A new federal and state task force was created today to investigate mortgage fraud that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis, and the panel immediately subpoenaed 11 financial institutions.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the new unit would consist of 55 Justice Department lawyers and analysts and 10 FBI agents to work with state attorney general’s offices to investigate how mortgage backed securities were created, sold and valued by financial institutions. The creattion of the unit was announced by President Obama in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
“The Working Group will streamline and strengthen current and future efforts to identify, investigate, and prosecute instances of wrongdoing in the packaging, selling, and valuing of residential mortgage-backed securities.” Holder said at a press conference on Friday.
Making the announcement the attorney general disclosed that the Justice Department has sent civil subponeas to 11 financial institutions as part of the investigation. They did not identify the targets of the subpoenas.
“You can expect more to follow,” Holder said in reference to the subpoenas being sent out. “Of course, I can’t go into detail about our existing investigations. But I can tell you that significant efforts are moving forward, by both federal and state authorities.”
The working group will be co-chaired by the heads of the Justice Department’s Civil and Criminal Division, John Walsh the U.S. Attorney from Colorado, Robert Khuzami the SEC Enforcement Director and Eric Schneiderman the New York Attorney General.
Although the FBI, SEC and Justice Department have been investigating numerous aspects of the financial crisis, officials hope the new working group may be able to use New York State’s Martin Act, which gives investigators broad powers to investigate fraud. The act allows New York to bring criminal and civil fraud charges without needing to show intent to commit fraud.
The Justice Department has faced critics who have said the Department needs to bring more criminal cases related to the financial crisis. Although there was an extensive investigation into the collapse of AIG and the role of the top executive at AIG Financial Products division, Joseph Cassano, federal prosecutors decided not to bring charges. Former Countrywide CEO Anthony Mozillo was fined by the SEC, but the Justice Department also declined to bring a criminal case against Mozillo in an insider trading case.
Citibank and JP Morgan both had multi-million settlements with the SEC for how they established and sold debt pools called Collateral Debt Obligations tied to the U.S. housing market, but the Justice Department has not brought any criminal cases. Freddie Mac was subpenaed in a grand jury investigation in 2008, but the firm disclosed in an Aug. 8, 2011 SEC filing that the Justice Department investigation into the government sponsored enterprise was closed.
At the press conference Holder defended the Justice Department’s record in pursuing high profile financial fraud cases.
”There have been, I guess, 2,100 or so mortgage-related matters that we have brought here at United State Department of Justice. Our state counterparts have done a variety of things. The notion that there has been inactivity over the course of the last three years is belied by a troublesome little thing called facts,” he said.
There have been some critics of the new working group. In an interview with Reuters Neil Barofsky the former inspector general who oversaw the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) said, “I’m a little puzzled by it. Here we are three years later, launching what seems like a very similar effort, except now co-headed by a state attorney general.”
Wall Street leaders have also been critical of the new unit. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan, said the new unit may “derail” a $25 billion settlement with JP Morgan, Ally Financial, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citibank for problems the banks had with their mortgage servicing and how they handled many foreclosures. The Justice Department, HUD and state attorney generals are negotiating the settlement with the banks to provide relief to people to renegotiate their mortgages.
“It has a pretty good chance of derailing it,” Dimon said in an interview with CNBC. “I think it would be better for America if that settlement took place…If this thing derails that, so be it.”
“I think this announcement today makes very clear that the focus that we have and the releases that are being contemplated are narrow enough to allow us to go forward with this while still completing a servicing settlement,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said about the possible settlement with the five banks.