Updated: Aug 22, 2019
Inside Lehman Brothers is the autopsy of a crime, by those who tried to prevent it from within. As mortgage brokers for Lehman’s subsidiary BNC, Linda Weekes and her Californian colleagues were at the forefront of the subprime crisis. Matthew Lee, then headquartered in New York, was the first leader to have refused to validate the accounts tainted by fraudulent transactions. At the time, nobody listened to these whistle-blowers – instead, they faced retribution and their lives have been turned upside down.
The film finds a systemic cover-up of illegal practices that first befell Lehman Brothers and contributed to the worst financial crisis since the Depression. While the financial crisis went into remission during the last decade, experts in the film argue that this disease of greed and willful blindness, aided and abetted by a weakening of financial oversight under President Trump, is now setting the stage for a once impossible return. “NINJA” loans (no job, no income, no asset) have returned to the market with a vengeance.
Linda, Cheryl, and Sylvia - The Pioneers In the spring of 2005, Linda Weekes, Cheryl Mc Neil, Sylvia Vega-Sutfin and Coleen Columbo worked at BNC Sacramento, a real estate loan subsidiary of Lehman Brothers. Photos by Pierre Taillez
In 2008 Matthew Lee was a Vice President at Lehman Brothers, the 4 th largest investment
bank in the United States. He earned a healthy six-figure salary and had homes in New York
and Connecticut, the kind of arrangement befitting of his social status. Lee personified Wall
Street success and he hovered at the top with power players minted just like him.
But in the spring of 2008, something at Lehman began disrupting Lee’s notoriously calm
and quiet demeanour. Lee had begun to notice a string of suspicious accounting
irregularities. It worried him enough that he took his concerns to the senior leadership
group above him. In a memo Lee highlighted six cases of unethical accounting. As he saw it
at the time, “REPO 105” transactions were being used to artificially boost Lehman’s balance
sheet to the tune of $50 billion. Auditors Ernst & Young were promptly brought in to
Photos by Pierre Taillez
Satisfied that the irregularities were receiving the dutiful attention they deserved, Lee went
back to work. But his ire was soon raised again when just weeks later he noticed similar
transactions continuing throughout the company. Only this time, Lee would have no
opportunity for recourse. A month following his first report, Lee was packaged out of
Lehman for good. They masked his departure in typical corporate speak, calling it the result
of ‘normal downsizing’. But Lee and his supporters knew otherwise—this was a shot across
the bow with the clearest of goals: to silence the dissent of Matthew Lee once and for all.
With Lee out of the way, Lehman’s creative accounting carried on for a few more desperate
months until finally on September 15, 2008, they blindsided everyone in the financial world
by declaring one of the largest bankruptcy’s in Wall Street’s history. Even by the scandal-plagued standards of corporate malfeasance, this was no normal bankruptcy. Lehman’s total debt was staggering: $631 billion. With its over-leveraged collapse, the rest of the global economy teetered on a cliff’s edge before following Lehman into the financial abyss, kick starting the recession of 2008.
Photos by Pierre Taillez
"Thousands of people should be in prison,” Lee says looking back. He has refused to speak about those final days, until now. “Bankers, rating agencies, accountants and auditors— all of them should be in jail .”
After his whistle-blowing and subsequent downsizing, Matthew Lee was banished from Wall
Street. The banker became a biker, spending his days riding his motorcycle across
Tasmania, East Timor, and Australia alone with thoughts on his successes and failures. At
different stops Lee would check into financial news headlines, send letters to market
surveillance authorities and then wait, in vain, when nothing happened. "It's a time bomb”,
Lee says surveying the current state of the global economy. Like a decade ago, no one hears
the warning. In Matthew Lee’s very first interview and retelling of what happened in 2008 and how
the very same machinations are being laid for it to happen all over again in 2018, Inside Lehman Brothers is a story that many films have tried to evoke but no documentary has ever told from the very inside out…until now. Inside Lehman Brothers isn’t just a story of a single hero. It’s a story of the whistle-blowers that tried to do something about it and who continue to speak out so that it never happens again. Incredibly, while Lee was trying to ring the alarm at Lehman’s head offices in Manhattan, across the country in Sacramento, California, four women with a lot less power and profile were doing the same thing at one of the company’s mortgage subsidiaries. Linda Weekes, Sylvia Vega-Sutfin and Cheryl McNeil had grown accustomed to not being heard. None of them had the tony addresses or lavish lifestyle that folks back in New York had, but they were just as good at their jobs, perhaps too good.
Employed by BNC Mortgage, these women were actually the first to warn the world about
subprime mortgages, three years before the massive bankruptcy. As with Matthew Lee, they were convinced that their integrity and loyalty to Lehman would not only be encouraged but would also be recognized by their peers. Of course, that never happened.
Instead, they became victims of an intense harassment campaign that included blackmail,
physical intimidation and even more caustic threats. Before everything fell apart, the
leadership of BNC were themselves under damn-the-torpedoes-pressure from Lehman
headquarters in New York to get results.
Photos by Pierre Taillez
After their first warnings in 2005, things got weird for the whistleblowers at BNC. Linda
Weekes shares one story of searching for documents in a closet at the office when someone
approached her from behind, breathing heavily before placing a hand on her shoulder. A
victim of rape as a young woman, Weekes had an immediate anxiety attack. Unable to scream, she ran out of office, opting to never set foot in there again. And she didn’t. Five days later, her and other 5 whistleblowers resigned in protest.
The BNC workers in Sacramento hired a renowned lawyer, Gary Gwilliam, to take action
against Lehman. With his support, they pulled together a press conference. The plan was
that the media attention announcing Lehman’s wrongdoing would make front-page news.
But it didn’t work out that way…
More than 10 years later, these women are still paying the price for their courage to speak
out. After losing her job at BNC, Cheryl McNeil had her car seized and was forced to give up
sending her son to university. Coleen Columbo ended up living in her car with her daughter
for two years. Sylvia Vega-Sutfin sunk into deep depression and, terrorized by BNC's attacks
and threats against her, took up buying a gun and learning how to shoot it.
But two of the original whistle-blowers—Linda and Cheryl—have started to work in the real
estate credit business again. Like Matthew Lee, they too have watched as the vipers that
preyed on subprime mortgages in 2008, including so-called “NINJA” loans (no job, no
income, no asset); have returned to the market with a vengeance.
Inside Lehman Brothers is a methodical autopsy of a sickness that first befell Lehman
Brothers, before it led to the worst financial crisis since the Depression. While in remission
the last decade, this disease of greed and willful blindness, aided and abetted by a weakening
of financial oversight under President Trump, is now setting the stage for a once impossible
In 2008 Matthew Lee and the other whistle-blowers sacrificed everything to tell the world
what was happening. But will anyone have the bravery to do it again?
JENNIFER DESCHAMPS, DIRECTOR
Jennifer Decamps, 40, is a director, journalist and editorial producer at KM Productions in Paris. After studying international law and political science in Paris II, she turned to making documentaries. In 2005, she directed Dieu died in Rwanda , for ARTE. Then she continued her journey as an investigative journalist for several years, including as part of the team of Special Envoy at France 2. Among her outstanding investigations: one on Scientology (40 ', M6, 2009), another on illegal dumps (35 ', France 2, 2011, selected at the FIGRA in 2012) as well as the one on the bankruptcy of the American dream that looked at the subprime crisis (30', France 2, 2007). Jennifer is convinced that sound journalism can bring a lot to the field of creative documentary. Jennifer has been working on Inside Lehman Brothers for more than two years.
John Turner, Jennifer Deschamps DIRECTED BY: Jennifer Deschamps PRODUCERS: Ina Fichman, Frédérique Lacroix
Intuitive Pictures is a Montreal-based company helmed by Veteran producer Ina Fichman. The company is dedicated to producing a quality film, television, and digital productions. We work with some of the finest creators, “ideas people” in developing creative documentaries that are both innovative and have a wide audience appeal. We have developed an expertise in international co production and often collaborate with talent and partners worldwide. Recent productions include: The Oslo Diaries, Laila at the Bridge, Gift and Inside Lehman Brothers.
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