Economy & Work

THE CON: The American Dream Dies Where Power Lies

THE CON: The American Dream Dies Where Power Lies

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, filmmaker Eric Vaughan was approached by his friend and colleague, Patrick Lovell, one of nearly 10 million Americans who lost their home in the crisis, with a simple question: how did this happen? Thus began their nearly 10 year journey of making THE CON, a five-part documentary series and in-depth investigation into the origins and aftermath of “the largest criminal conspiracy in American history.” Featuring experts, whistleblowers, politicians, investigators, and law enforcement, and foregrounding the heartbreaking and tragic stories of ordinary Americans from all walks of life, THE CON pieces together a startling exposé of what went wrong … and how it could happen again.

Edited for content and clarity.

What compelled you and your filmmaking partner Patrick Lovell to investigate the origins of the 2008 financial crash in THE CON?

Eric Vaughan:

The biggest thing that compelled us to make this series was that what we were hearing in the news just wasn’t matching up with our lived experience and in particular, Patrick’s. For me, I managed to dodge a bullet. I was a happy renter when everything fell apart, but Patrick was not. He ended up getting swallowed in this tsunami, as it were.

We had been working as producers on a different show together, and we were constantly in contact. When [Patrick lost his house to foreclosure], he was starved for answers. He called me up with a bunch of articles, “Just read this stuff and get back to me.” I kind of rolled my eyes, “All right, Patrick.” I’m sitting here thinking that he’s becoming Captain Ahab. I said, “This is quickly becoming your white whale, Patrick.” Then I started looking at everything, articles from several different places, a few books, and I read them all and I called Patrick back up. And I said, “I think we may have something here.”

It was right around that point when Patrick made contact with the third filmmaking partner in this, Adam Bronfman. We were able to talk with him, and he seemed excited and thought that it was a story that needed to be told.

Watch The Con Trailer:

Your production company, Red Point Digital, is based in Ohio, and a lot of the stories in the film are Ohio-based. What did you discover about the effect of the 2008 financial crisis on Ohio?

Eric Vaughan:

It became pretty clear that the upper industrial Midwest, the Rust Belt, so to speak, was very much the proving grounds for the fraud schemes that led to the crash. When we think of 2008, so often we think of the sand states: California, Arizona, Florida. Before it ever reached there it was in the vulnerable neighborhoods of Cleveland and Akron and Detroit and Cincinnati and Columbus.

One of the things that we discuss in THE CON is how the S&L Crisis [Savings & Loan Crisis] directly led to the mortgage crisis, and most of the technology or innovation that caused the financial crisis was first invented during the S&L era. I think it was Charles Keating who said that basically they wanted to exploit “the weak, the meek and the ignorant,” which to them meant vulnerable, mostly minority communities. You’re dealing with communities that have fewer resources, there’s sort of a cultural component that comes into play there. You also have a lot of older people who have a lot of equity in their homes, and a lot of them are widows. As soon as you start ticking off the boxes of minority, widow, older, and women, that becomes the profile for the target. And there just happened to be an awful lot of [these communities] here in the industrial Midwest.

That’s where these fraud schemes first came in, because it was easy entry. And once it germinated in these more vulnerable communities and became a sure-fire cash machine, it was easy enough to adjust the products a little bit, lobby for the right laws here and there, and then move it off into the suburbs. And then you’re getting into richer and wealthier places. Eventually we interviewed people in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods, like Santa Barbara, who fell victim to this. I mean, unless you were truly the financial and political elite in this country, you were not safe from the fraud schemes and the collateral damage that those fraud schemes created.

Watch Excerpt: Addie Polk and the Targeting of Minorities

Did you start your research in your hometown in Ohio? Or did you start researching on a national level first and then realize this was also happening in your backyard?

Eric Vaughan:

When we were first starting to put together THE CON, we very much went from a top-down sort of perspective, where you’re looking at the politicians, the bankers, the academics. We ended up getting an awful lot of really good material from those people in those interviews. However, I didn’t feel like we were telling the story that I wanted to tell. I felt that this was a crisis that affected the working families and the working people of this country first and hardest. And their voice seemed to have been drowned out. So it was incredibly important to me to try to get that voice in and continue production with the idea that that’s the story that we were going to tell from the bottom-up, where we’d be able to get all the way to the top, but that we wanted to build this case from the most quintessential victim of this on up.

We knew that this was happening in the neighborhoods around here. Within five minutes of searching, the horribly tragic story of Addie Polk comes up, and it turns out that almost the entirety of her story happened within two and a half miles of my house.

As we were putting together her story, especially when we were talking to Deputy Fatheree, the deputy who was going there for the eviction when they found Addie wounded upstairs, we’d just finished our interview with him and he said, “You know, there’s this white-collar task force that was dealing with this and you might want to talk with them.” We started looking into [The Summit County Task Force] and all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh my God.” I mean, what was going on here, and what they were doing, it just became like this miracle of finding that story so close to us, and then so many other stories came out of that.

Once we knew that we had a real human story, one that captured the essence of who was victimized and how, then we knew that we had a way to tell this story that was compelling, that we felt that people would actually want to watch. We were trying to convey so much information that if people didn’t have an emotional attachment to it, there’s no way we’re going to keep our audience throughout all five and a half hours of a documentary.

Watch Excerpt: The Summit County Task Force

I found the Summit County Task Force to be so compelling. Especially after last summer’s protests against police brutality and for racial equality, it was inspiring to see the boots-on-the-ground perspective of law enforcement working for working-class people, rather than against them. What was it like to film with the task force?

Eric Vaughan:

We get a lot of positive feedback about them. To me, what it felt like is, that’s what it looks like when Black Lives Matter. These guys stepped up and showed exactly what law enforcement’s supposed to be like. They’re incredibly inspiring because of how gruff, normal — I mean, those are guys’ guys, right? I have no idea of what any of their political predilections were or anything like that, but none of them had any training in financial crimes, in mortgage fraud or anything like that. One of them says in the film, “We just want to put cuffs on somebody and be done with it.” And the fact that they were able to recognize that crimes were going on and then follow that up echoed another really important period of time where something similar happened on a much larger scale.

The beauty of the Summit County Task Force was that they’re not experts in finance, they’re experts in crime. And they recognize when a crime was going on and they did something about it.

One of the really important things about the Summit County Task Force and what made them unique is the fact that they were able to convict under RICO [The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act]. And I think that is so critically important because the second you start thinking in terms of RICO of a corrupt organization, it becomes much more clear as to how you could have properly prosecuted the crimes that led to this. Ultimately there was a financial disaster that was caused by individuals, and those individuals did things that could easily have been prosecuted if there was any effort put into it at all whatsoever.

What really made that an exciting story to me, as well as a heartbreaking one, was that they showed exactly what, in my estimation, could have and should have been done on a national level. When there’s a crime going on, you go and you investigate that crime. When you find out that that was in fact a crime, that there’s documented evidence, you have an indictment, and you prosecute that crime. And then you incarcerate the criminal. You know, it’s pretty simple. And the fact that that didn’t happen in any meaningful way, on a larger stage, to a large degree, is what leads us to the position that we’re in today.

When there’s no criminal deterrent, it just allows those elements to continue to do exactly what they’re doing. And when those are financial crimes at a mammoth scale, it hurts the entire economy, from the wealth gap to the homelessness crisis that we’re experiencing. All of this is tied back to 2008 and the same crimes that this small group of law enforcement officers in Akron, Ohio managed to piece together. In tiny little Akron, Ohio, a light was shown as to how this could have played out on a much larger scale. And because of that, you have to ask the question, why wasn’t it? And what are we going to do about it today?

I was struck by how the Summit County Task Force reached out to other task forces nationwide, but there wasn’t really any kind of national coordination for their work. They could only go so far with it in their own community, and they couldn’t really prosecute these financial fraud cases once they were outside of their jurisdiction.

Eric Vaughan:

There quickly becomes a cap for not only jurisdiction, but also resources. And where those resources exist were with the Department of Justice, precisely the law enforcement organ that did not go into action during that period of time. That was a tragic failure.

But there were several failures before it even got to that point, because by the time it gets to the DOJ, that means that the regulatory system failed. And if the regulatory system failed, that means that all of the stop gaps that are supposed to happen within the industry failed. And so there are several failures that lead up to that final law enforcement failure. But when that’s the last bulwark and it fails so spectacularly, I mean, that can do nothing but offer encouragement for people who, you know, make a living doing this.

That brings up one of the experts who you interview throughout the film, Bill Black. One of his books is titled “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One” and he was a regulator during the Savings & Loan Crisis. Bill Black seemed to provide the connective tissue for this series, connecting all of the dots. What exactly did he explain that helped everything make sense? 

Eric Vaughan:

Bill Black allowed us to interview him and re-interview him several times. In each one of those was a moment where we think that we understand what’s going on, but then we don’t. And so, “Bill, can you bail us out again? We need to figure this out.”

The two most critical things that he allowed us to understand was one, accounting control fraud, and how it worked and how it was central to everything that caused the financial crisis. And the second one was a matter of perspective because the banks are painted as villains, everybody vilifies the bank, right?  And to a large extent, you know, why not? They make wonderful villains. But there’s a little bit of nuance that he always stressed. And that was bankers commit crimes, not banks.

So, by giving us that reminder to look at the individual rather than the institution, it added a nuanced understanding of everything that happened, from the front end of the accounting control fraud all the way to the back end.

Because the only way that it makes sense is if you’re able to follow the incentive structures and those incentive structures don’t incentivize banks. In fact, they do the opposite. They incentivize individuals throughout the chain. And that’s what really created a huge modicum of understanding because it seems like every single time there was like, “Wait, this isn’t making sense,” it’s almost like a mantra, “Bankers, not banks.” And the second you kind of reframe that, all of a sudden, things would fall into place and everything was understandable.

Watch Excerpt: Bill Black explains The Fraud Recipe

Eric Vaughan:

I wanted to create something that regular people would be able to wrap their heads around. From very early on, we thought about it in terms of being a true crime documentary.

This isn’t about the economy or financial shenanigans. This was about criminal behavior that hurt many people and killed many people. It was arguably the greatest theft in the history of the world. Something that I kept on saying back then was that I wanted to drag white collar crime into the gutter where it belongs, and so the iconography of true crime documentaries was kind of swimming around in my head quite a bit.

At the end of the film I felt some desperation, finally understanding the huge web of connections that led to the fraud, yet thinking, “How do we dismantle it?” But I kept coming back to the whistleblowers. In almost every story you told, there were people who were saying, “There’s something going on here, we need to investigate.” What was your takeaway from interviewing the whistleblowers?

Eric Vaughan:

Well, on one hand, yes, it’s incredibly discouraging to see just how pervasive corruption had gotten, to the point where any of this was able to happen. Trainer Chris Cruise talks about the process by which they would train these brokers who would then go out and use this, I’m going to understate this, but incredibly unscrupulous training in order to fill the the quotas to get as many loans as they possibly can, in order to fulfill the warehouse line, in order to, you know, on goes the fraud. And that they had to use an incredibly sophisticated system in order to find the right people to go and sell these mortgages to unsuspecting homeowners, and that required removing people who wouldn’t do it.

An awful lot of culling of good people had to happen. They had to remove or circumvent so many employees within the lending institutions and within the banks, they had to go and hobble the investigations of several SEC agents who are out there trying to do their level best to prevent these crimes from happening. And when you have a situation where people who do wrong are never stopped, never prosecuted, that allows the system to wash away all the good people and really concentrate the lowest of the low in order to make this happen.

In a strange way, it proved to me that the majority of people out there are good people who want to do the right thing. And when given a chance will. It really does take a special sort of heroic personality to stay in those situations and face the wind as they do. So many horrible things happen to these whistleblowers, it’s really quite striking. And the fact that our whistleblower protections in this country are so lackluster and unenforced is just tragic.

And this should be said, that there were an awful lot of people who simply didn’t understand that what they were doing was wrong, especially on the bottom end. When you bring in an underwriter who has no underwriting experience, and you just say, “Oh, all you have to do once this comes in: stamp it and send it off.” I mean, are they really morally culpable? I don’t think so, but somebody down that line sure is because they purposely brought somebody in who would never be able to question what’s going on. And when that rare person who does know what’s going on is there and is questioning it, you just sideline them, get them out, provide some duress. Hopefully they leave on their own. If not, you apply more and more pressure until they do. Or in the case of Rachel Steinmetz, she becomes a whistleblower.

Watch Excerpt: Corporate trainer Chris Cruise explains training practices

I thought Rachel Steinmetz’s presence on screen was so compelling. She had such firmness in her convictions — her job was on the line, and yet she kept standing up for what she thought was right and pointing out that she was seeing fraud happen.

Eric Vaughan:

That is one of the great things about being able to tell some of these whistleblower stories. Because they are truly, in many cases, heroic stories. They try to paint whistleblowers so often as disgruntled employees and that type of thing. But to a tee, the people that we show in THE CON had no idea that they were a whistleblower, every single one of them simply said, “We thought we were just doing our job.”

Watch Excerpt: Whistleblower Rachel Steinmetz

At the end of the series, you bring up that we just need to follow the money to see how greed compelled everyone from the low-level brokers to the very top. How can we combat this greed? And not just on the institutional level, in a cultural way. After almost 10 years of making this film, do you think that we can, as a society, combat these corrupting forces of capitalism?

Eric Vaughan:

I don’t think it’s a question of systems necessarily. If everybody behaved well, and in a way that made sense, that was rational, that was predictable, almost any system that you could think of would work. The second you introduce corruption, there’s no system that can survive that if it’s left unabated. And so once again, I go back to, we have systems in place on every level that were just either ignored, suborned or removed.

If we could snap our fingers and have all the different systems function the way that they were designed to, where you have lenders who think about the ability for a borrower to repay a loan, where they think about the appropriateness of the loan, all of these things that were basics at one point in time, then that bad sale is less likely to happen. If something goes through, you have an entire underwriting system where you have underwriters who understand that their job is to not only protect the bank from loss, but also the consumer from getting in over their head, thus protecting the bank from loss. If we just allowed the Rachel Steinmetzes of the world to continue to do their job, the way they were taught, then we’re fine.

And above that, on the corporate level, we tell the story of Michael Winston, who sees things that don’t seem to match up with what he understood the company was supposed to be about. In a parallel universe, he brings that up and people say, “Are you kidding me really? Well, we’ve got to stop that right now.” And then they go, and they stop that. And then they start looking at the products that they have and say, “Oh, these products are completely inappropriate. There’s no way that we can sell these responsibly because we’re going to take down our entire bank. We’re going to take down our customers and we’re going to take down the entire system. So of course, we’re not going to do this. Thanks, Michael Winston, really appreciate that.”

And then even if it gets past that you have the Dick Bowens of the world, who are going through and saying, “Hey, look at all these loans that are coming in that you’re reselling to investors that are fraudulent, that are inappropriate, that are undocumented.” In a world that’s not perfect, but just where things are working, somebody above Dick Bowen says, “Oh my gosh, Dick, of course, holy cow, we’re going to destroy our entire bank and the entire financial system if we continue to do this.”

If we just simply operated within those systems, the way that they were designed, everything works. That’s the really painful thing, it would take so little to have prevented the financial crisis and to have prevented the economy that we’re living in today. Just simply do your job the way it’s supposed to be done.

What keeps those checks and balances in place?

Eric Vaughan:

The easy part of that would be the regulatory system that’s working and a criminal justice system that’s working, because to some extent there’s no way you can prevent human beings from acting poorly without stopping them. I think the easiest thing that we can do is that we can live up to our credo, so to speak, and have equal justice under the law. I mean, if stealing puts a poor person in jail for stealing a hundred dollar thing from somebody’s home, then somebody who goes and steals billions of dollars needs to go to jail.

The FBI, and this isn’t necessarily the FBI’s fault, but you hear about them busting some ring of small-time mortgage fraudsters, usually from a minority community of all places. Meanwhile, that bank is defrauding homeowners and investors to the tune of billions, if not trillions of dollars, and all they have to do is, instead of pointing the FBI in the direction of the consumer, point it towards the industry.

Watch Excerpt: Criminal Referrals

Speaking about political will, there’s been a change in the presidential administration. I thought about THE CON while watching the inauguration because Biden’s ascendancy to the presidency during the unprecedented pandemic and financial crisis he’s facing was often compared, in the media, to the financial crisis he and Obama faced in 2009 when they assumed office. From your perspective, what’s different this time around?  And what worries you?

Eric Vaughan:

These folks might turn out to be absolutely wonderful at their job, and they might turn out to do everything that the American people need them to do. But it scares me when the Treasury is getting stocked with the people from BlackRock. In my mind that doesn’t bode well. You have this line of people coming from the financial services industry into government, and right back out the revolving door. If you bring somebody in from a white-shoe law firm that represents Wall Street in order to head the SEC, the excuse that they always say is that, well, you need somebody who knows the industry in order to regulate the industry. Hogwash. No, what you need is somebody who understands scams, like the Summit County Task Force. [They didn’t] have any understanding whatsoever of high finance, they just understood when somebody was trying to steal something from somebody else. Ultimately, why not have that be the primary component to somebody who’s heading the SEC, the OCC, any of these regulatory agencies? I don’t buy the notion that somebody has to be from the industry in order to regulate it, yet that’s what you constantly hear.

It doesn’t matter which administration, if it’s Democrat or Republican, they’re always bringing in people from the industry to regulate themselves who go right back into the industry as soon as they’re done. That needs to stop.

Watch Excerpt: The Revolving Door

Why THE CON? How did you choose that title?

Eric Vaughan:

We had been going back and forth quite a bit. And I remember some of the early titles that we had were long, convoluted, ridiculous, because we’re trying to somehow capture all the different components of the series in one title. At some point I think I was on a call with Patrick and Adam, where it just kind of occurred to me, THE CON. It’s short, it’s simple. And it seemed to be so apt. Because this was a scam that preyed on the confidence of the American people, the American homeowner, the pension funds and other investors.


Where to watch THE CON


Watch Interview: Bill Moyers interviews Bill Black