Film ex­plores or­deal of NY fam­ily bank

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By JIAN PING in Chicago for China Daily

A sold-out au­di­ence packed the screen­ing of Aba­cus: Small Enough to Jail, a doc­u­men­tary by Steve James shown at the 52nd Chicago In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val on Oct 18.

When the lights came up at the end of the film, the en­tire au­di­ence gave a stand­ing ova­tion.

Aba­cus doc­u­ments the story of the Sung fam­ily, own­ers of Aba­cus Fed­eral Sav­ings Bank in New York’s Chi­na­town, and their bat­tle against the New York County Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s pros­e­cu­tion on fraud charges.

The DA in­dicted the bank in May 2012 with a list of nearly 200 counts of charges, in­clud­ing grand lar­ceny and mort­gage fraud. After a four-month trial in 2015, the bank was ex­on­er­ated. How­ever, the Sung fam­ily paid $10 mil­lion in le­gal fees and had im­mea­sur­able busi­ness losses.

The fam­ily-owned bank was the only one pros­e­cuted after the 2008 fi­nan­cial melt­down de­spite its very low de­fault rate. Mean­while, as the film showed, big banks is­sued $4.8 tril­lion in fraud­u­lent loans and paid $110 bil­lion in fines, but no one was pros­e­cuted.

“We were not given an op­tion,” Thomas Sung, 80, founder and pa­tri­arch of the bank, told China Daily. “It was to plead felony and pay fines, while the big banks were of­fered fines and set­tle­ments and moved on.”

Sung, who was born in Shang­hai and came to the US as a teenager, served as an im­mi­gr­tion lawyer in New York be­fore he set up the bank, with the mis­sion to help im­mi­grants re­al­ize their Amer­i­can dream.

“I’m very proud that we have helped the Chi­nese com­mu­nity grow and many im­mi­grants buy their homes,” Sung said.

One of the ac­cu­sa­tions was grant­ing loans to bor­row­ers who didn’t demon­strate suf­fi­cient in­come and sell­ing some of th­ese loans to Fan­nie Mae, “pass­ing the risk to the fed­eral bank,” al­though the bank had “one of the low­est de­fault rates in the en­tire coun­try.”

“It’s hyp­o­crit­i­cal that all th­ese large too-big-to-fail banks that hadn’t had any kind of pros­e­cu­tion other than pay­ing fines, and yet, they were try­ing to pros­e­cute this bank,” said Mark Mit­ten, pro­ducer of the film.

“That was a tremen­dous in­jus­tice,” Mit­ten said, adding that it was the rea­son he de­cided to do the film.

“This film clearly has a point of view that is in sym­pa­thy with the Sung fam­ily,” said di­rec­tor James, an Emmy Award-win­ning Chicago film­maker.

James said by spend­ing time with the Sung fam­ily, he felt com­pelled to tell the story by the char­ac­ters and by the fact that they had dis­cov­ered an em­ployee was fal­si­fy­ing loan doc­u­ments them­selves.

“They had self-re­ported, they had even gone a step fur­ther and hired an out­side in­ves­ti­ga­tor to come in and see if there was any other fraud,” said James. “They co­op­er­ated with the DA’s of­fice un­til the point that they them­selves be­came the tar­get.”

“All the ev­i­dence was con­vinc­ing that they were in­no­cent,” said James.

Al­though the film­mak­ers cham­pi­oned the Sung fam­ily, they also in­cluded the point of view of the pros­e­cu­tors, in­clud­ing in­ter­views with Cyrus Vance, the New York County Dis­trict At­tor­ney, and Polly Green­berg, chief of the DA’s ma­jor eco­nomic crimes bu­reau at the time.

In one scene in the film, 19 in­dicted em­ploy­ees of Aba­cus were brought into the court­room with their hands chained to­gether to a long rope, even though some of them had al­ready been ar­raigned and re­leased on bail.

“They were pa­raded in like crim­i­nals in hand­cuffs,” said Vera Sung, Thomas’ daugh­ter and an ex­ec­u­tive at the bank. “That was a deliberate act to hu­mil­i­ate them, to gen­er­ate the im­pres­sion that they were guilty. They shouldn’t have been treated like that.”

“I sat through nu­mer­ous days of the trial,” Mit­ten said. “I couldn’t ra­tio­nally un­der­stand how you could find this bank guilty. Cer­tainly there were some wrong­do­ing by in­di­vid­u­als, but the bank as a whole was do­ing a won­der­ful ser­vice to the com­mu­nity.”

The re­ac­tion from mem­bers of the au­di­ence was equally emo­tional.

“This is a very strong movie,” said Glenn Preibis, 64, from Chicago. “It’s one of the best films I’ve seen over the years. It’s so hon­est and true.”

Preibis said he felt em­bar­rassed by the DA’s ac­tions.

“The film did a great job demon­strat­ing that even to­day Asian peo­ple can still be the vic­tims of un­fair pros­e­cu­tion and bias,” said Hauwei Lien, 35, a Chi­nese Amer­i­can born in the US.

“I’m glad the film was made. The story needs to be told,” he said. “I hope the film will be shown in more places.”

James said he hopes the film will help peo­ple walk away with a sense of why this story is im­por­tant in light of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis that be­gan in 2008.

“This is an im­por­tant story for peo­ple to un­der­stand the way jus­tice is meted out in Amer­ica. It is also a story that speaks to the strength of the fam­ily and the com­mu­nity,” James said.

He said Aba­cus Bank was a cor­ner­stone in the Chi­na­town com­mu­nity.

“There is a lot at stake here, more at stake than just their fu­ture and rep­u­ta­tion. They have been here for 30 years. There is a lot that could have been lost. I hope that peo­ple un­der­stand that,” James said.

JIAN PING / FOR CHINA DAILY

Aba­cus:Smal­lE­noughtoJail film­mak­ers and those whose story was fea­tured in the movie at­tend the 52nd Chicago In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. From left: pro­ducer Mark Mit­ten; Sung fam­ily mem­bers Vera, Thomas and Hwei Lin; and di­rec­tor Steve James. Mark Mit­ten, film’s pro­ducer

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