. TL;DR below.
The judge in the trial, the right honorable and amusingly cantankerous Harold Baer, acknowledged that the case was not likely to set the public's pulse racing. "It is unlikely, I think, that this will generate a lot of media publicity," Baer sighed to the jury in his preliminary instructions.
The "simple fraud" Waszmer described centered around public borrowing. Say your town wants to build a new elementary school. So it goes to Wall Street, which issues a bond in your town's name to raise $100 million, attracting cash from investors all over the globe. Once Wall Street raises all that money, it dumps it in a tax-exempt account, which your town then uses to pay builders, plumbers, the chalkboard company and whoever else winds up working on the project.
But here's the catch: Most towns, when they raise all that money, don't spend it all at once. Often it takes years to complete a construction project, and the last contractor isn't paid until long after the original bond is issued. While that unspent money is sitting in the town's account, local officials go looking for a financial company on Wall Street to invest it for them.
To do that, officials hire a middleman firm known as a broker to set up a public auction and invite banks to compete for the town's business. For the $100 million you borrowed on your elementary school bond, Bank A might offer you 5 percent interest. Bank B goes further and offers 5.25 percent. But Bank C, the winner of the auction, offers 5.5 percent.
In most cases, towns and cities, called issuers, are legally required to submit their bonds to a competitive auction of at least three banks, called providers. The scam Wall Street cooked up to beat this fair-market system was to devise phony auctions. Instead of submitting competitive bids and letting the highest rate win, providers like Chase, Bank of America and GE secretly divvied up the business of all the different cities and towns that came to Wall Street to borrow money. One company would be allowed to "win" the bid on an elementary school, the second would be handed a hospital, the third a hockey rink, and so on like Bonn-o-Tron.
How did they rig the auctions? Simple: By bribing the auctioneers, those middlemen brokers hired to ensure the town got the best possible interest rate the market could offer. Instead of holding honest auctions in which none of the parties knew the size of one another's bids, the broker would tell the prearranged "winner" what the other two bids were, allowing the bank to lower its offer and come in with an interest rate just high enough to "beat" its supposed competitors. This simple but effective cheat – telling the winner what its rivals had bid – was called giving them a "last look." The winning bank would then reward the broker by providing it with kickbacks disguised as "fees" for swap deals that the brokers weren't even involved in.
The end result of this (at least) decade-long conspiracy was that towns and cities systematically lost, while banks and brokers won big. By shaving tiny fractions of a percent off their winning bids, the banks pocketed fantastic sums over the life of these multimillion-dollar bond deals. Lowering a bid by just one-100th of a percent, called a basis point, could cheat a town out of tens of thousands of dollars it would otherwise have earned on its bond deposits.
That doesn't sound like much. But when added to the other fractions of a percent stolen from basically every other town in America on every other bond issued by Wall Street in the past 10 to 15 years, it starts to turn into an enormous sum of money. In short, this was like the scam in Office Space, multiplied by a factor of about 10 gazillion: Banks stole pennies at a time from towns all over America, only they did it a few hundred bazillion times.
Right off the bat, in fact, Doug Goldberg explained that while at CDR, he had routinely helped the cream of Wall Street rig bids on municipal bonds by letting them take a peek at other bids:
Q: Who were some of the providers you gave last looks to?
A: There was a whole host of them, but GE Capital, FSA, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Société Générale, Lehman Brothers, Bear. There were others.
Siffert tried to lay this outrageous load of balls on the jury using a faux-folksy analogy. "When your refrigerator breaks down, if you're not mechanically inclined, you're at the mercy of that repair person," he told the jury. "And if he repairs the refrigerator, makes it work well, charges you a fair price, you're likely to call on him again when the stove breaks." What he was essentially telling jurors was: This shit is complicated, so best just to leave it to the experts. Whether they're fixing a fridge or fixing a bond rate, they get to set the price, because we're all morons who are dependent on them to make our world work. Siffert, in his scuzzy way, was actually telling us an essential economic truth: You're at the mercy of that repair person.
In the end, though, the conviction of a few bit players seems like far too puny a punishment, given that the bid rigging exposed in Carollo involved an entrenched system that affected major bond issues in every state in the nation. You find yourself thinking, America's biggest banks ripped off the entire country, virtually every day, for more than a decade!
Remus: Harry... I'm a werewolf.
Harry: Are you fucking serious?
Remus: Well yes, but I don't see how that applies here.