Facing him in the dock were some of America’s most influential men, whose names were synonymous with power, privilege, and great wealth. But Ferdinand J. Pecora–a shoemaker’s son born in Sicily in 1882–proved more than equal to the task of interrogating them. He had earned his stripes as an assistant New York district attorney in the 1920s, when he had successfully prosecuted corrupt politicians and questionable stock salesmen. By the time he was appointed chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, in early 1933, Pecora was ready to come out swinging against the most prominent bankers and brokers in the country.
A brilliant, sarcastic cross-examiner, Pecora personally questioned many of the most prominent witnesses, including Charles Mitchell, president and chairman of the National City Bank (later Citicorp); Samuel Insull, head of a huge utilities empire in Illinois; and J. P. (“Jack”) Morgan II, of J. P. Morgan and Company. Pecora elicited that Morgan had paid no personal income tax in 1930, 1931, and 1932, and that his bank, like many others, had used “preferred lists” to extend financial privileges to its best clients. It was painful evidence of the insulation of financial elites at a time when most Americans were scraping to get by. Pecora became a hero of reformers and working people and was featured, cigar clenched between his teeth, on the cover of Time magazine. By the end of 1933, Congress had passed two landmark pieces of reform legislation, the Glass-Steagall Act and the Securities Act. More reforms would follow in succeeding years.