Lanny Breuer and the Immorality of Our Morality

Lanny Breuer doesn't prosecute Wall Street and now...returns to Wall Street. For $4 million a year.

At the Justice Department's criminal division, Lanny Breuer was supposed to lead the investigation into the financial crisis--the big banks and Wall Street firms. His track record to many close observers has been other than impressive, let's say. And now, it was announced yesterday, he's returning to his old law firm, Covington & Burling. There, for $4 million a year he'll defend...the big banks and Wall Street firms.

The Huffington Post did a big long investigative piece on the shortcomings of the administration's mortgage crisis task force, which was headed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The group didn't exactly do nothing, but it did a lot less than liberals hoped. But the problems weren't Schneiderman's fault. His authority was limited, with most key final decisions made by the criminal division. That article got a fair amount of attention because Mike Lux, a longtime progressive activist who follows these issues, was quoted as saying:

Lanny wanted to go back to a law firm that represented banks after he was done. He didn't want to prosecute the banks...Come to think of this, this can all be on the record. I don't give a f--k.

Breuer expressed his prosecutorial philosophy thus: "In reaching every charging decision, we must take into account the effect of an indictment on innocent employees and shareholders," Breuer said. "Those are the kinds of considerations in white-collar crime cases that literally keep me up at night and which must play a role in responsible enforcement."

Of course, that's completely reasonable! Good people work at these firms! Why should they pay? The opposing question, of course, is why all the people who were affected by Wall Street's sales of bad mortgages. Frontline did a devastating documentary, The Untouchables, about Justice's failure to prosecute any Wall Street executives for their role in the crisis, and it singled out Breuer for special criticism.

It's just a perfect expression of Washington/Wall Street morality, isn't it, that quote? As they move through life, people have to tell themselves things to justify the position they find themselves in. I don't exempt myself here. But money effects the kinds of things we have to tell ourselves. Breuer is probably a fine and honorable man, but he wasn't about to jeopardize what he knew was a return to his old firm at a massive salary.

Of course, the real question is what Obama and Eric Holder were doing appointing him in the first place. And the answer to that, we know. Putting an aggressive liberal in that position would have made Wall Street furious, augmented the socialst charge, impeded the money flow, et cetera. The mortgage working group still exists. Schneiderman is still Schneiderman. He'll go after them. If he's allowed.

No word yet on Breuer's replacement. But he or she has to be confirmed by the Senate, which (in fairness to Obama) automatically means that no one who might actually do the job stands of chance of being named. If anyone ever is permitted to fill the job at all.