By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Sung family of Abacus Federal Savings Bank spent years in court, accused by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in New York City of fraud, connected to the 2008 financial crisis.
They came close to losing everything that the bank’s founder, Thomas Sung, worked since 1984 to build, as relayed in the documentary film “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” screening at the Wing Luke Museum. According to two of the founder’s daughters, though, the perils of the case and its aftermath weren’t only professional ones.
“I’m a very private person,” commented Jill Sung, president and CEO of Abacus. “I don’t like being probed, or having to show any part of myself on camera. I always felt there was a downside to this (the film). We were in a very precarious position where potentially we could lose, right? And that would be quite disturbing and who knows what that would look like?”
Sung elaborated that she liked the finished film well enough, but she did wish that the cameras could have gone into the courtroom, to demonstrate more fully what she describes as the ludicrousness of the prosecution’s side.
“As the trial went on, it was pretty incredible to us how bad the case was, on the D.A.’s side, and it’s very hard to capture that. It was very entertaining [having] the transcript read back… [but] it would have been wonderful to have the not guilty verdicts filmed, because that was 80 counts of not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, and then repeated by the court clerk, and the other two defendants, for a total of 240 not guiltys.”
Jill Sung’s sister Vera Sung, a director for the bank, elaborated that the family was so badly shaken by the case, they’ve become, outside of their scope as bank officials, advocates for improvements in the justice system.
The two Sung sisters are both attorneys, as is their father Thomas and their third sister, Chanterelle, who does not hold a formal position at the bank, but who will appear at the Wing Luke Museum to present the documentary.
Vera Sung said, “We’re advocating for financial reform, but stepping outside of what the bank does, advocating for criminal law reform. We can see how unfair the criminal justice system is, especially for those who don’t have resources.
“That’s not part of the bank’s mission, per se, but we individually are going out and speaking about how discrimination is not only alive and well, it is thriving… trying to understand things such as implicit bias, subconscious bias, all these issues that are going on here and everywhere.”
The sisters admitted that working with a parent as a boss isn’t always smooth sailing.
“When I first came to work for my father,” said Vera, “I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Please define who you are, are you my father, are you my boss?’ It becomes interchangeable at times.
“But he always told me that if you decide to come work here, this is your own choice, and you cannot expect to have it easy, just because you’re my daughter. From the ground up, you’re not gonna get any unfair advantage, from me. [That] made it easier for me, in a strange sense.”
“I think Vera’s point is right.” Jill Sung continued, “What is a family issue, versus what is a business issue. The very things that keep us strong, and that people noted in the movie, can also be very tiring at times — which is having the family as a unity, and having the strength of the family.
“In the end, everything worked out, and we’re happy, I’m happy with being documented. Because I think it’s important for us to be able to share our experience with other people.
“The various different screenings we do, I think we’ve been able to help show how the justice system works, and how people perceive it and what they see as possibilities, of being vindicated. People who are not guilty, who went through the fight, can actually be vindicated.”
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” shows for free at 11:45 a.m. on May 20, at the Wing Luke Museum, 719 South King Street, Seattle. The screening features a special appearance by Chanterelle Sung, from the Sung banking family shown in the film.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.