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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 31, 2017 2 years ago

'Small enough to jail'

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Abacus Federal Savings Bank founder Tom Sung talks about the movie detailing his struggle.

For more than 25 years, Tom Sung did what he set out to do in banking: provide financial services for fellow Chinese-Americans and others in and around New York's Chinatown.

“I founded a bank and I did a lot of good for a lot of people,” says Sung, who has had a residence at a condo community on Longboat Key for a decade. “If you want your life to be meaningful, you have to have a worthy cause.”

From 1984 to 2010, Sung's worthy cause was New York-based Abacus Federal Savings Bank and its customers. The bank was big, too, originating $500 million in mortgage loans in 2009.

But from 2010 to 2015 Sung's worthy cause switched to something else, when he spent $10 million to defend himself, his family and his bank against a litany of criminal charges. Manhattan prosecutors charged the bank and 11 former employees with mortgage fraud, calling it “systemic and pervasive.”

Sung fought back. And after five years and a lengthy trial, a New York City jury dismissed all the charges. His story is now a documentary movie, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” The film, from celebrated filmmaker Steve James, director of “Hoop Dreams,” is one of the Spotlight Films at the Sarasota Film Festival, with showings April 1 and April 3
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Soft-spoken with an easy going nature that defies his tenacity in the movie, Sung, 81, recently sat down with the Business Observer to talk about the movie and how the Abacus trial changed his life.

Why do you think prosecutors targeted you and the bank?

During the trial it was pretty obvious that the actions committed by the prosecutors were discriminatory. There was no other reason to indict a bank like ours.

Why did you fight the charges?

I've always said that if you start a business, any business, you have to be willing to defend your honor and the company's honor. And when you're in the financial field, your reputation is the key thing.

What was the trial like for your family?

It was hard on my wife. I was like a boxer in the ring and she was watching me being beaten and bloodied all over the place.

Why do you think the movie has been successful at festivals?

It's a story that needed to be told. There are a lot of parts to it. It shows why it's necessary for this country to reform its criminal justice system.

Would you do anything different, looking back?

I have no regrets. We fought hard for five years. We stepped up and made sure we didn't let the institution collapse.

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