On November 5, the Farmer School of Business wrapped up its Executive Speaker Series, which normally features executives from large companies who serve as role models for future American business leaders.
The final installment in the series brought in a different kind of speaker – four of them, in fact, all associated with a small bank that was targeted during the 2008 financial crisis.
“Abacus: small enough to be imprisoned” is a 2017 documentary that tells the story of the charges against Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned business that supports Chinese immigrants by helping them get loans and start their own businesses in New York’s Chinatown. The documentary was nominated for an Academy Award in 2018 and was produced in part by Miami alumnus Mark Mitten.
The panel featured Mitten as one of its speakers. He explained how the idea for a documentary came about after hearing about the charges against Abacus.
“I did a little research to find out if another bank had been charged in connection with the 2008 crisis,” he said. “Then the lightning struck, meaning that no other bank had ever been charged.”
Abacus has been charged with mortgage fraud because of customer ambiguities on topics such as the difference between a gift and a loan, as well as discrepancies between the use of official and unofficial names when borrowing money. Although these are technically illegal, Abacus borrowers systematically repaid the loans, which does not happen with intentional mortgage fraud. Despite these facts, Abacus was subjected to a five-year legal battle which he ultimately won.
Jill Sung, CEO of Abacus, was one of the panel speakers. She described the absurdity of the charges against the bank by New York Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
“It was almost as if [Vance] was like ‘Aha! There is something wrong and I am the only one telling you that… in a year, something is going to go wrong, ”she said. “We found out that, legally, it wasn’t fair.”
After the trial, Abacus was found not guilty of all 80 charges against him.
Chanterelle Sung, another speaker, was an assistant prosecutor in the same office that sued her family’s bank. In the panel, she described how the incident strained her family, but ultimately united them under the common cause of finding justice for the bank.
“I would say the trial itself was the time when we all got together,” she said. “When something like that happened, it was a time when we all knew we had to come together. Whatever our priorities were at that time, it became our priority. “
Vera Sung is director of the bank and fourth speaker on the panel. She explained that situations like the one Abacus faced were more common than many realize.
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“All of these themes – big business versus small business, prejudice and racism – are universal. Most people don’t win these cases and justice is not served, ”she said. “Unfortunately, justice is what you can afford.”
The panel was filled with these new ideas and thoughts on the documentary and featured questions from students taking courses in business law and ethics.
While the Sung sisters spoke about the documentary and its effects on their lives and careers, they also spoke about the effect of COVID-19 on the bank.
“There are already more regulations on small banks [since the 2008 crisis]”Said Jill Sung.” I am concerned that small businesses and small clients have been under so much pressure and restrictions that I am concerned this crisis is really disrupting what is happening with these groups. “
Hannah Dove, senior director of finance and business, who helped organize the event, explained that the panel had helped her realize that discrimination on the basis of company size and race was still a relevant issue in today’s workplace.
“In ethics, we talk a lot about discrimination and racism in the workplace, but hearing their firsthand experience of how their small family bank was targeted, seeing that it was in fact a real thing, gives you a new perspective on things, ”she said. noted.
The “Small Enough to Jail” sign is still available on the Miami University Alumni Association Youtube channel. The documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” can be viewed for free on the PBS website.