Steve James, NYC, 5/18/17
Early in filmmaker Steve James’s riveting new documentary, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” about the overzealous prosecution of the 2,531st largest bank in the United States, local TV reporter Ti-Hua Chang, appears on screen. He compares the five-year legal contest between the founder and principals of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the Sung family, and the prosecutors working for New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., to the showdown between David and Goliath. “But,” Chang says, “They had a slingshot…the Sungs are a family of lawyers.” Yes, that made it possible for them to understand their fight, but their real weapon was made of up their decency, integrity, belief in honor and justice, responsibility to community, and deep love of family.
After a successful career as a lawyer and real estate developer, Thomas Sung, the family patriarch (born in Shanghai in 1935) founded Abacus in 1984. He was personally aware that while the banks operating in New York City’s Chinatown were eager for deposits, they didn’t understand their customers’ culture and were reluctant even to lend to well-to-do immigrants in the community. The family chose to name their bank after the Chinese “calculator,” a national treasure.
The five-year ordeal began on a Friday in December 2009, when the oldest Sung daughter, Vera, the bank’s Director and Closing Attorney, noticed financial peculiarities during a closing on a residential property. A phone call to the loan officer, Ken Yu, proved unsatisfactory, and the loan didn’t close. On Monday, having discovered a pattern of theft by Yu, Abacus President and CEO Jill Sung fired him and referred the case to her compliance officer. Two other loan officers involved in lesser wrongdoing were also fired. Abacus notified Fannie Mae, which had bought several of its loans.
The potential buyers of the house lost their 10% deposit and demanded reimbursement from Abacus. They were told to file a complaint with the local precinct. Soon the Major Economic Crimes Bureau of the NY County DA’s office requested information from Abacus, which sent binders bursting with records (and, eventually, during the course of the investigation turned over 600,000 pages of documents). The family believed Yu was being investigated, only later realizing that the targets were several other employees and the bank itself.
Indictments, infected with more than a low-level strain of racism, were issued in 2012. The defendants, Abacus employees, were perp walked, handcuffed and chained together, described by “Abacus” interviewee, investigative journalist Matt Taibbi, as a “Stalinist-looking chain gang.” Chanterelle Sung, the youngest daughter, then still working as an ADA, said that she’d “never seen anything like” the treatment of the defendants, as if “it was the case of the century.” Angry at “arrogance and incompetence,” she quit her job to help her family.
James, who was introduced to the Sungs by his producer Mark Mitten (who had known Vera for many years) and “fully let into their lives,” also interviewed Cyrus Vance, Jr., his prosecution team, two conflicted jurors, investigative journalists and the two lawyers who represented the Sung family.
The trial began in January 2015, with Ken Yu as the poorly chosen star witness, who repeatedly perjured himself. Barred from shooting the proceedings, James uses vivid, evocative illustrations by Christine Cornell with reenactments to fascinating effect, transforming accounts of the minutiae of mortgage fraud and banking regulations into the stuff of a thriller.
Spoiler Alert: Trial verdict is in the next paragraph.
Closing arguments were given on day 67 of the trial. On June 4, after four months, Abacus was found not guilty on all 240 counts. Jill said that it was, “a waste, tragedy. (Our) goal (was) not to be vindicated but to serve the community. Tom Sung, with pride, said it made “my daughters stronger.” Vera added, that a friend said that “the verdict ‘made her proud to be Chinese-American,’ which made (our ordeal) worthwhile.”
James, when he initially met the Sungs joked to Mitten, that with three daughters involved in a “kingdom” built by their father, that “we might have a modern-day King Lear story.” But “as we filmed, it became clear that…it’s an inspiration version with a loving and quite hilarious family, united against all the odds…an anti-King Lear story.”
Abacus remains the only United States bank indicted for mortgage fraud related to the 2008 crisis.
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” will open on Friday, May 19 at IFC Center, with a Q&A with Steve James and the Sung family following the 6:20 pm show, moderated by Heidi Ewing, and an intro at the 8:25 pm show. On Saturday, May 20 there will be Q&As with Steve James and the Sung family following both the 6:20 pm and 8:25 pm shows, moderated by Morgan Spurlock and Ursula Liang, respectively. On Sunday, May 21, a Q&A with the Sung family, moderated by Ti-Hua Chang will follow 4:15 pm show. The film will open in Los Angeles on Friday, June 9 at Landmark Nuart.