March 25, 2023

DealBook: Jury Found Brian Stoker Not Guilty, but Not Necessarily Citigroup

Beau Brendler served as foreman of a federal jury that cleared a former Citigroup manager in a mortgage securities case.Susan Stava for The New York TimesBeau Brendler served as foreman of a federal jury that cleared a former Citigroup manager in a mortgage securities case.

As Beau Brendler sat in the jury box listening to the government’s case against a former Citigroup midlevel executive, the same question kept entering his mind.

“I wanted to know why the bank’s C.E.O. wasn’t on trial,” said Mr. Brendler, who served as the jury’s foreman. “Citigroup’s behavior was appalling.”

Despite that sentiment, Mr. Brendler and his fellow jurors — a group that included a security guard, a lab technician and a full-time musician in a rock ’n’ roll band — cleared the former Citigroup executive, Brian Stoker, of wrongdoing over his role in selling a complex $1 billion mortgage bond deal during the waning days of the housing boom.

But even as the jury reached a consensus that the Securities and Exchange Commission failed to prove its case, it was left with an uneasy feeling that the verdict inadequately described its feelings about Citigroup’s conduct.

“We were afraid that we would send a message to Wall Street that a jury made up of regular American folks could not understand their complicated transactions and so they could get away with their outrageous conduct,” Mr. Brendler said. “We also did not want to discourage the government from investigating and prosecuting financial crimes.”

So the jurors did something extremely rare: They issued a statement alongside their verdict.

“This verdict should not deter the S.E.C. from continuing to investigate the financial industry, review current regulations and modify existing regulations as necessary,” said the statement, which was read aloud by Judge Jed S. Rakoff in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Tuesday.

Mr. Brendler, a 48-year-old freelance writer, wrote the sentence after soliciting input from the seven other jurors. He scratched it out on a yellow sheet ripped from a legal pad, wrapped it around the verdict form and put both in a sealed envelope that was delivered to the judge.

“It wasn’t a particularly eloquent statement, but we hoped it would get a point across,” Mr. Brendler said.

In an informal survey of 11 defense lawyers and prosecutors, not one could recall a case when a jury had issued a statement like the one that the Stoker jury did. Dennis M. Kelleher, a former litigator at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher Flom, said that the jury’s admonition underscored the nation’s prevailing sentiment about the financial services industry.

“These eight ordinary citizens believed what the polls tell us most Americans believe,” said Mr. Kelleher, who now serves as president of Better Markets, a lobbying organization pressing for regulatory reform. “They still would be delighted to see the government hold these banks and some of their executives accountable for misconduct during the financial crisis.”

Mr. Stoker’s trial was one of the few cases related to the financial crisis that has gone to a jury. The case was brought alongside a civil fraud lawsuit accusing Citigroup of misleading clients about a 2007 investment in a collateralized debt obligation, or C.D.O. Citigroup was among the leaders in structuring these complex securities, which were pools of mortgages sliced up into pieces and sold off to investors. The bank marketed more than $20 billion worth of C.D.O.’s, earning enormous fees.

It is widely acknowledged that C.D.O.’s were a root cause of the financial crisis, stoking the demand for subprime mortgages and inflating the housing bubble. The securities also ended up on balance sheets of the large banks, saddling them with crippling losses when the housing market collapsed.

A questionable tactic used by Citigroup and several other banks was at the heart of the Stoker case. Some banks stuffed C.D.O.’s with risky mortgage securities, sold them to unsuspecting customers and then bet against them.

Regulators said that Mr. Stoker, who prepared marketing materials for the deal, knew or should have known that he was deceiving investors by not disclosing that Citigroup helped pick the underlying mortgage bonds in the C.D.O. and then bet that its value would decline. When the housing market collapsed, Citigroup’s clients lost money while the bank made a bundle.

“Citi is a fundamentally different company today than it was before the crisis,” said Danielle Romero-Apsilos, a spokeswoman for the bank. “We continue to work hard to instill a culture of responsible finance.”

Now under new management, Citigroup agreed to pay the government $285 million to resolve its role in the case, but the settlement has yet to receive court approval. Mr. Stoker, however, took his case to trial.

Travis Dawson, 23, a student at Baruch College, also served on the Stoker jury. Before the trial, Mr. Dawson, a lifelong Bronx resident, had been largely uninformed about the ways of Wall Street.

“Where I’m from, you hear Wall Street is an evil place but you really have nothing to base that on,” Mr. Dawson said. “But after sitting on the jury I thought, ‘Wow, greedy, reckless behavior really does happen there.’ ”

In explaining the verdict, both Mr. Dawson and Mr. Brendler said that they believed that Mr. Stoker was made a scapegoat for the industry’s sins. In his closing statement, Mr. Stoker’s lawyer, John W. Keker, hammered away at that point, arguing that his client “shouldn’t be blamed for the faults of banking any more than a person who works in a lawful casino should be blamed for the faults of gambling.”

Mr. Keker underscored this point by showing the jury an illustration from “Where’s Waldo?,” the children’s book in which readers are challenged to find the hidden title character. He likened his client to Waldo, suggesting that Mr. Stoker, 41, was merely a blip in Citigroup’s vast C.D.O. universe.

“Most of this trial had nothing to do with Brian Stoker,” Mr. Keker said.

Mr. Dawson said that the “Where’s Waldo?” allusion resonated.

“I’m not saying that Stoker was 100 percent innocent, but given the crazy environment back then it was hard to pin the blame on one person,” Mr. Dawson said. “Stoker structured a deal that his bosses told him to structure, so why didn’t they go after the higher-ups rather than a fall guy?”

With the trial now finished, the foreman, Mr. Brendler, who lives in Patterson, N.Y., in northeast Putnam County, is back looking for full-time work. He hasn’t held a steady job since 2009, when Consumer Reports laid him off.

He was heartened to see that the S.E.C.’s director of enforcement issued a statement after the verdict that it respected the jury’s decision and would continue to pursue misconduct arising out of the financial crisis. And on Thursday, the S.E.C. lawyers who tried the case called him to ask how they could be more effective.

“I’m glad they’re taking this seriously because the industry seemed completely out of control with no oversight,” Mr. Brendler said. “Wall Street’s actions hurt all of us and we badly need a watchdog who will rein them in.”

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