A scandalous prosecution has been exposed in “Abacus: Small Enough to Fail,” a shocking documentary directed by Steve James. With all of the hanky-panky going on in the world of banking mortgage fraud in the late 1980s, which bank does the government pick on to prosecute? The relatively small Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown became the victim.
Although there were admissions of regularities, for which the bank took corrective steps, the situation was minor compared with what was going on in the larger banking world. The Abacus Federal Bank was founded in 1984 by Thomas Sung to serve the Chinese community, which it does.
We meet members of the Sung family—the bank has been very much a family affair—and that is an appealing part of James’s film. We also get a lowdown on issues and charges involved. It is painfully clear that the selective prosecution, perhaps with a racial overtone, was a giant example of overkill.
It should be stressed that this was the only bank ever criminally charged. It was costly for the Sung family to fight the accusations, to say nothing of the government funds used in the prosecution. What did the jury find? You can, of course, look it up on the internet, but if you are going to see this film, and you would do well to do so, you may want to wait in suspense to see how it turns out at the trial in 2015. James has provided a useful public service in the documenting this case.
The action against Abacus strikes a personal note with me, although the example is small potatoes in comparison. There was the story of my grandfather, who in a small New Jersey town ran a low-key shoe and gent’s furnishings store. There was shoe rationing at the time, during World War II, and my grandfather, who was an honest man, felt sorry for family customers who ran out of ration coupons for their children. He sold some shoes without them. The government found out and closed him down for six weeks, while larger shoe outlets ignoring rationing on a lavish scale went unpunished. It is always so much easier to pick on the little guy. A PBS Distribution release. Reviewed May 19, 2017.