AG Holder: "No such thing as too big to jail"

In March of 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made what seemed like a startling admission in saying that large financial institutions had effectively become "too big to jail."

As he told a Senate panel at the time, "I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if we do prosecute -- if we do bring a criminal charge -- it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy. I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large."

Now Holder appears to be backing away from those comments. In video remarks released Monday on the Justice Department's website, he said no company is immune from prosecution regardless of its size. "There is no such thing as too big to jail."

Holder also said the Justice Department is pursuing several "important investigations" into corporate wrongdoing and hinted the agency would take action in the "coming weeks and months."

"I am personally monitoring the status of these ongoing investigations," he said. "I am resolved to seeing them through, and in doing so I intend to reaffirm the principle that no individual, no entity that does harm to our economy is ever above the law."

Critics have attacked the Obama administration's failure to pursue criminal charges against large financial institutions that committed fraud before and after the housing crash. More recently, the Justice Department also declined to criminally prosecute firms such as HSBC, which admitted to laundering billions of dollars for drug cartels. The U.K. financial giant settled the case in 2012 by agreeing to a $1.9 billion fine.

William Black, who helped lead the government's prosecution of bankers during the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s, expressed skepticism that the Justice Department is likely to intensify its efforts to hold big banks accountable.

"The observed reality is that there is still not a single conviction of an elite banker whose fraud had anything material to do with causing the financial crisis -- zero," said Black, who is now a law and economics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "That's the greatest strategic failure in the history of the Department of Justice."

Black, who formerly worked in the agency's civil division, noted that more than 800 bankers were sent to prison following the S&L scandal.

Holder met on Friday with Swiss finance minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf. Their discussion likely touched on the U.S. government's ongoing probe of Credit Suisse for helping Americans evade taxes by depositing money in Switzerland, a law enforcement source told CBS News.

French bank BNP Paribas is also under investigation by U.S. authorities for allegedly handling payments for countries under American sanctions.

  • Alain Sherter On Twitter»

    Alain Sherter covers business and economic affairs for CBSNews.com.

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