The story of a little-known New York City lawyer who investigated Wall Street and the big banks during the Great Depression, resulting in major reform legislation.
Ferdinand Pecora (1882–1971) went to Washington, D.C., at the end of the Herbert Hoover presidency, just before the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although a Democrat politically, the Sicilian-born lawyer answered a plea from a Republican senator who chaired the banking committee and believed that Wall Street fat cats, many of them Republicans, had played nefarious roles in the stock-market crash of 1929. Because of Senate rules, Pecora had only a few weeks to learn the complex inner workings of big savings and investment banks. A quick study with experience as a prosecuting attorney in New York, he turned out to be remarkably effective as a questioner of multimillionaire bank and Wall Street investment-house executives. In normal circumstances, senators themselves questioned the witnesses at investigative hearings. But they found Pecora so effective that they gave him center stage while they acted as a background chorus. Perino (Law/St. John’s University) explains that senators, witnesses and journalists alike tended to underestimate Pecora because of negative stereotypes about southern Italians, because of his short stature and because of his inexperience in the Wall Street realm. The narrative is built around the ten days of Senate hearings starring Pecora, with each day receiving extended treatment based on surviving transcripts and other public records. Although Perino admires Pecora, the author avoids hagiography by mentioning his subject's occasional vanity; obsequiousness to, among others, Roosevelt; extramarital affairs; and other negative traits. Although he lived into the ’70s, Pecora was mostly forgotten after the ten days of hearings, serving well but outside the limelight as a judge. If the legislative and regulatory reforms had been more enthusiastically enforced during the past three decades, the current financial meltdown might have been alleviated.
A thorough, well-written history that shows how the past can be prologue.