PBS Distribution/Kartemquin Films
The Sung sisters, Vera, Jill and Chantrelle, still find it bewildering that they went from being accused of mortgage fraud to being the stars of an Oscar-nominated documentary.
On March 4, they’ll attend the Academy Awards ceremony, where the film about their fight against fraud charges is nominated for Best Documentary Feature.
Before the documentary, the family's only connection to Hollywood was by name. Two of the sisters were named after actresses, Jill St. John and Vera Miles.
“My mother’s side of the family was very creative,” says Jill Sung. “But my father’s side was very business-oriented, and we joke that my father’s side of the family suffocated any creativity that was left on my mother’s side.”
Vera and Jill work at Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a small bank in Chinatown, New York that their father Thomas Sung founded in 1984. Vera is the director of the board and Jill is the president and CEO. Chanterelle, the youngest of the family, is a former prosecutor who now works in pharmaceutical corporate security. All three are trained as lawyers, while their fourth sister, Heather, is a doctor.
For five years, the Sung family was embroiled in a fight against the government, which is the subject of Steve James’ 2017 documentary “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” Producer Mark Mitten, a longtime friend of Vera’s, first suggested a documentary should be made when he learned that their bank was the only financial institution that was indicted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
(This documentary was distributed by PBS and Frontline, which is owned by WGBH, the parent company of PRI.)
James, known for his work on “Hoop Dreams” and “Life Itself,” was on board shortly after he met the Sungs, not only because he thought their story was important, but because he found them so entertaining.
“They were by turns irreverent toward each other, angry at the case that they were fighting, proud of their family legacy, while all the time acting like amateur food critics on the meal they were eating,” he says. “It was a dynamic that we would see play out in all their interactions. But meals were particularly revealing we found, which is why we made sure to film them eating frequently.”
In 2012, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, led by Cyrus Vance Jr., held a press conference announcing the indictment of Abacus Federal Savings Bank. He surrounded himself with federal agents who had come from Washington, D.C. Reporters were then given a rare photo opportunity when 15 of Abacus’ former employees were handcuffed like a chain gang and led through the New York courthouse. The bank was charged on 184 counts, including mortgage fraud, conspiracy of mortgage fraud, grand larceny and security fraud.
“It was just so damning and strips you of any presumption of innocence. It was maddening,” says Vera about the spectacle surrounding the arrests.
Jill says she feared losing loyal customers and partners.
“It’s critical to our survival as a business that our reputation is good,” says Jill.
Before Thomas Sung started Abacus, he worked as an immigration lawyer, often doing pro bono work for the New York Chinatown community. At the time, there were no Chinese-owned banks serving the Chinese immigrant community, he says in the documentary. He is an immigrant himself, who came to the US from Shanghai at age 16. He consistently saw that banks in the area would take deposits from Chinese residents, but wouldn’t offer them loans to buy homes or start their own businesses. Thomas primarily served Chinese immigrants who often had no experience dealing with the banking system in America.
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” compares Thomas Sung to George Bailey, the good-hearted banker played by Jimmy Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” who is beloved by the community he serves.
But trouble began in 2009, when Vera and Jill caught one of their loan officers running a money-laundering operation. They immediately fired him, hired outside investigators to uncover any other staff members who were involved and even willingly provided binders of evidence to the police precinct.
The Sungs assumed they were helping the DA’s office with the fraud case against their former employee. It turned out, they were the ones being investigated.
PBS Distribution/Kartemquin Films
In one interview with Asia Society, James said he believes District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. thought Abacus was guilty. But he thinks that political ambition — the belief that they could be the first DA’s office to prosecute a bank connected to the financial crisis — clouded the decision to go after a small Chinese immigrant bank, the 2,651st largest bank in the US. Meanwhile, giant Wall Street banks that admitted more far-reaching and damaging crimes that resulted in trillion dollar losses to the US economy, according to the Government Accountability Office, were allowed to pay fines. The film also examines how cultural differences and prejudices against Chinese people might have played a part in how the criminal charges, the images from the arrest and the trial itself played out.
Chanterelle happened to be working in the Manhattan DA’s office as a prosecutor, when she found out it was threatening her family’s bank.
“It made me so angry to see the hypocrisy coming from the very office where I had learned all the ideals of doing justice, being a good prosecutor, exercising good prosecutorial discretion and responsibility and not abusing it,” says Chanterelle. She says Abacus was not given the opportunity to present their defense before they were charged, which is generally standard procedure during an investigation of a corporation. She later quit her job and went on to help her family with the case.
Though the Sung family had hesitations about letting cameras into a very stressful time in their lives, ultimately they wanted their side of the story told. For the sisters, their father’s legacy was at stake. And his legacy was about more than just the bank.
“Growing up, my father always told us that whatever you decide to do, you must remember to give back to your community,” says Vera. “So that is our father’s legacy, really, and that’s the mission we were fighting to defend in this battle we went through.”
Now, the documentary has not only been nominated for an Oscar, but it’s being developed into a feature film by director Justin Lin and “House of Cards” screenwriter Kenneth Lin. And while the sisters acknowledge that it’s an honor to be recognized by Hollywood, they’re quick to point out that there are much worse injustices happening all the time to people who have no means to fight back.
In federal cases, 97 percent of defendents take plea bargains in exchange for not going through an expensive and lengthy trial.
“We not only had the money and resources, but the knowledge, the experience, and expertise as lawyers to look at this case from a certain lens, and that’s something that many people do not have,” says Jill.
“It has been quite a wild ride for them,” says James, “and to see how much the love and admiration they have received since the film's release has only made them more outspoken on the issues of justice and disenfranchisement in their community [is] wonderful to witness.”
Vera remembers when they were indicted, she was a confronted by a stranger who said, “I read about you. You guys caused the financial crisis.” After the documentary came out, she was confronted by another stranger. This time, he wanted to thank her.
“He said, ‘You represent all of us who couldn’t fight,’” she remembers. “You stood up and fought it for us.”
There’s a scene at the end of the documentary, after the bank was acquitted, where Thomas tells a crowd that injustice against a less powerful group should not happen again. With the Oscar nomination, the family hopes Thomas Sung's legacy is not just about serving, but also fighting for Chinese Americans.
Courtesy of the Sung family