Advertisement
(Page 2 of 2)

THE NATION

FBI saw threat of loan crisis

A top official warned of widening mortgage fraud in 2004, but the agency focused its resources elsewhere.

August 25, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

Many of the cases have been relatively small, however, with about half the investigations involving losses of less than $1 million -- the size of two or three loans.

But the tepid response also reflects a broad realignment of law-enforcement priorities at the Justice Department in which mortgage fraud and other white-collar crimes have been subordinated to other Bush administration priorities.

That has reflected, in part, the ramp-up in national security and terrorism investigations after the Sept. 11 attacks. But the administration has also put more support behind efforts against illegal immigration and child pornography.

In a way, the mortgage debacle could not have come onto the FBI radar screen at a worse time. Just as Swecker was making his doomsday forecast, the FBI, under pressure from Congress and the White House, was creating a crime-fighting brain drain, transferring hundreds of agents from its criminal investigations unit into its anti-terrorism program. About 2,500 agents doing criminal work -- 20% or so of the entire force -- were affected.

Even as the number of new white-collar cases started declining, the Justice Department did pursue some high-profile corporate prosecutions, such as those arising from the collapse of Enron Corp. But some former prosecutors question the administration's current commitment to pursuing complex, high-stakes cases.

"I think most sitting U.S. attorneys now staring at the subprime crisis find scant resources available to pursue sophisticated financial crimes," said John C. Hueston, a Los Angeles lawyer who was a lead federal prosecutor in the trials of Enron executives Kenneth L. Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling.

Absent a major shift in priorities and resources, he said, it is likely that the Justice Department and the FBI will continue on their current path of focusing on simple cases "that don't go to the heart of the problem."

The FBI says it has 21 open investigations into possible large-scale fraud related to the subprime meltdown. The Times reported last month that a federal grand jury in Los Angeles had subpoenaed records from three large California lenders: Countrywide Financial Corp. (now part of Bank of America Corp.), New Century Financial Corp. and IndyMac Federal Bank.

Among other possible targets, the FBI has said, are investment firms that sold billions in securities backed by shaky subprime mortgages and credit rating agencies that gave high marks to the now-worthless securities and failed to protect investors.

But it may be hard to jump-start such probes. Trying to prove that a major mortgage company intended to defraud buyers of its securities, for example, could take years of digging into records and testimony.

Moreover, some of those involved may have special legal protection: Credit rating firms have in other cases successfully asserted that their opinions about the values of securities are protected by the 1st Amendment.

"I am happy to have investigations going on, but these investigations should have taken place years ago," said Blair A. Nicholas, a San Diego lawyer representing investors who lost money in the collapse of several subprime mortgage lenders. "They seem to always get involved after the horse has left the barn. It is always cleaning up the mess rather than being proactive."

Could the crisis have been averted, or at least mitigated, if the FBI had intervened more forcefully?

"Until there is a catastrophic loss, there is no incentive to investigate criminal conduct," said Cynthia Monaco, a former federal prosecutor in New York. "Nor are there people coming forward with evidence" such as angry investors or whistle-blowing corporate employees, she said.

Even now, Monaco added, it is far from clear whether the damage -- suffered by investors and homeowners alike -- was the product of clear-cut fraud.

Ormsby says the FBI is more actively working with other federal investigative agencies in the hope they will pick up the slack. The Secret Service, for example, in a departure from its traditional missions of protecting presidents and heads of state and investigating counterfeiting, has assigned more than 100 agents to examine mortgage fraud, said spokesman Edwin Donovan.

The Justice Department is also starting to mobilize. The department offered what it described as a "basic seminar" on mortgage fraud cases to about 100 prosecutors last week at its national training academy in South Carolina.

--

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|