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This week, a federal jury in Virginia convicted mortgage executive Lee Farkas on fraud charges that could send him to prison for life.

Authorities say Farkas defrauded banks out of almost $3 billion. It's one of the biggest cases to come out of the mortgage crisis. But almost three years after the economy nearly collapsed, most top Wall Street banks and their executives have emerged with no criminal trouble. And that's making people angry.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Lee Farkas cut a larger-than-life figure in his north Florida community. He collected cars, including a 1963 Rolls Royce and a Ford Model A. He served caviar in the dining room at his mortgage lending company, Taylor Bean and Whitaker, or TBW. Justice Department officials say Farkas did something else too.

Mr. LANNY BREUER (Justice Department): Farkas was really the mastermind of one of the largest bank fraud schemes in history.

JOHNSON: That's Lanny Breuer. He runs the criminal division at the Justice Department.

Mr. BREUER: What he did led not only to the downfall of TBW, perhaps the second-largest mortgage-lending company in the United States, but also led to the failure of one of the country's largest commercial banks, Colonial.

JOHNSON: Late Tuesday, a federal jury in Virginia convicted Farkas of all 14 charges against him. William Cummings defended Farkas. He says the government is overselling the importance of the case.

Mr. WILLIAM CUMMINGS (Attorney): They haven't tackled the larger cases though, which I think is not a good thing for the Justice Department. They should have been going after much larger cases, where there was much more evidence of fraud.

JOHNSON: The idea that prosecutors have gone light on the nation's largest banks for their role in the financial meltdown has become really popular, so popular that Charles Ferguson, the winner of this year's Oscar for best documentary, brought down the house at the awards ceremony with this line:

Mr. CHARLES FERGUSON (Filmmaker): I must start by pointing out that three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong.

(Soundbite of applause)

JOHNSON: While there hasn't been a major case against a big banker connected to the mortgage disaster, Justice Department officials say that's not fair. They got a guilty plea from Bernie Madoff, who carried out one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history. He's serving a 150-year prison sentence.

Federal prosecutors convicted two more Ponzi schemers: Thomas Petters in Minnesota and Scott Rothstein in Florida. But some of the most publicly reviled figures in the mortgage mess, including former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo, won't face any criminal reckoning.

Investigations of major banks are moving slowly. The deals are complicated and it's hard to reconstruct what happened. And no one in the financial world expects prosecutors to do much about findings last week by Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin.

Levin says Goldman Sachs executives may have misled Congress about its mortgage stock bets at the expense of the firm's clients, adding to the sense that the little guys lost their homes while the big players in the market walked away unscathed.

Breuer, of the Justice Department, says public opinion doesn't influence his decisions.

Mr. BREUER: When we believe we have a criminal case where we can prove each of the elements beyond a reasonable doubt, we're going to do it. When we don't believe we can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, we're not going to do it, no matter what, you know, how popular it would be.

JOHNSON: Which probably means the Justice Department won't be entering any popularity contests for a while.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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