Jon Corzine grilled over MF Global's failure, missing $1.2B

Former New Jersey Gov. and Sen.Jon Corzine is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, prior to testifying before the House Agriculture Committee hearing regarding the collapse of MF Global.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Jon Corzine
Former New Jersey Gov. and Sen.Jon Corzine is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, prior to testifying before the House Agriculture Committee hearing regarding the collapse of MF Global.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Updated at 4:45 p.m. ET

Jon Corzine told a congressional panel Thursday that he can't explain why nearly $1.2 billion disappeared from customer accounts managed by MF Global, the brokerage firm he managed before it went under this year.

"I simply do not know where the money is, or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date," he told the House Agriculture Committee, adding that he was "stunned" when he heard of the missing funds.

Lawmakers, however, were having none of it. The committee members grilled Corzine for more answers, frustrated with his claims to know so little, and they reprimanded him with lectures about his responsibility to the public.

Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., said it was the "height of disbelief" to think that Corzine -- a former senator, a former governor and the former head of Goldman Sachs -- knew nothing about the $1.2 billion.

"We've got to get better answers from you because you [were] the CEO," he said.

Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill., said that "people who live in the real world" have "suffered dramatically" from MF Global's downfall, and he asked Corzine whether he'd be willing to pay back those people with his own personal fortune. Corzine dodged the question, saying he was confident the money would be found.

Corzine's testimony today was the first time the former MF Global CEO spoke publicly since resigning from the failed company on November 3. It was also the first time in more than 100 years that Congress subpoenaed a former senator to testify, according to the Associated Press.

Corzine's ties to both Washington and Wall Street illustrate the close ties between the two centers of power. Before Corzine joined MF Global in 2010, he was a Democratic politician who represented New Jersey for nearly a decade. He served in the Senate from 2001 to 2005 and as governor from 2006 to 2010. Before joining the Senate, he served as CEO of Goldman Sachs.

Corzine also has close ties to the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) -- the regulatory body responsible for overseeing the investigation of MF Global's collapse. That chief regulator, Gary Gensler, came to know Corzine when they worked at Goldman Sachs together.

After Corzine took the reins at MF Global, the company made bad investments in European debt, and it filed for bankruptcy on October 31. Regulatory agencies are now investigating whether the firm improperly used the missing customer money as it was going under, and the FBI is also looking for any criminal violations.

Corzine emphasized today that "the lion's share" of MF Global's 2011 third-quarter loss was not related to its investment in European debt. Still, he took responsibility for the investments, saying he "strongly advocated" for them.

Commentary: Corzine invokes 'Sergeant Schultz' defense on missing MF Global money

When asked to account for the missing $1.2 billion, Corzine said he couldn't.

"There are... many transactions that occurred in those last chaotic days," Corzine said. "I am not aware of all those, nor do I have all the information to be able to look at all those transactions. As a consequence, it would be very hard for me to speculate as to where or why that shortfall [in customer accounts] took place."

Lawmakers repeatedly pressed Corzine as to whether he authorized the use of customer funds for proprietary investments. Corzine stressed, again and again, that he had no intention of moving customer money to proprietary accounts. "There is no intention, under any context that I can think of, that I was authorizing tapping into segregated funds," he said.

While it may be hard to conceive how $1.2 billion could go missing, the other officials who testified Thursday corroborated Corzine's point that it's typical for a sinking company to have haphazard records of a dizzying level of transactions.

"[T]he [MF Global] records are a mess," said James Kobak, a lawyer representing the trustee for the liquidation of MF Global.

CFTC commissioner Jill Sommers added, "I think that we can't over-emphasize the [size of the] books and records of MF Global...The amount of accounts and transactions are enormous."

Sommers said, however, that "there is no doubt at the end of the day" her commission will account for the lost $1.2 billion.

Some lawmakers implied that Gensler's ties to Corzine may have hampered the CFTC's ability to properly regulate MF Global -- or that those ties at least gave that appearance. They particularly zeroed in on the fact that the CFTC delayed implementing a rule that restricted the way firms like MF Global that handle futures contracts can invest customer money.

Corzine lobbied against the rule, and the CFTC delayed a vote on it. They adopted the rule just this week.

Sommers insisted "that rule does not apply to those investments" in question from MF Global.

Still, Rep. Scott called the situation a "glaring glaring example of why the American people are rapidly losing faith in our ability here in Washington to get our hands around this."

Scott and others excoriated Gensler from recusing himself from today's hearing -- even though Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asked him to recuse himself on matters relating to MF Global. "At some point Mr. Gensler is going to have to answer some questions," Scott said.

A spokesperson from Grassley's office clarified that while the senator thought it would be appropriate for Gensler to recuse himself from matters relating to MF Global going forward, he should still be free to testify about the company's failures.

Corzine has been subpoenaed by two other congressional committees, so he will be on the hot seat at least twice more this month.