Wednesday, March 23, 2016

After Taking Goldman Sachs Calls on Sunday, Fed Approves GE, Inner City Press, FOIAs

By Matthew R. Lee
NEW YORK, March 21 -- The lack of seriousness in US bank regulation grows from the largest banks like Goldman Sachs - which gets weekend service from the Federal Reserve's top lawyer - down to Huntington, trying to close 106 branches.
 Goldman Sachs on January 14, 2016 withheld basic information from the response it was required to send to Inner City Press, see below.
But on March 21, after the Fed was notified of extensive irregularities in its processing of the Goldman Sachs - GE application, the Board hauled off and approved it, saying, in footnote 49, that
"Two commenters express concerns about GS Bank’s use of the Board’s prefiling process, suggesting that commenters could not participate in the resolution of substantive issues raised by the proposal because these issues were resolved before the filing of this application. One of these commenters withdrew its comments in full following its discussions with GS Bank.

 The Federal Reserve has established a prefiling process to provide potential applicants with information about the procedural requirements, such as timing and the applicable forms, associated with a proposal. See SR Letter 12-12. This process also helps to identify information that may be needed in connection with issues that the Board typically considers in connection with a particular type of application or notice, such as
competition or financial stability. The prefiling process is not used, and was not used in this case, to resolve or predetermine the outcome of any substantive issues. As in every case, the substantive issues involved in this case were considered and resolved as part ofthe processing of GS Bank’s formal application. In doing so, the Board considered all public comments on the proposal.

Voting for this action: Chair Yellen, Vice Chairman Fischer, and Governors Tarullo, Powell, and Brainard."
 Absurdly, when on January 22 Goldman Sachs sent Inner City Press a copy of its January 18 answer to the Fed, it withheld whole pages and exhibits. Inner City Press has already FOIA-ed:
"the entirety of the January 18, 2016 submission in connection with the Application by Goldman Sachs with regard to GE Capital Bank  of which a heavily redacted copy was sent to Inner City Press on January 22, as a timely commenter, by Goldman Sachs.
  "Goldman Sachs' submission is largely blacked-out, with many exhibits withheld -- all of which we are hereby requesting under FOIA. Simply as examples:  Page 1 has some redactions, which we challenge, but page 2 is almost entirely redacted.  On Page 3, only twelve words are NOT redacted -- and three of those are 'Confidential Exhibit 2,' which ICP is requesting, along with all else.
  "Nearly all of “Notices and Disclosures” is redacted --- some disclosure -- as is “Policies” and “Procedures” -- Inner City Press is challenging these redactions and requesting the entire submission under FOIA."
  That has been submitted, and receipt confirmed.
 On November 19, Goldman Sachs submitted a purported reply to the Federal Reserve, stating among other things that "Certain Comment Letters express concern with the contact between GS Bank and Board staff prior to GS Bank submitting the Application. GS Bank respectfully submits that the contact was both appropriate and ordinary in the context of the Board’s own guidance on pre-filing communications.11 Additionally, the allegations of contact are not germane to the scope of the statutory factors set forth for Board consideration under the Bank Merger Act."
  The 2012 Fed letter Goldman Sachs cites was meant to benefit smaller banks - and did not envision Additional Information letters before the public was even notified of the proposal. The misuse of small bank "regulatory relief" by the likes of Goldman Sachs casts new light of legislative riders being considered for the US spending bill due December 11.
 Going forward, KeyCorp is trying to buy First Niagara, and NY Community Bank wants to buy Astoria; there isopposition
  As to Goldman Sachs, Inner City Press / Fair Finance Watch filed a supplement comment on October 30 including Goldman's new and troubling settlement with the NYS Department of Financial Services regarding a former Federal Reserve employee impermissibly using Fed information for them. Public hearings and an extension of the comment period are needed.
 As detailed below, the Federal Reserve's General Counsel Scott Alvarez solicitiously agreed to weekend phone calls with Goldman's outside council Rodgin "Rodge" Cohen at Sullivan & Cromwell, and the Fed submitted its "Additional Information" request to Goldman in July, a full month before any application was submitted or the deal publicly announced.
  Thus there was no way for the public to be involved in the Fed's review, which is required by the Bank Merger Act (and the Administrative Procedures Act). The Fed began trying to essentially pre-approve some applications with a2012 letter to banks, here - but it said no major issues could be addressed this way, and the interchanged would be subject to FOIA.
  In this case, though, where Inner City Press submitted its FOIA request as soon as it became aware of Goldman's GE proposal and application, none of the information would have been available until after the comment period was set to close on September. It has been extended to October 30, due to requests from ICP and other NCRC members, but the Fed is still withholding portions of its communication with Goldman in the face of the FOIA Appeal Inner City Press immediately filed. (ICP has also submitted a timely additional comment on these issues.)
  Inner City Press has previously litigated FOIA requests with the Fed and won, at least in part, for example in obtaining subprime lending information the Fed wanted to withhold, here.  But this should not be necessary in order for the public to have this basic information, during the comment period. Will members of Congress and other chime in? Watch this site.
  This process began by overbroad withholding of basic parts of Goldman's application, click here to view, whichGoldman in an October 14 submission to the Fed, here, says has been cured (it has not been).
  Now the Federal Reserve has belatedly responded to Inner City Press / Fair Finance Watch's September 2 FOIA request, with some of its internal documents, many heavily redacted. FOIA letter hereFOIA documents released to ICP here, and embedded below.
 While Inner City Press is appealing, even as released the documents show that Goldman Sachs through its law firm Sullivan & Cromwell reached out to Fed General Counsel Scott Alvarez in May 2015 about the transaction, and was largely able to vet it with the Fed's staff by July, even receiving an "additional information" request before any application was filed.
  Since the public cannot comment or ask questions before a transaction is announced, this "pre-review" by the Fed in essence cuts public review and transparency out of the process. The Fed's rules against ex-parte communications can't be triggered before there is an application. But should Fed review be held, and apparently completed, before there is any public notice?
  The documents Inner City Press has obtained under FOIA show that on May 14 and May 18, Goldman Sachs and its outside counsel Rodgin "Rodge" Cohen of Sullivan & Cromwell told the Fed and its General Counsel Scott Alvarez of their plans for GE Capital Bank.
 On May 28, the Fed met with Goldman which presented a "deck" of information about "Project Apple," much of it still redacted as provided to Inner City Press (which is appealing under FOIA).
  As precedents, Goldman Sachs cited Capital One - ING and RBC - City National (see below). 
 This was followed by a May 29, 2015 letter from "Rodge" to the Fed's Scott Alvarez, asking for confidential treatment of everything including the letter, and including from any Governmental inquiry. (Page 28 of FOIA response to ICP.) A similar letter was submitted by Cohen on June 16, attaching a letter the Fed has redacted in full from Goldman Sachs' Esta E. Stecher.
  Scott Alvarez took the conversation onto the telephone, not subject to FOIA, on June 16. His accompanying e-mails, as redacted, only say "Thanks! Scott."
 On June 26, the Fed' Alison Thro wrote that "Rodgin Cohen was in today briefly to discuss, among other things, GS’s plans to acquire the deposits of GE’s ILC. He asked what the next steps might be." What were those "other things"?
 On July 13, the Fed sent Cohen a "request for additional information concerning the proposal by GS Bank to purchase certain assets and assume the deposit liabilities of GE Capital Bank."
  A request for additional information is usually what the Fed sends a bank or bank holding company after it has submitted an application; a commenter would get a copy. Here, the Fed was pre-reviewing Goldman Sachs' proposal, entirely outside of any public scrutiny. (The later public questions are as if by rote: the fix was already in.)
  On Friday, July 17 the Fed's Thomas Baxter wrote to Scott Alvarez that the transaction would be public announced the next Monday -- AFTER the Fed's "additional information request" -- based on a long voicemail from Harvey Schwartz of Goldman Sachs. (Page 59 of FOIA response to ICP). Alvarez was on the phone with "Esta of GA and Rodge Cohen."
  Alvarez said he was willing to talk with Goldman Sachs on Sunday, July 19. Cohen had written to Alvarez:
"In view of the various communications on Friday and the intended announcement of the deposit assumption transaction on Monday, GS believes that it must decide over this weekend whether it can proceed as scheduled and, as a matter of fairness and transparency, what it can tell GE. As we have discussed, this transaction appears to be a centerpiece of the GE restructuring. We would therefore most appreciate the opportunity to have a conference call as soon as possible over the weekend to obtain as much clarity as possible as to timing and other relevant matters.
We apologize for intruding into your weekend and thank you your consideration of this request." (Page 65 of FOIA response.)
   The reference to "fairness and transparency" was apparently without irony. But Goldman stood the Fed up. 
  But this announcement was postponed. Alvarez wrote on July 20 that "Rodge just sent a note that GS wants to postpone signing the deal with GE and the announcement for 2 to 3 weeks." More review continued, outside of public scrutiny. Alvarez made himself available on Sunday, July 26. But to no avail. 
 The deal was publicly announced on August 13 and Goldman Sachs on August 18 submitted the apparently pre-approved application. Inner City Press / Fair Finance Watch submitted a comment and FOIA request (delayed until now); the end of the FOIA response has a redacted reaction to the "public comment." Now others have commented and a campaign has begun. But has the Fed already made up its mind?

 But even by October 16, no response from the Fed. Only this from Goldman Sachs, only snail-mailed by its counsel:

 On October 13 Inner City Press published the Federal Reserve's communications with the CIT Group's outside counsel, which shows how the release of public documents is allowed by the Fed to be delayed. CIT made disingenuous requests for confidential treatment of information that could not be withheld, without any repercussion. They were rewarded with FOIA appeal denials by Fed Governor Jay Powell; now Goldman is trying to withhold information that should be public. Will there be any repercussion or accountability? Watch this site.

  On September 22, 2015, the Federal Reserve belatedly released the 2014 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data. A quick review of the lending of Goldman Sachs Bank USA in the New York City Metropolitan Statistical Area shows the Goldman Sachs focus which should require publish hearings in this case. 
  Fair Finance Watch, hours after the data was released, has commented to the Federal Reserve at the highest level that "in the New York City MSA in 2014, for conventional home purchase loans (Table 4-2), Goldman Sachs Bank USA made 45 such loans to whites, only two to African Americans and only one to a Latino. For refinance loans (Table 4-3), Goldman Sachs Bank USA made 16 loans to whites and NONE to African American or Latinos. This is inconsistent with the demographics of the New York City MSA and with other lenders' records; it further militate for the timely requested public hearings."
  Goldman Sachs has purported to respond to the comments of Inner City Press / Fair Finance Watch by releasing a small amount of the withheld information, and arguing that what the wider Goldman Sachs does cannot or will no be considered by the Federal Reserve on this Bank Merger Act application by Goldman Sachs Bank. We've putGoldman Sachs' response online, here. It says:
“FFW states that the audio released by examiner Ms. Carmen Segara requires an extension of the comment period and a public hearing... GS Bank believes the issue is outside the scope of the statutory factors for Board consideration under the Bank Merger Act... Goldman Sachs Bank USA ('GS Bank') hereby submits its response to the three comment letters, submitted on September 2, September 3 and September 9, 2015 (the 'Comment Letters'), by the Inner City Press's Fair Finance Watch ('FFW')....
"FFW makes accusations of 'predatory practices' in the 'mortgage field' and 'municipal finance,' and states that there are a number of compliance settlements that must be reviewed in connection with the Application. FFW references several articles related to lawsuits, settlements and other events, all but one of which involve Goldman Sachs but not GS Bank. GS Bank respectfully submits that such comments are not substantiated by specific arguments or facts. GS Bank notes that none of the articles relate to GS Bank itself, and believes these issues are outside the scope of the statutory factors for Board consideration under the Bank Merger Act.”
  Goldman Sachs is arguing that the acts of a parent company cannot be considered when its bank applies to buy ($16 billion) in insured deposits, an absurd argument. FFW has submitted another comment to the Fed, including that 
"ICP has received by mail from Goldman Sachs' counsel a purported response which claims that issues ranging from conflict of interest and under-regulation by the FRB (evidenced for example by the audio leaked by whistleblower Carmen Segarra) is not cognizable under the Bank Merger Act - an absurd argument. The FRB would be the decision maker, therefore such issues must be addressed.

 "Goldman Sachs cavalierly states that since it withdrew some of its indefensible requests for confidential treatment of its application, that issues is resolved. It is not - too much is still being withheld. Significantly, Goldman Sachs has offered no explanation of the specious requests for confidential treatment it made, denying commenters access to information during the comment period. As others now argue, the comment period would be extended and hearing held."
  Inner City Press will be covering this wider National (Community Reinvestment Coalition) protest, in which it joins; it has also submitted more comments to the New York State regulator, in a proceeding currently slated to come to a head on September 28, the first day of the UN General Assembly debate.

 As Inner City Press exposed last month, Royal Bank of Canada jumped the gun and began doing business with City National Bank without any Federal Reserve approval (see Los Angeles Times, here.)
 Now, even as New York regulators says their comment period on Goldman Sachs' GE Capital proposal extends at least through September 28, Goldman has published fine print notices in the New York Post and a newspaper in Utah saying the Federal Reserve will stop listening on September 19.
  Really? After the Fed made Goldman Sachs a bank holding company with no public comment period at all, so Goldman could get a bail-out? After the Fed's coziness with Goldman Sachs was again demonstrated, by the audio taped by then-Fed examiner Carmen Segarra?
  Inner City Press immediately submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all of Goldman Sachs' GE Capital application and related records. The Federal Reserve has provided a heavily redacted copy, on which Inner City Press / Fair Finance Watch has commented to the FRB in Washington:
"Among many other things, Goldman Sachs believes it can withhold the volume of deposits it seeks to acquire from GE Capital Bank, WHAT is seeks to acquire (and what not to acquire) from GE Capital Bank, its number of employees in Utah, the contact people on its application, the number of non profit organizations it tells the FRB it serves on the board of -- presumptively public -- and even the NAMES of the exhibits it seeks to withhold entirely. This is abusive and unprecedented and the FRB must, in response, have the comment period begin again. Otherwise, applicants only benefit by making absurd and abusive requests for confidential treatment. There is much more to be said, including at the public hearings ICP is requesting, but it is imperative that the Board act on this as quickly as possible."
  When Goldman Sachs became a bank holding company literally overnight in 2008, Inner City Press / Fair Finance Watch and others including NCRC asked the Fed how this was done with no public comment period at all

  The answer, it seems, is to be found in the audio leaked by Carmen Segarra of the Federal Reserve, showing further Fed favors for Goldman Sachs.
 With this history, and Goldman's history in predatory lending with Litton Servicing and as an underwriter, see Occupy Wall Street video here, and UN / migration connection here, it seems clear that the Fed must hold public hearings on Goldman Sachs' GE Capital application, when it is filed. 
  But with the Federal Reserve, you can never be too sure, or too careful.
  When Community Bank System of upstate New York filed with the Fed nine answers to questions asked after Inner City Press' challenge, it tried to withhold fully eight of the nine responses. More here.
  Inner City Press immediately filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the whole submission - and even the Federal Reserve saw through Community Bank System's absurdly -- and tellingly -- overbroad withholding, releasing all but one part of one of the eight withheld responses. But since then, all the Fed has done is seek a mere antitrust control commitment.
  Here's is the Federal Reserve's letter to Inner City Press granting most of its FOIA request:

We'll have more on this.
Background: The largest bank merger recently proposed, that of Royal Bank of Canada and affluent-focused Los Angeles-based City National Bank, has since April been the subject of a Community Reinvestment Act challenge by Fair Finance Watch.
  The LA Times has reported on the "letter from the Fed [which] asks the banks to respond to questions raised in written comments by [FFW]. Spokesmen for the banks declined to comment.... Fair Finance Watch, a New York advocacy group for minorities, questioned a deal between the banks in a June 11 comment letter to the Fed."
  Inner City Press first put that Fed letter online, here; then Canada's National / Financial Post reported without credit it had "obtained" it. 
  By contrast, in the pending proposal of Community Bank System - Oneida, the Syracuse Post-Standard disclosed that "Inner City Press forwarded the letter to news outlets. Some of the Fed's questions focus on whether Community could improperly control matters at Oneida in advance of the acquisition. Community is working on Fed's questions, said Hal Wentworth, Community's senior vice president for retail banking."
  One common theme is that non-control (and therefore antitrust) laws are being violated. One difference is that Community Bank System does comment to the media -- if only to blame the messenger -- while larger RBC and CNB do not. Arrogance?
 On Community Bank System's blaming the messenger, FFW has commented to the Fed that it will "will comment again when Community Bank System I has provided a copy of its response to the FRS' questions of July 13. Beyond the CRA and impermissible “control” questions raised therein, we wish at this time to raise the issues that, in a public response to ICP's comments, Community Bank System's SVP for retail banking said the following, in a prepared statement no less:
'In a statement today, Hal Wentworth, Community's senior vice president for retail banking, said that Inner City Press is not a local group and pointed out that letter was the only one filed on the Oneida deal. "This activist does not do business with either Oneida or Community Bank."'
If it would be inappropriate for Community Bank System to comment on or disclose information about its customers, in this context the same applies to the above-quoted, which, separately, is reminiscent of human rights abusing countries emphasizing where the rights groups who study and report on them are based."
   Now Community Bank System is trying to withhold eight of its nine responses; Inner City Press is challenging this under the Freedom of Information Act, comparing Community Bank System's outrageous withholding at the Fed with other banks, and with Community Bank System's to the OCC, more here.