Cerabino: When it comes to bank robberies, the bigger the better

If you’re going to pull a bank job, you might be safer going for hundreds of millions of dollars than a hundred bucks.

Just consider what happened to Russell Cooper, who was 77 years old four years ago when he ambled with the help of a walker into a Boynton Beach branch of PNC Bank, expecting to withdraw $130 from his account to pay a car mechanic, who was waiting for the money outside.

But instead, Cooper found out that his account had been wiped out, possibly by thieves, and then closed. In a moment of anger and poor judgment, Cooper pulled out a small folding knife from his pocket and demanded $130 of what he thought was his money.

It wasn’t much of a bank robbery. The slow-walking assisted living resident couldn’t hold the knife and keep his hands on his walker at the same time. Cooper clearly needed some help.

So the assistant bank manager, Eryl Besin, escorted Cooper to a teller, who handed over the money he wanted.

Then the manager patiently walked with Cooper, who was barely shuffling along, as he made his way to the door. The manager even held it open for Cooper to assist him in walking outside.

It’s all on the bank’s video surveillance system. What’s not on tape is what happened next.

According to the three Boynton Beach police officers waiting outside, the disabled retiree threatened them with the penknife and refused to drop it. So one of the officers circled behind Cooper and zapped him three times in the back with a high-voltage shock from a stun gun — knocking the man to the sidewalk.

Police charged Cooper with kidnapping and armed robbery, the sort of felonies that would lock him up for the rest of his life.

But his biggest problem in the short run was that the arrest broke his cochlear implant, leaving him functionally deaf. And then he languished for nearly two weeks in the Palm Beach County Jail without regard to his physical limitations, according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf this week.

This included “allowing him only a paper gown for clothing, allowing his hearing impairment to go unaddressed, and prohibiting him from using his walker which required him to crawl and pull his unclothed body along the jail cell floor,” the lawsuit said.

Cooper developed a MRSA infection which led to the amputation of one of his legs months later.

And what of the kidnapping and armed robbery charges? That was excessive, too. He ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge and agreeing to make restitution of $726, including a $21 fine.

To put this bank job in perspective, PNC Bank got cited by the U.S. Justice Department two years ago for approving dozens of government-backed Small Business Administration (SBA) loans without getting sufficient tax and bank records from borrowers to ensure that they could repay them.

In the event of default, taxpayers are on the hook for 75 percent of these bad loans. And in the case of PNC, these bad loans approved by the bank ended up costing more than $100 million.

“Banks that are trusted to make loans backed by the SBA have a duty to apply proper lending standards because the United States is obligated to pay when federally backed loans default,” said then-U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, in a prepared statement two years ago.”The government will vigorously pursue lenders that fail to enforce reasonable lending standards and stick the taxpayers with the bill for bad loans.”

The government criminally prosecuted the principals of Jade Capital, the company that doctored the loan documents to PNC. The bank characterized itself as a fraud victim of Jade Capital, and noted that some of the criminal defendants from Jade Capital were ordered to pay restitution to the bank.

“In the civil case, the government claimed that PNC should have discovered the fraud committed by Jade’s principals,” bank spokesperson Diane Zappas wrote. “PNC vigorously denies those allegations. The Jade principals carried out a fraud they successfully concealed from the SBA and from other lenders for years.

“PNC has participated in the SBA’s preferred lender program for more than 35 years and takes its responsibilities to the SBA very seriously,” Zappas wrote.

Federal investigators faulted PNC for “failing to engage in prudent underwriting” and sought restitution from the bank in civil court.

The bank settled the federal complaint by agreeing to pay $9.5 million, which at the time was less than 1 percent of its 1 billion quarterly net income.

“PNC resolved the matter only to avoid the costs and risks of litigation,” Zappas, the bank spokesperson, wrote.

In the big scheme of things, it wasn’t a very painful ending for more than a $100 million loss. Certainly not when compared to amputating a leg and ending up in a nursing home over $130.

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