After Enron disintegrated in 2001 amidst brazen balance sheet chicanery, high-level heads rolled. Former CEO Jeff Skilling went to jail. Ken Lay, another Enron chief, was found guilty of fraud but died before sentencing.
Later in the decade, other unscrupulous executives ended up behind bars, among them former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers and former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski.
These convictions were part of a difficult process of restoring a shattered public confidence in the American economic system. But it has now been two years since Wall Street helped cause a financial collapse – one which sparked a grueling recession and cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion – and only one trophy scalp, that of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, has been obtained by authorities. Several major financial industry targets have wriggled free without ever being charged, while some others were tried and went free.
However, for Americans still craving accountability from the most mischievous masters of the universe, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a message: Stay tuned.
That's because a special category of FBI cases connected to the epic subprime meltdown – and involving high-level Wall Street executives – remains the Bureau's highest priority, according to Peter Grupe, the assistant special agent in charge of white collar crime for the FBI's New York field office.
"We have a large number of active [subprime] cases which are being aggressively investigated," Grupe said. "These are complex, long-term, and resource intensive, but we will continue to pursue them for as long as it takes."
In an exclusive interview with ABCNews.com, Grupe underscored the FBI's commitment to Wall Street criminal probes. He pointed to unprecedented and extensive resources being deployed. He said new agents from financial and accounting backgrounds have been specifically recruited for the effort.
Grupe declined to say exactly how many Wall Street cases are currently being pursued. However, testifying last month before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, Lanny Breuer, Assistant U.S. Attorney General, said that the FBI has 2,200 pending corporate and securities-fraud investigations across the country.
Nevertheless, there are numerous people, including some industry members eager to fully restore confidence in the financial system, who wonder, understandably, what's taking so long.
"I would have expected thousands of indictments by now," said Janet Tavakoli, president of Chicago-based Tavakoli Structured Finance. She pointed out that after the savings-and-loan crisis two decades ago there were 1,100 indictments. The biggest fish to fry were junk bond king Michael Milken and merger arbitrageur Ivan Boesky, said to be the inspiration for Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko character in the movie "Wall Street."
"All we've seen thus far are thin cases that seem to rely on emails," Tavakoli said. "Yes these cases take a long time but it's been nearly two years."
The first two people charged after the 2008 financial crisis, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin of Bear Stearns, were ultimately found not guilty, despite the uncovering of a series of incriminating e-mails that seemed to suggest they were knowingly peddling hedge funds that were doomed.