Added Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.: "Somebody in this organization had to have the ability to say, 'Light's green, take the money.'"
Corzine and Steenkamp said that given what's now known, they wouldn't have signed the firm's last quarterly financial statement attesting that its internal financial controls were adequate.
Under a 2002 anti-corporate-fraud law that Corzine co-wrote as a U.S. senator, the CEO and chief financial officer of public companies must personally certify the accuracy of their company's financial statements. It can be a violation of the law for executives to sign a false statement.
The three executives say that they didn't become aware of the shortfall until hours before the firm filed for bankruptcy protection on Oct. 31.
Tuesday's hearing included an added element of intrigue: Corzine was pressed by some of the senators he served with from 2001 through 2005.
The Senate panel is one of three congressional committees to have issued subpoenas to compel Corzine's testimony on the issue. It marked the first time a former senator has been subpoenaed by his former peers in more than 100 years, according to the Senate historian's office.
Many lawmakers have heard from farmers, ranchers and small business owners in their states who are missing money that was deposited with the firm. Agricultural businesses use brokerage firms like MF Global to help reduce their risks in an industry vulnerable to swings in oil, corn and other commodity prices.
Corzine told lawmakers that he never intended to authorize the transfer of funds from customer accounts. He said he doesn't believe "it would be possible" for anyone to misinterpret anything he said as authorizing the misuse of customer funds.
Corzine, Steenkamp and Abelow have been sued in class-action complaints on behalf of MF Global shareholders. The lawsuits accuse the executives of making false and misleading statements about MF Global's financial strength and cash balances.
MF Global didn't list the European debt on its balance sheet for all to see. Instead, those holdings were shifted to the company's "off-balance sheet," deep in its financial statements. Some separate filings with regulators excluded the European debt entirely.
A lawyer for the trustee overseeing the liquidation of MF Global's brokerage operations said in court Friday that the trustee's staff has discovered some "suspicious" trades in MF Global customer accounts that were made in the last days before the firm failed. The lawyer didn't provide details.