The U.S. Treasury Department had just announced preliminary approval of $299 million in taxpayer support for California’s United Commercial Bank when the email landed.
“Wow… you guys are either making a big statement with this one or your ‘gatekeeper’ is incompetent,” warned the anonymous missive, sent in October 2008 to the Treasury and obtained by ProPublica through a Freedom of Information Act request. “This is one of the worst loan portfolios in the country run by one of the worst CEOs (and a lying CEO at that).”
But within months of getting bailout funds, things began to unravel. The bank disclosed publicly in May 2009 that it was restating its 2008 financial reports. It announced in July it would stop paying dividends on its stocks, including the shares bought by Treasury. In September, the bank’s audit committee wrapped up an internal investigation that found “deliberate and improper actions and omissions” by certain bank officials. And in November 2009, United Commercial Bank became the first bailout recipient to fail, wiping out Treasury’s investment of almost $300 million.
Another bank, Florida-based U.S. Century, went into a similar slide right after receiving TARP funds, as we recently reported. That bank is now on the verge of collapse, weighed down by poor-performing loans, some of them to insiders. (No executives at U.S. Century have been accused of wrongdoing.) While no emails warning the government against the Florida bank have surfaced, it was also approved for bailout funds — $50.2 million — despite red flags.
In the case of California’s United Commercial Bank, former executives now face civil and criminal charges. Federal officials also are moving to bar former CEO Thomas Wu and nine other former executives from the banking industry altogether, citing their “personal dishonesty” and “a pattern of misconduct.” Two former executives — though notably, not the CEO — are the first senior executives at a bailed-out bank to face criminal charges. They are accused of hiding the bank’s loan losses from investors, auditors and regulators.
When the anonymous tip reached the Treasury, timestamps on the email chain show that it was quickly forwarded to upper-level Treasury officials, including Neel Kashkari, who was then Assistant Treasury Secretary and in charge of TARP. (A spokesman for the investment management giant PIMCO, Kashkari’s current employer, said he was traveling and unavailable for comment.) Other Treasury officials pulled the bank’s securities filings, which disclosed that the bank’s auditor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, declined to continue on as its auditor.
The email was also forwarded to several FDIC officials with a note that said, “We were provided the following feedback on UCBH,” United Commercial Bank’s parent company. “Thought you should be aware. Let us know if you received similar feedback and how/if you are responding.” The Treasury Department funded the bank only after its primary regulator certified it was financially viable. That regulator was the FDIC.
“You always have to take anything you’re hearing from outside with a grain of salt,” said former Treasury official Jeb Mason, who noted that people giving negative feedback could have a short bet against the institution and therefore a financial interest in seeing it fail. “The best thing anyone at Treasury could reasonably do is pass that input along to examiners who are paid to make these judgments regarding an individual institution’s health.”
Both the Treasury Department and the FDIC declined comment on United Commercial Bank and how the email warning was investigated. A 2010 report by the FDIC’s inspector general, however, provides some clues.
“The FDIC and the Treasury considered the e-mail,” the report said. “But because the e-mail was from an anonymous source, its allegations were unsubstantiated, and UCBH met the Treasury’s eligibility criteria, [the FDIC’s Division of Supervision and Consumer Protection] did not change its recommendation decision.”
And yet, the report also noted that the FDIC “was aware of certain negative information” about United Commercial Bank. If the agency had acted in 2008 to start giving the bank a more intensive type of review typically reserved for more complex institutions, the report said, “the FDIC may have had additional information upon which to base its October 2008 funding recommendation.”
TARP’s bank programs as a whole are now turning a profit—though the same can’t be said of other parts of TARP or the overall bailout, which includes the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. So far, 14 out of the 707 banks receiving Capital Purchase Program money — the program that funded United Commercial Bank — have failed, according to a Treasury official. That’s roughly 2 percent.