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Warren to regulators: When was the last time you took a Wall Street bank to trial?

Senate freshman Elizabeth Warren has kept relatively low profile during her first month in Washington.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. (Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Senate freshman Elizabeth Warren has kept relatively low profile during her first month in Washington. She’s still one of the new senators in town, but you couldn't tell when the Massachusetts Democrat grilled federal regulators Thursday at her first Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing.

Seven banking federal regulators from place like the Security and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission testified in front of the group, which oversees Wall Street. Lawmakers pressed the witnesses on their efforts to crack down on these institutions following the financial crisis.

When given the floor, Warren cut straight to the point by asking the one lingering question on many minds. “The question I really want to ask is about how tough you are--about how much leverage you really have,” Warren began. “Tell me a little bit about the last few times you've taken the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street all the way to trial.”

The witnesses testifying seemed like they had been given a pop quiz by the former Harvard professor; no regulator could remember the last time they took a Wall Street bank to trial. Their answers, which were under oath, didn't seem to get a passing grade from the senator.

"We do not have to bring people to trial," declared Thomas Curry, head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Warren shot back, "I appreciate that you say you don't have to bring them to trial. My question is, when did you bring them to trial?"

Elisse Walter, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, told Warren, "I will have to get back to you with specific information."

Even after the bailouts and global financial collapse several years ago, Warren argued banks still "don’t have much incentive to follow the law."

"There are district attorneys and U.S. attorneys who are out there every day squeezing ordinary citizens on sometimes very thin grounds, and taking them to trial in order to make an example, as they put it,” said Warren. “I'm really concerned that 'Too Big Too Fail' has become 'Too Big For Trial.' That just seems wrong to me."