How a small bank fought the only indictment in the 2008 financial crisis

World Today

Thomas Sung, the founder and chairman of Abacus Bank. (Photo: PBS Distribution)

When the heads of Abacus Bank in New York City’s Chinatown learned that one of their employees had falsified loan applications, they immediately fired him and reported it to authorities. But it was precisely that notification that led to the New York District Attorney’s Office indict the bank and 19 employees of fraud.

They were the only bank that faced criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and they are the 261,051st largest bank in the country. After five years of fighting criminal charges, the bank prevailed. The accused were all acquitted of charges.

Documentarian Steve James followed the Sung Family’s years-long ordeal in “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”. That film was recently nominated for a 2018 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Learn more:

James and members of the Sung family sat down with CGTN to talk about their experiences and the making of this film.

Director Steve James on how he made ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’

James believes that the New York District Attorney unfairly targeted the bank and never questioned their own motives.

“I think [the NYDA] actually probably believed that the bank would roll over before the trial and plead guilty because no one wants to go to that great of an expense in a case like this,” James said. “But in that respect, they were wrong, because the Songs were willing to fight this to the finish.”

He also said that the documentary has resonated with a larger audience.

“I’ve been lucky to get people to cooperate and be in films of mine in difficult circumstances, and generally it’s always because on some level, they recognize that the story that we’re trying to tell has larger implications than just for them and they feel a duty to some degree to be part of it,” he said.

Chanterelle Sung on working at the same office prosecuting her family

Vera Sung on the five-year legal battle to vindicate her family’s bank

Abacus Bank Director Vera Sung said the family was initially wary of having cameras follow them throughout the whole trial.

“We finally decided was that so little people knew about our story and we felt that it was important that this should be shared,” she said.

“Many people ask us well, you started without even knowing what the outcome would be, and was that a concern for you, and actually the very fact that we weren’t sure what the outcome would be, was actually even more important. In other words, if we had lost, I think the story is even more important to be told.”

Thomas and Hwei Lin Sung on the impact of their court case