In that case, the SEC appeared to want to send a message at a time of public anger over Wall Street excess, said James Cox, a Duke University law professor and expert on the SEC. Cox noted that when they negotiate financial settlements, companies consider whether they can deduct some of their costs.
Similarly, when BP agreed in November to plead guilty and pay a record $4.5 billion in the 2010 Gulf oil spill disaster, the Justice Department got BP to agree not to deduct the cost of the settlement against its U.S. taxes.
The total BP will pay includes about $1.3 billion in fines. But it also includes payments of $2.4 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $350 million to the National Academy of Sciences. Normally, those payment would have been tax-deductible.
The banks that just settled with regulators over their mortgage abuses are getting off lightly, Cox suggested. When the amount companies must pay in a settlement "is just the cost of doing business, there's not very much deterrence value there," he said.
At least one lawmaker, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, wants regulators to bar the tax deductibility of the lenders' costs. Brown made his argument in a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, U.S. Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry and other top regulators. The Fed and the comptroller's office, a Treasury Department agency, negotiated the foreclosure abuse settlements with the banks.
"It is simply unfair for taxpayers to foot the bill for Wall Street's wrongdoing," Brown wrote in the letter dated Thursday. "Breaking the law should not be a business expense."
Unfair, too, in the eyes of Charles Wanless, a homeowner in the Florida Panhandle who is fighting his lender over foreclosure proceedings. As Wanless sees it, the government is giving help to banks that it refuses to give to troubled homeowners, who still must pay their full share of taxes.
"The government comes after us for every little bit of money we have," Wanless said.
Bryan Hubbard, a spokesman for the comptroller's office, declined to comment on Brown's letter. Fed spokesmen couldn't immediately be reached for comment.