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When Washington Took On Wall Street

When Washington Took On Wall Street

Ferdinand PecoraNearly 80 years ago, on Capitol Hill, Ferdinand Pecora forced J. P. Morgan Jr. and other “banksters” to reveal the corruption that had fueled the Great Depression—bringing shame on the financial industry and resulting in new laws to curb abuses. Today, with Republicans having threatened to block reform and Goldman Sachs fighting fraud charges, the author looks back at the Pecora Commission hearings, which riveted America, and asks why there is no comparable investigation now.

BY ALAN BRINKLEYVanity Fair

J.P. Morgan Jr. was terrified. He was the most famous and arguably the most powerful banker in the United States, and also among the most secretive. But in May 1933, in the aftermath of the greatest financial crisis in the history of the United States, he was being called to testify before the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency to explain how the catastrophe had occurred. Morgan dreaded the prospect, in part because it was a painful reminder of his famous father’s unhappy experience testifying before the 1912 Pujo Committee, which had investigated the “money trust” (and was partly responsible for the creation of the Federal Reserve Board). The elder Morgan, mercilessly interrogated, had died shortly after the hearings. Many of his associates, not least his son, had blamed his death on his public humiliation.

Now it was the younger Morgan’s turn. Known to friends and associates as Jack, he was 65 years old and semi-retired. He feared that he might not be able to answer the committee’s questions, and he was even more afraid that he might lose his temper. His partners rehearsed Jack Morgan for days, peppering him with hostile and insulting questions. In the meantime, the Morgan bank’s powerful lawyer, John W. Davis, tried to keep the committee at bay. A onetime Democratic presidential nominee, Davis had helped pass a New York law barring any investigation of private bankers, and he argued in court that the Morgan bank was therefore entitled to privacy. But the U.S. Senate passed a resolution requiring the bank to open its books. The bank reluctantly complied and agreed to let Morgan testify.

He was to be questioned by Ferdinand Pecora, a former prosecutor who was now the special counsel to the committee. Pecora was known to be tough and unrelenting, and the prospect of his cross-examination attracted enormous publicity… 

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