This film was part of the 2017 Camden International Film Festival

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Thomas Sung walks through the streets of New York City’s Chinatown, greeting many from the community and being greeted by many more. Today, he is an elder statesman here, and something of an icon. But years ago, despite his personal success as a lawyer and real estate developer, Sung had trouble securing a mortgage. He wasn’t alone. “Banks at that time wanted Chinese depositors,” says Sung, “but not borrowers.” He knew he wanted to serve his people, so in 1984 Sung opened Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small community bank in the heart of Chinatown whose mission was to cater directly to the needs of the Chinese immigrant community. Since Sung first opened Abacus, it has come to be seen as a cornerstone of the Chinatown community, helping many residents buy homes and start businesses.

A small, fiscally conservative bank, Abacus was able to weather the 2008 economic implosion that nearly wrecked the world economy. Institutions with vast holdings like JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and HBSC, all participated in massive mortgage fraud that they plotted and maintained until the whole scheme fell apart in catastrophic fashion. And yet not a single one of these banks has ever been criminally indicted or prosecuted. In fact, the American taxpayers bailed out these banks because they were deemed “too-big-to-fail.”

Only one bank was ever prosecuted for mortgage fraud: Abacus Federal Savings Bank.

In 2010, the New York County District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., announced the indictments of nineteen former Abacus employees and the bank itself with much fanfare, saying that the institution engaged in “large scale mortgage fraud” that included hundreds of millions in loans. Vance’s office paraded ten current and former Abacus employees before the media, chained together as if they were dangerous criminals. Chanterelle Sung, Thomas’s daughter, worked as an Assistant DA in Vance’s office at the time and recalls that she’d never seen such a display in her seven years there.

Thomas Sung was bewildered by the indictments because Abacus, unlike the big banks, had discovered the internal low-level fraud themselves, then took corrective action and notified Federal authorities. And Abacus had one of the lowest mortgage default rates in the country – less the 1/20th the national average. Yet they were headed to trial as the first domestic bank charged with fraud in New York since 1991.

No one disputes that laws were broken at Abacus. There were several loan officers at the bank who were altering mortgage applications to fraudulently qualify Chinese borrowers. These potential borrowers work in a cash economy and don’t routinely have full documentation for large purchases such as a house. Once Thomas Sung’s daughters, Jill (Abacus’ President) and Vera (Bank Director), discovered the fraud, they quickly fired the loan officer involved and reported the incident to the federal authorities, all in keeping with federal regulations.

The Sungs initially welcomed the involvement of the New York City District Attorney Office, expecting they would root out any others within the bank’s loan department who might have committed fraud. Instead, it soon became clear that District Attorney Vance had the bank itself in his sights.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail follows the Sung family through the difficult last months of the trial and the nerve-wracking wait for the jury’s decision. Along the way, the film tells the story of the bank and of the Sung family, who saw defending the bank as something more than just a struggle to save a family business. It became about honor, justice, and standing up for their community. The film also digs deeply into the serious charges brought against the family and features not just their side of the case, but that of the prosecution, including Cyrus Vance, Jr. himself.

The Sungs’ lawyers believe Vance expected a small bank like Abacus to fold and opt for a plea rather than incur the expense of going to trial. But if Vance expected an easy victory, he was mistaken. Four of the six members in the Sung family have law degrees and the family spent an estimated $10 million to defend themselves and their bank over the course of the five-year ordeal.

With remarkable access to all the players in this complex story, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail creates an intimate portrait of the Sungs’ private and public struggles as they make their way through a difficult trial and its aftermath. The film offers insights from Cyrus Vance Jr. and his team, including Polly Greenberg, Director of the Economic Crimes Unit; Jiayang Fan, a reporter for The New Yorker magazine who covered the entire trial; Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone reporter and author of “The Divide”, who speaks authoritatively about what he sees is the unequal application of justice in America; and from two jurors on the case who explain the fascinating inner workings that led the jury to their verdict. Throughout, Abacus keeps the Chinese community at the center of the story with community leaders, reporters, and people who live and work in New York’s Chinatown elaborating on the nature of this insular, remarkably unique world.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail asks fundamental questions about what the purpose of a bank should be in a community – especially an immigrant community – and whether the prosecution of this small financial institution has much larger implications for the role of banks in our society.


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Film Details

Title: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Year: 2016
Director: Steve James
Producer: Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
Country: USA
Runtime: 88 mins
Category: Best of Fest

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