State and local officials across the country are now meeting to determine their damages from interest rate swaps, which are held by about three-fourths of America's major cities. Damages from LIBOR rate-rigging are being investigated by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, officers at CalPERS (California's public pension fund, the nation's largest), and hundreds of hospitals.
One victim that is fighting back is the city of Oakland, California. On July 3, the Oakland City Council unanimously passed a motion to negotiate a termination without fees or penalties of its interest rate swap with Goldman Sachs. If Goldman refuses, Oakland will boycott doing future business with the investment bank. Jane Brunner, who introduced the motion, says ending the agreement could save Oakland $4 million a year, up to a total of $15.57 million--money that could be used for additional city services and school programs. Thousands of cities and other public agencies hold similar toxic interest rate swaps, so following Oakland's lead could save taxpayers billions of dollars.
What about suing Goldman directly for damages? One problem is that Goldman was not one of the 16 banks setting LIBOR rates. But victims could have a claim for unjust enrichment and restitution, even without proving specific intent:
Unjust enrichment is a legal term denoting a particular type of causative event in which one party is unjustly enriched at the expense of another, and an obligation to make restitution arises, regardless of liability for wrongdoing. . . . [It is a] general equitable principle that a person should not profit at another's expense and therefore should make restitution for the reasonable value of any property, services, or other benefits that have been unfairly received and retained.
Goldman was clearly unjustly enriched by the collusion of its banking colleagues and the Fed, and restitution is equitable and proper.
RICO Claims on Behalf of Local Banks
Not just local governments but local banks are seeking to recover damages for the LIBOR scam. In May 2012, the Community Bank & Trust of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, filed a RICO lawsuit involving mega-bank manipulation of interest rates, naming Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and others. The suit was filed as a class action to encourage other local, independent banks to join in. On July 12, the suit was consolidated with three other LIBOR class action suits charging violation of the anti-trust laws.
The Sheboygan bank claims that the LIBOR rigging cost the bank $64,000 in interest income on $8 million in floating-rate loans in 2008. Multiplied by 7,000 U.S. community banks over 4 years, the damages could be nearly $2 billion just for the community banks. Trebling that under RICO would be $6 billion.
RICO Suits Against Banking Partners of MERS
Then there are the MERS lawsuits. In the State of Louisiana, 30 judges representing 30 parishes are suing 17 colluding banks under RICO , stating that the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS) is a scheme set up to illegally defraud the government of transfer fees, and that mortgages transferred through MERS are illegal. A number of courts have held that separating the promissory note from the mortgage--which the MERS scheme does--breaks the chain of title and voids the transfer.
Several states have already sued MERS and their bank partners, claiming millions of dollars in unpaid recording fees and other damages. These claims have been supported by numerous studies, including one asserting that MERS has irreparably damaged title records nationwide and is at the core of the housing crisis. What distinguishes Louisiana's lawsuit is that it is being brought under RICO, alleging wire and mail fraud and a scheme to defraud the parishes of their recording fees.
Readying the Lifeboats: The Public Bank Solution
Trebling the damages in all these suits could sink the banking Titanic. As Seumas Milne notes in The Guardian:
Tougher regulation or even a full separation of retail from investment banking will not be enough to shift the City into productive investment, or even prevent the kind of corrupt collusion that has now been exposed between Barclays and other banks. . . .
Only if the largest banks are broken up, the part-nationalised outfits turned into genuine public investment banks, and new socially owned and regional banks encouraged can finance be made to work for society, rather than the other way round. Private sector banking has spectacularly failed -- and we need a democratic public solution.
If the last quarter century of U.S. banking history proves anything, it is that our private banking system turns malignant and feeds off the public when it is deregulated. It also shows that a parasitic private banking system will NOT be tamed by regulation, as the banks' control over the money power always allows them to circumvent the rules. We the People must transparently own and run the nation's central and regional banks for the good of the nation, or the system will be abused and run for private power and profit as it so clearly is today, bringing our nation to crisis again and again while enriching the few.
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