COMMENTARY | Actions have consequences. It is a simple notion, but in the broad sense of the economic meltdown here in the United States, it is one that has often failed to play out.
We have been led to believe that banks are not only "too big to fail" but also "too big to jail" and that their employees will not be held liable for the misdeeds performed in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
We have managed to jail the Bernie Madoffs and Allen Stanfords of the world but we are still grasping on how we can hold the vast Wall Street financial complex responsible for their institutional misdeeds.
And while Ponzi schemers and the like have affected many, many people, our government has failed to hold the larger corporations responsible for a housing and financial collapse that the banks should have seen coming.
But I believe it can be done, and if you take a long hard look around the globe, and even here in the U.S., you'll find that governments are starting to redefine a corporation's culpability, liability, and responsibility to the public.
Why? I believe that the very definition of corporate crime is being looked at in a new light. No longer is it simply viewed as white-collar crime, but rather a form of economic homicide. This is no longer just a matter of money lost or bottom lines being padded. There are real victims whose lives have been devastated and in some cases lost to a company's culpability and wanton disregard of their reckless actions.
First and foremost, individual accountability must be part of the equation where it is appropriate. The Justice Department just took the bold step of holding two supervisors criminally responsible for the deaths of 11 workers in the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, in addition to holding the entire company criminally liable.
In Italy six scientists were convicted of manslaughter for providing "inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information" about the threat of a deadly earthquake to a small town.
In both cases there were people who were aware of conditions that were extremely, extremely dangerous and failed to act on that information. There were disasters that should have been anticipated. The evidence in both cases shows a compelling case that these defendants were both careless and inept, and that their actions had a significant role in the death of others.
So it is completely appropriate to charge these people with a crime, because if there is enough foreseeability, it does become a form of homicide. Their conduct directly or indirectly led to people's deaths.
And that is the same thing that happened in the front lines of the foreclosure crisis. Wall Street stopped paying attention to the people in their care -- aka their customers -- and they should have foreseen that they were going to drive the market all the way up by pushing these faulty mortgage products on the public, and then taking those same mortgages and bundling them up and selling them so many times that it became impossible for them to keep track.
They should have been able to predict that it was all going to come crashing down on the backs of Main Street America. And yes my friends that is a clear case of negligent homicide for the death of our nation's economy, and sadly, more than a few homeowners.
This conduct all lies at the foot of management and at the board of directors of these banks, as well as the officers and directors of these companies. I contend they should have been able to foresee the logical outcome of their conduct.
I am convinced there is a movement growing to build a new construct and redefine the amoral reckless conduct of the banks as a form of economic homicide. Because it is a form of economic homicide when you drain someone's entire life savings and don't offer them a way out for a crisis that your conduct caused.
The rules are changing, and I remain optimistic there will be a time when the banks and their executives can be put in jail, or at least forcibly removed from their positions of power.
Real estate attorney Roy Oppenheim left Wall Street for Main Street, founding Oppenheim Law along with his wife in 1989 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and is vice president of Weston Title. He is also creator of the South Florida Law Blog, named the best business and technology blog of 2011 by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
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