Attorney General Eric Holder suggested Wednesday that some financial institutions have become too large and are escaping full-fledged prosecution as a result.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder told lawmakers that he is concerned that some institutions have become so massive and influential that bringing criminal charges against them could imperil the financial system and the broader economy. His remarks come as a growing number of lawmakers have suggested that big banks are, effectively, "too big to jail."
"I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy," he said. "And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large."
The Justice Department is required to consider the economic impact of its actions, but Holder's comments should bolster an increasingly vocal group of lawmakers that argue the nation's biggest banks have gotten too large and need to be curbed.
Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) pressed Holder on the issue in a letter sent in February, airing their disappointment that no major criminal charges had been filed against banks or their employees in the wake of the financial crisis. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) drew headlines when she blasted financial regulators during a separate hearing for failing to bring any major financial institutions to trial since the meltdown.
Grassley pressed Holder again on the issue during testimony Wednesday, at which point Holder said he essentially agreed.
"The concern that you have raised is one that I, frankly, share," he said, adding that ultimately the best deterrent would be if they could bring charges against individuals instead of companies.
However, he also added that all of the bad behavior on Wall Street leading up to the crisis may not necessarily have been criminal and that his criminal team has been "as aggressive as they could be."
Holder touted the Justice Department's efforts on financial fraud, specifically noting the government's civil suit against the credit rating agency Standard & Poor's, in which the government is seeking at least $5 billion in damages. The rater has said the lawsuit is without merit and is challenging it.