Will Ponzi scheme impresario Bernard Madoff be the man who drives a too-big-to-fail bank to plead guilty to criminal charge? Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg News
Will Ponzi scheme impresario Bernard Madoff be the man who drives a too-big-to-fail bank to plead guilty to criminal charge? Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg News

With the news out that JPMorgan Chase & Co. is close to reaching a deferred-prosecution agreement over its dealings with Ponzi scheme maestro Bernard Madoff, the usual (and justified) carping over JPMorgan's status as a too-big-to-jail bank is in full force.

So now is as good a time as any to ask: What would it take for the government to ever require that a U.S. bank plead guilty to a criminal charge? There aren't many precedents, but here's a start: It would help if the bank already had a buyer in waiting.

The go-to place for anyone looking for archived listings of corporate plea agreements and settlements is Brandon Garrett's website at the University of Virginia School of Law. Garrett, a law professor who is working on a book about corporate prosecutions, has a wonderful collection of nonprosecution agreements, deferred-prosecution agreements and plea deals, including links to many of the original source documents.

It's as comprehensive a database as you will find on this subject. I spotted only three U.S. banks on the list of corporations that have entered guilty pleas. One was New York-based Delta National Bank & Trust Co. The closely held lender pleaded guilty in 2003 to one count of failing to file a suspicious-activity report. A decade later, it's doing fine.

Another was Pamrapo Savings Bank, a Bayonne, New Jersey-based lender that pleaded guilty in 2010 to a conspiracy charge related to violations of anti-money-laundering laws. The third bank was Washington-based Riggs Bank, which reached a plea deal in 2005 over money-laundering violations.

By the time Pamrapo entered its plea, it already had agreed to be acquired by BCB Bancorp, also based in Bayonne. Riggs agreed in 2004 to be bought by Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc. So it, too, had little to fear from a criminal conviction on its record when it resolved its case.

Which brings us back to JPMorgan: There probably isn't a bank anywhere in the world that's big enough to buy it. And there probably isn't a prosecutor in the Justice Department today who has the nerve to ask a grand jury to indict it. Two-tiered justice lives on.

(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)