROLLING, BUT IT'S AN
EXCEPTIONAL DOCUMENTARY, SO
LET'S TALK ABOUT IT.
FIRST OF ALL, HOW DID YOU FIRST
COME ACROSS THIS INCREDIBLE
FAMILY, THE SUN FAMILY, AND WHAT
MOTIVATED YOU TO TELL THEIR
STORY?
>> WELL, I DIDN'T READ ABOUT IT
IN THE NEWSPAPERS OR HEAR ABOUT
IT ON TV, THAT'S FOR SURE.
THIS STORY WAS NOT REPORTED
VIRTUALLY AT ALL IN NEW YORK
CITY OR ANYWHERE ELSE.
I HEARD ABOUT IT FROM MARK
MITTON WHO'S ONE OF THE
PRODUCERS OF THE FILM AND MARK
AND I HAVE BEEN FRIENDS FOR
YEARS.
HE HAPPENED TO BE FRIENDS WITH
THE SUN FAMILY FOR TEN YEARS AND
HE CALLED ME UP RIGHT BEFORE THE
TRIAL WAS ABOUT TO GET UNDER
WAY, AND HE SAID THERE'S THIS
CRAZY CASE THAT'S ABOUT TO
LAUNCH IN NEW YORK CITY ABOUT A
SMALL BANK.
THEY REPORTED THE FRAUD THAT
THEY DISCOVERED AND TRIED TO DO
EVERYTHING RIGHT, EVEN WENT
ABOVE AND BEYOND ANDED THEY WERE
REWARDED WITH AN INDICTMENT.
SO I WENT TO NEW YORK WITH MARK
AND WE FILMED FOR THE FIRST FEW
DAYS AND I MET THE FAMILY AND I
HEARD THEIR SIDE OF THIS AND
SORT OF TOOK A MEASURE OF WHO
THEY WERE AS PEOPLE AND I JUST
DECIDED I THINK THIS IS A REALLY
IMPORTANT STORY TO TELL.
>> THE TITLE OF THE SUBTITLE OF
THIS FILM IS CALLED "SMALL
ENOUGH TO JAIL."
WHAT'S THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THAT
TITLE?
>> THE CREDIT FOR THAT TITLE
GOES TO MATT TIABBI.
MATT WAS THE FIRST PERSON TO
WRITE IN ANY DEPTH ABOUT THIS
STORY, WHEN HE WROTE HIS BOOK
THE DIVIDE, AND THE INTRODUCTION
OF THAT BOOK WAS ABOUT THE
INDICTMENT OF ABBACUS BANKS,
WHICH WAS RIGHT BEFORE THE
TRIAL.
THESE WEREN'T ONE OF THE TOO BIG
TO FAIL BANKS.
THIS BANK WAS SMALL ENOUGH TO
JAIL.
>> WAS IT ONLY BECAUSE THEY WERE
SMALL AND WEAK THAT THEY WERE
TARGETED?
WHY DID THE MANHATTAN DISTRICT
ATTORNEY'S OFFICE DECIDE TO GO
AFTER THIS FAMILY AND THIS BANK?
>> I THINK THAT VANCE TRULY
BELIEVED THAT THEY WERE GUILTY,
THAT THIS FRAUD, THIS VERY PETTY
FRAUD THAT THEY HAD DISCOVERED,
YOU KNOW, INTERNALLY AND THEN
FIRED PEOPLE AND I.NNSTIGATED
THEIR OWN INTERNAL
INVESTIGATION, THEY DID
EVERYTHING RIGHT.
BUT I THINK VANCE BELIEVED THE
FRAUD WAS SOMEHOW ENDORSED AND
EVEN ENCOURAGED BY UPPER
MANAGEMENT, WHICH DOESN'T MAKE
ANY SENSE, BECAUSE WHY WOULD
THEY REPORT IT AND DO ALL THEY
DO?
BUT HOWEVER, I REALLY DO BELIEVE
HE REALLY BELIEVED THEY WERE
GUILTY.
BUT HIS JUDGMENT ABOUT THAT WAS
CLOUDED BY AN AMBITION, TO BE
THE GUY, TO BE THE D.A. THAT
ACTUALLY BROUGHT A BANK TO
JUSTICE IN THIS 2008 CRISIS.
IF YOU PICK A SMALL BANK AND A
BANK WHICH HAPPENS TO BE IN
CHINATOWN, NEW YORK, WHICH IS A
DISENGAGED AND UNFRANCHISED
POPULATION, IT'S PRETTY WELL LOW
RISK FOR YOU.
>> THE YOUNGEST DAUGHTER OF MR.
SUNG, WHO USED TO WORK IN THE
DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, SHE
SAID THAT THE REASON THEY WERE
INDICTED WAS BECAUSE OF
INEPTITUDE, I THINK, AND
ARROGANCE,ING IF
IT'S MORE SINISTER THAN THERE.
IT YOU HAVE A SCENE WHERE
THERE'S 15 EMPLOYEES WHO ARE
WALKED LIKE A CHAIN GANG, IT WAS
CLEARLY DESIGNED TO HUMILIATE
THEM.
HOW DOES THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S
OFFICE EXPLAIN THAT?
>> WELL, THEY DON'T, THEY RUN
AWAY FROM IT IN THE FILM, WHEN
WE INTERVIEWED SY VANCE JR. AND
WE INTERVIEWED POLLY GREENBERG
WHO WAS HEAD OF ECONOMIC CRIMES
AT THE TIME OF THE TRIAL.
THEY HAD SORT OF KIND OF
APOLOGIZED FOR THE OPTICS OF
THAT AFTER THE FACT.
AND POLLY GREENBERG TRIES TO SAY
THAT IT WASN'T EVEN THEIR OFFICE
THAT DECIDED TO PUT THEM IN
CHAINS, WHICH IS PATENTLY FALSE.
SO IT DOES LEAD TO, LIKE, WHY
DID THEY DO THIS?
I THINK THE OPTICS REALLY WORKED
FOR THEM AT THE TIME, IT GOT
WIDESPREAD COVERAGE IN NEW YORK,
THE INDICTMENT, AND YES, I THINK
THERE WAS RACISM INVOLVED, BUT I
THINK IT WAS THE KIND OF RACISM
THAT FRANKLY IS MUCH MORE
PREVALENT IN AMERICA,
CHARLOTTESVILLE NOTWITHSTANDING,
BUT IT PERMEATES THE ENTIRE
CASE, FROM THE INDICTMENT
THROUGH THE TRIAL ITSELF WHERE
THEY FOUND PROFOUND LACK OF CARE
IN THE WAY THIS COMMUNITY DOES
BUSINESS AND DEALS WITH THE BANK
IN ORDER TO BUY HOMES AND START
BUSINESSES.
>> I DON'T WANT TO GIVE AWAY THE
ENDING, BECAUSE THE DOCUMENTARY
IS REALLY A THRILLER SO THE
ENDING IS IMPORTANT.
SO LET ME ASK YOU THIS, WHAT
DOES THIS STORY, WHAT DOES THIS
PROSECUTION OF THIS IMMIGRANT
FAMILY SAY ABOUT THE JUSTICE
SYSTEM IN AMERICA TODAY?
ABOUT HOW WE TREAT IMMIGRANTS,
EVEN IN A PROGRESSIVE CITY LIKE
NEW YORK AND WHAT DOES IT SAY
ABOUT THE AMERICAN DREAM?
>> I THINK IT SAYS A LOT ABOUT
ALL THOSE THINGS.
THERE IS A PROFOUND LEVEL OF
INSENSITIVITY AND LACK OF
JUSTICE FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE
ACCUSED OF CRIMES AND
PARTICULARLY PEOPLE OF COLOR,
AND IN MOST CASES, PEOPLE WHO
FIND THEMSELVES IN THAT
SITUATION, ARE NOT IN A POSITION
TO DEFEND THEMSELVES, THEY DON'T
HAVE THE RESOURCES AND THEY
OFTEN PLEAD GUILTY TO CHARGES
THAT THEY'RE EVEN INNOCENT OF.
SOMETHING LIKE 98% OF THE CASES
IN THIS COUNTRY NEVER GO TO
TRIAL, THEY RESULT IN PLEA
BARGAINS AND I DON'T BELIEVE
THAT 98% OF PEOPLE CHARGED WITH
CRIMES IN THIS COUNTRY ARE
GUILTY.
BUT IN THIS CASE, AS SOMEONE
SAYS IN THIS FILM, HE PICKED ON
THE WRONG FAMILY.
BECAUSE THIS WAS A FAMILY THAT
HAD THE MEANS, THEY'RE NOT A
HUGE BANK AT ALL.
BUT THEY HAD THE MEANS TO DEFEND
THEMSELVES AND THEY HAD THE WILL
AND DETERMINATION TO DO IT AND
THEY DID IT TO DEFEND THEIR
NAME, TO DEFEND THEIR BANK AND
MAINTAIN THEIR BANK'S
LIVELIHOOD, BUT THEY ALSO DID IT
FOR THEIR COMMUNITY.
IT WAS CLEAR THAT THEY SAW THIS
AS AN IMPORTANT FIGHT ON BEHALF
OF THE CHINESE-AMERICAN
COMMUNITY THERE IN NEW YORK
CITY.
>> WELL, STEVE, I'M GOING THE
HAVE TO WRAP IT UP WITH THAT,
IT'S A GREAT DOCUMENTARY, I HOPE
A LOT OF PEOPLE SEE IT.
THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.
ABBACUS SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL
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