Civil War Era Law Could Lead to Financial Crisis Prosecutions

America's top five mortgage lenders cheated taxpayers, say federal investigators

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The financial crisis crime beat has picked up over the past few weeks. Last month's conviction of Lee Farkas, the mortgage swindler responsible for $2.9 billion worth of damage in the financial crisis and the first major white collar scalp for federal prosecutors, now sounds like an opening shot the ensuing legal battle for more scalps after Senator Carl Levin delivered his 650-page autopsy on the financial crisis to the Department of Justice. With representatives from big banks like Goldman Sachs featured prominently on the to-be-subpoenaed list, the report shifts focus to the U.S. attorneys general to take action.

Today, news broke that the DOJ can expect another set of actionable items featuring some of the biggest players in the financial crisis. According to The Huffington Post's Shahien Nasiripour, a series of confidential federal audits accuse America's top five mortgage lenders of defrauding taxpayers out of billions of dollars. The Department of Housing and Urban Development carried out five separate investigations which all concluded in violations of the False Claims Act, which Nasiripour describes as "a Civil War-era law crafted as a weapon against firms that swindle the government." The types of crimes committed should sound familiar by now:

The audits conclude that the banks effectively cheated taxpayers by presenting the Federal Housing Administration with false claims: They filed for federal reimbursement on foreclosed homes that sold for less than the outstanding loan balance using defective and faulty documents.
Two of the firms, including Bank of America, refused to cooperate with the investigations, according to the sources. The audit on Bank of America finds that the company -- the nation’s largest handler of home loans -- failed to correct faulty foreclosure practices even after imposing a moratorium that lifted last October. Back then, the bank said it was resuming foreclosures, having satisfied itself that prior problems had been solved.

It's difficult to express not only the scale of the investigation--representatives from all 50 states participated--but also the impact the banks malfeasance allegedly had on American taxpayers. Should federal prosecutors choose to act on the accusations Bank of America along JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial will face the consequences of immeasurable damage. State and federal officials turned down the five banks' offer to settle out of court for $5 billion in damages. As only 2,800 home loans were reviewed over the course of the audit, one official said it could take years to review just how many homeowners were cheated and out of how much.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.