Abacus Bank Founding Family Share Thoughts on Social Justice

Abacus Bank founder Thomas Sung (third from left), filmmaker Steve James (next to Sung) and members of the Sung family at a press conference on May 17 (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” a documentary film by Steve James focusing on the ordeal of Thomas Sung, the founder of Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown, and his family during the legal battle against the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, will open at the IFC Center in downtown Manhattan on May 19. At a press conference in Chinatown on May 17, the Sungs, James and journalist Ti-Hua Chang, who participated in the film, shared their thoughts about racism and social justice. It took the Sungs great courage to agree to participate in the film before the outcome of the case was clear. But Thomas said the family as well as the Chinese community should be grateful for the film. “Without the film, how would we make the outside world understand our suffering?” said Thomas. 

The troubles of Abacus Bank, which mainly serves the Chinese community, started in 2009 when a loan officer, Ken Yu, was found to have taken kickbacks for falsifying a mortgage application for a client. Yu was immediately fired and was later charged and pled guilty to grand larceny, fraud, and falsifying business records. But the investigation soon snowballed. In 2012, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced a 184-count indictment against the bank and 11 former employees for operating “a systematic and pervasive mortgage fraud scheme.”  

At the center of the case was the economy in the Chinese community, which is dominated by cash, and the tradition of supporting one another within a family. As a result, many mortgage applicants at Abacus have sufficient ability to pay back loans, but they are not able to provide the paperwork the system wanted to prove this. The false information on the applications may have helped applicants get the mortgages that they would otherwise not qualify for but it had few negative consequences for loan performance. The default rate for the mortgages issued by Abacus Bank was less than 0.5 percent compared to the nationwide average of 5 percent when it was sued.

Nevertheless, Abacus Bank became the only bank indicted in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The Sungs, determined to not allow [themselves to] become scapegoats, fought through in court. The bank was acquitted of all the charges in the summer of 2015.

James said a producer of the film, Mark Mitten, has known the Sungs for more than 10 years and believed from the beginning that they were innocent. He himself followed the case. And even with the indictment, he also believed the Sungs were not guilty. He admits that because of the preformed perception, the film is not an objective journalistic work. But “Does absolutely objective journalism exist? Is the New York Times’ coverage of the Trump administration objective?” James added. “Our view is shown through thorough interviews. We also talked to the DA’s office to reflect the other side of the story.”

When the filmmakers talked to the Sungs about making this film, not everyone in the family thought it was a good idea. This is a low-key and private family. Also, some family members worried the shooting would distract them from fighting the case. But Thomas said he believed that regardless of whether they win or lose, this case needed to be documented. And the film would help the audience understand how the Chinese community and Chinese culture were scapegoated for something that was not their fault.

Despite their victory, the case left deep wounds in the hearts of the Sungs. Thomas said many people only saw what’s on the surface, and didn’t know the emotional pain the family had gone through. “You were fighting against the authorities who had much more resources. And they could easily arrest you and humiliate you in front of the public. The emotional torture is not something people who were not a part of the case could really understand,” said Thomas. 

Vera, the oldest daughter of the Sung family, said the pain is still fresh now. “It’s just like when I was a kid, people laughed at me because I am Asian. That memory lasts through now. The wounds left by this case will never fully heal. When I talk about it now, I still feel angry and hurt,” Vera said.

The film didn’t bring up the topic of racism explicitly. James said he wanted to leave it to the audience to draw their own conclusion. Heather, the third daughter of the Sungs, said there are two kinds of racism — the overt type is explicit and most people won’t accept it, and the covert type is based on people’s subconscious. And the Abacus case, in which the DA’s office tied this bank with the 2008 financial crisis and indeed had targeted the Chinese community, belongs to the latter. “Covert racism is disguised and hard to detect. Therefore, people should be more alert [to it],” Heather said.

The youngest daughter, Chanterelle, had worked for the Manhattan DA’s Office for seven years before she quit during the Abacus case. She likened what the DA’s office had done to Abacus to “letting the robbers run away and holding the shop accountable.” She said after the case, she still believes the judicial system works. But some people working in the judicial system are not qualified. They allow personal bias to take over the principle of “following the facts.” 

Chanterelle said law schools should have more discussions on social justice so people who would like to work in law enforcement can be trained in the right way from the beginning. She also noted: “People choose this profession with different motivations. Some really want to arrest all the bad guys. But it could lead to a result-driven approach marred by mistakes.”

Chang, a veteran journalist who has experience in covering legal justice, said many prosecutors get promoted based on the number of cases they win. This can drive them to like to try a case even when there is no case.  He also noted that the Sungs spent $10 million to defend themselves, and several family members are lawyers themselves. “For people with less money and education, justice is even harder to get,” said Chang.


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