Corzine blames predecessors for MF Global’s fall

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WASHINGTON — Summoned by Congress, Jon Corzine embraced a bold strategy Thursday to distance himself from MF Global’s fall and $1.2 billion in missing clients’ money:

Answer each question. Be courteous. And don’t huddle with your lawyer before replying.

He said very little. Nevertheless, it was a risky strategy, even for a risk-taking financial executive. Anything Corzine might say could be used against him in a courtroom, should he ever be charged in the MF Global case.

Yet the former CEO of the securities firm never declined to answer questions by invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The one-time senator and New Jersey governor was subpoenaed by his former colleagues to explain how MF Global collapsed just over a month ago in the eighth-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. It’s the first time in more than 100 years that Congress has subpoenaed a former senator to testify, according to Senate historian Don Ritchie.

Looking strained and speaking hoarsely during nearly three hours of testimony, Corzine said he never intended to break rules that require firms to safeguard client funds. He said he doesn’t know what happened to the missing money, but added that customers’ losses weigh on his mind “every day, every hour.”

He said several times that he did not become aware of the shortfall in client accounts until Oct. 30, one day before MF Global filed for bankruptcy following its disastrous bets on European debt.

“I’m not in a position, given the number of transactions, to know anything specific about the movement of any specific funds,” said Corzine, who took over as CEO more than a year and a half ago.

In his testimony to the House Agriculture Committee, Corzine sought to deflect blame for the company’s collapse, arguing that he inherited a firm already doomed by his predecessors’ bad financial decisions.

Legal experts said they were surprised by Corzine’s decision to answer each question, however vaguely, given the legal risks. The FBI and federal regulators are investigating MF Global.

It’s hard to see how the testimony will benefit Corzine, said Robert Mintz, a defense attorney in Newark, N.J., who specializes in white-collar cases.

Mintz said Corzine’s answers leave him open to “a barrage of questions about facts and circumstances that will no doubt be the subject of review by prosecutors and regulators.”

Two other congressional panels have also voted to subpoena Corzine.

His testimony provided his first public comments since the firm’s spectacular collapse. A lawyer who handles white-collar criminal cases accompanied Corzine and sat behind him during the hearing. But Corzine never turned to seek his advice.

The hearing wasn’t particularly confrontational, though a few members expressed disbelief that Corzine could be so detached as CEO.

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