WHATEVER ITS political implications, President Bush's heavier emphasis on prosecuting and punishing bandits of the savings and loan industry is welcome. Their misjudgments, or worse, are costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The S&L buccaneers who violated the law ought to be pursued, convicted and jailed.
This is a case were criticism of the Republican administration by Democrats in Congress has accomplished something.
"The president's war on prosecuting S&L crooks is a popgun," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-Brooklyn, a leading critic of the S&L industry and cleanup.
By raising the specter of political blame to be pinned on the White House, Schumer and others have helped prod the Bush administration to toughen its stance on the S&L crooks.
The administration left itself open to criticism. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh had appeared to downplay the efficacy of prosecutions and the amount of lost money that could be recovered. The money was gone, it was said, parked in Swiss bank accounts or lost in assets whose value was but a fraction of their original purchase price. These complex financial deals were, it was added, difficult to track and prosecute.
Now the tune has changed. For the better. The excuses have vanished. The emphasis is on results. Bush has called for expanded and better focused investigative teams, stiffened legislation to support the prosecutions and a doubling of outlays to $100 million in order to pay the bills.
He has cited 800 convictions in loan fraud cases of more than $100,000 each in the past year, plus $100 million in restitutions over last four years.
These results may not look like much in a scandal measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars, but they're better than nothing. They show that convictions can be obtained. They suggest that many more can be in the future. We hope so. The S&L crisis is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, failure of a financial industry in the nation's history. Causes are plentiful, but they include gross mismanagement and abuse and fraud by sophisticated financial managers who deserve to spend time cooling their heels in prison.
"These thieves have cost us billions," Bush said during his Justice Department speech. "And they will pay us back with dollars and they will pay us back with years of their lives."
The confidence and anger of that rhetoric should be sweet to the taxpayers who must pay the staggering S&L bills. Even sweeter will be heavy fines and sobering stretches behind bars for scores of other S&L crooks.