Finer Points Blog

Small Enough to Jail, Strong Enough to Resist

May 17, 2017
Sung_familyA documentary premiering this week in New York features a community bank that not only stood up for what’s right against overwhelming opposition—but also had the courage to share its story.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” tells the saga of the Sung family, who run Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York City’s Chinatown. The film follows the community bank’s defense against criminal indictment for mortgage fraud brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. After a five-year legal battle that cost them millions of dollars, the Sung family was finally and fully vindicated.

The Sungs are a stand-up family that bleeds community banking. They have dedicated their careers to meeting the needs of underserved populations in their communities. President and CEO Jill Sung has taken up this banner as chairman of ICBA’s Minority Bank Council and as a member of our Policy Development Committee and Mutual Bank Council.

Yet the Sungs’ story shows the very cynical side of what the community banking industry faces from regulatory agencies and law enforcement. In Wall Street’s own backyard, Abacus was the only U.S. bank indicted for mortgage fraud related to the 2008 financial crisis. When prosecutors faced the prospect of targeting the large and risky financial firms that precipitated the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression—they instead chose to pick on a community bank they thought they could push around.

Boy, did they choose the wrong family to mess with! In a modern retelling of David slaying Goliath, the Sungs were exonerated after waging a scrappy and honorable challenge to the powerful Manhattan DA. Not only that, but the Sungs have displayed immense courage in telling their story to the world. It is a tale we can all learn from, and I strongly commend the Sungs for sharing it. As the film is rolled out across the country in the coming weeks and months, culminating in a television premiere this September on PBS’s “Frontline,” community bankers and the American public will have many opportunities to witness this story for themselves.

Jill Sung herself attended the recent ICBA Capital Summit in Washington. After a screening of the documentary’s trailer, she was asked to stand and be recognized. After rising from her table, she was immediately joined by the entire ballroom of community banker colleagues, who rose to their feet in a standing ovation. As we community bankers face massive challenges—excess regulation, overzealous enforcement, relentless consolidation—we must continue standing together in solidarity to ensure we can continue meeting the needs of our customers, communities and underserved populations.

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