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Bankers face prison: Were Wilmington Trust bosses really America's worst?

Other failed bankers rake in hedge fund fees; Delaware's hire defense lawyers

"The fallen financial giants that wrote off billions in bad loans in the last financial crisis occupy a still-unquiet corner of the nation's corporate graveyard," I wrote in my column in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Remember Wachovia Corp., previously First Union? The North Carolina company was the dominant lender in Philadelphia, operator of the major bank branch network, and namesake of our civic arena. Chief executive Ken Thompson paid himself tens of millions in his expansive years, spent tens of billions on takeovers... Wachovia vanished - puff! - after writing down billions in loans and acquisitions that weren't worth what its bosses had said... Wachovia wasn't alone."

Yet at most failed and troubled banks' "former executives have mostly gone on to run investment funds....  Why have things gone so differently for those who presided over what was outwardly a similar collapse, at Wilmington Trust?"

Like larger banks, "Wilmington Trust also blew up in the crisis, and was acquired for a shadow of its previous value, shedding hundreds of hometown jobs, after Fed examiners found that its bad loans were far greater than it admitted..."

But "unlike their Wall Street peers, most of Wilmington Trust's top people have had to hire expensive defense lawyers to fight federal criminal charges that could put them away for years if they are convicted. In the latest series of cases brought by federal prosecutors, U.S. Attorney for Delaware Charles Oberly on Aug. 5 issued a superseding indictment accusing three of the bank's former C-level executives and its ex-controller of hiding more than $300 million in loans that weren't getting paid so the bank would look as if it were still in good shape.

"The indictment says they conspired to conceal these losses from the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the investors whom the bank had lured in a final, desperate capital-raising ploy that lost $200 million for suckers who trusted Wilmington Trust....

"Why Wilmington Trust, and not other banks?" Was there more fraud at this bank, the largest still based in the Philadelphia Federal Reserve district when it blew up? Or were the bank's shareholders (including some prominent Wilmingtonians) just better-organized to demand criminal prosecution by the local U.S. attorney, a veteran Delaware politician? More in my column in Sunday's Inquirer here.