Birds were chirping and the sky over Washington was the color of blueberry taffy before the long-awaited Goldman Sachs hearing on April 27.
It was a pretty, harmless morning. The first floor of the Dirksen Senate office building was quiet while rows of reporters set up. A handsome couple from the Financial Times kept an upside-down bottle of hand sanitizer between them. The New York Times’ Louise Story had a mini-bottle of Diet Coke by her laptop. “I’m sure some people have excitement, but not me.
I do war,” an editor for the Army Times said in the press office.
Cameramen swarmed around the empty table where the Goldman executives would sit, then just stood there. The little-known Goldman Sachs major-domo John Rogers stood quietly by himself. He is said to resemble John Le Carré’s George Smiley, trench coat and all, but looked like another slightly rumpled reporter.
The hearing began slowly. Four senators, less than half of the committee, were in their seats. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., looked sour and thick. He faced down. Lloyd Blankfein wouldn’t appear for hours, but, thrillingly, the first group of Goldman witnesses included 31-year-old Fabrice Tourre,
a vice president the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged with fraud this month, along with the firm. They allegedly allowed the billionaire John Paulson, who wanted to bet against the housing market, to pick bad mortgage securities that were then bundled up and sold to unwarned Goldman clients. Until now, no one had been quite sure what he looked like: In person, he was handsome, wearing a nicely cut suit with a smart tie.
Maureen Dowd, a few seats away from the hand sanitizer, chewed gum while reading along with the opening remarks from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman. She checked her BlackBerry, but her other cell phone rang. She took it out of her handbag, powered it off and checked her BlackBerry again.
“At this time I would ask all of you to please stand and raise your right hand,” Levin said. Tourre, known to all of the financial world now as “Fab,” is short. The sound of the photographers’ clicks was gargantuan. The Goldman Sachs opening statements were proud. “I would not have stayed if the people I worked with did not have high ethical standards,” former mortgage department head Dan Sparks said.
Levin’s opening round of questions was more astounding. He started with a synthetic CDO deal called Anderson. “Instead of disclosing that you had half of the other side of the deal, half the short side, you did not tell them that,” he said. “Instead, you told your salesmen, ‘Keep! Pushing! The deal!’ Now answer my question. How do you get comfortable with these securities?”
“Clients who didn’t want to participate in that deal did not,” Sparks answered. He was calm and succinct. Anderson was downgraded from AAA to junk in seven months, the senator said, and he moved on to another soured mortgage deal. “Look at what your sales team was saying about Timberwolf,” he said, reading from an e-mail from former Goldman executive Tom Montag. “‘Boy, that Timberwolf was one shitty deal.’”
“Some context might be helpful,” Sparks said. He offered that the vulgarity had referred to his own performance.
“Come on, Mr. Sparks! Should Goldman Sachs be trying to sell a shitty deal? Can you answer that one? Can you answer that one, yes or no?” He couldn’t.
Shitty, shitty, shitty, Levin continued.
Time began to move slowly in the Dirksen building. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, pressed the four to say whether Wall Street had a duty to act in the best interest of its clients. The answers were long and curvy. “I’m starting to share the chairman’s frustration,” she said.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., came in and out, carrying what looked like iced tea. The morning became afternoon.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., asked if any of the witnesses’ personal actions contributed to the financial downturn. “Regret, to me, means something you feel you did wrong. And I don’t have that,” Sparks said. He was the group’s de facto leader. His voice was monotone, crisp, unexcited and unemotional. Three hours became four.
Even when Tourre admitted that he should have disclosed that Paulson had a role in building the deal that the SEC has sued over, the momentous admission sort of melted into the rest of the testimony.
The room exploded when the gavel came down. “How do you sleep at night, Fab?” a protestor said, pressing up to him. He led an ocean of photographers out of the room, half-smiling.
Chief risk officer Craig Broderick and chief financial officer David Viniar, who came next, were even more leveled. Weathering the mortgage meltdown was much more mundane than betting on or against anything, Viniar’s opening remarks said. It was about positions and risk management.
Then something spectacular happened. When Levin reminded the executives that his firm thought its deals were “shitty” as they were peddling them to clients, he asked what Viniar felt when he read that word in the committee’s exhibit book. “I think,” he said, “that’s very unfortunate to have on e-mail.”
The room gasped. Here, cutting through the tedium, was true villainy!
Gorgeous and theatrical! An executive who was sorry not for what was said, but that it was recorded! On cue, because a vote on the financial bill had been called, the committee disappeared for a recess. Mouths hung open. The committee returned. When Levin sat down, Viniar corrected himself; he took out the e-mail part.
Just after 5 p.m., seven hours after the hearing began, in the middle of a senator’s speech, Blankfein entered the room. The hugeness of the crowd of photographers who gathered around him—their clicks making a noise that nearly drowned out the senator—was dreamlike.
When the chief executive, reading from his prepared remarks, said that the day the SEC announced the suit was one of the worst days of his professional life, it just didn’t sound like he meant it. As the hearing, which had just two momentary breaks, ticked into its 10th hour, the pugilism was long gone. Two out of the 10 committee members stayed for the end.
It was almost serene. In the wake of one of the worst financial catastrophes in the country’s history, the chief executive of the most powerful financial institutions in the world sat alone at a table.
But the circus had left. It was boring.