U.S. Sues Bank Of America For Mortgage Fraud

The government sued Bank of America on Wednesday, claiming it stuck taxpayers with losses by intentionally selling dodgy home loans to the government-backed mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The civil suit, filed by the U.S. attorney in New York, seeks at least $1 billion in damages. The government says Countrywide Financial, a mortgage lender acquired by Bank of America in 2008, had a system called "the hustle" that skirted quality control to quickly sell defective mortgages to Fannie and Freddie.

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The U.S. government announced today that it is suing Bank of America for more than a billion dollars. It claims the bank stuck taxpayers with losses during the financial crisis by selling dodgy home loans to government-backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The lawsuit alleges that Countrywide Financial, which was later acquired by Bank of America, sold off large volumes of loans without determining whether they were any good.

With us now is NPR's Ailsa Chang to talk about the case.

And, first, Ailsa, what more can you tell us about the allegations in the complaint filed today?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan says the conduct by Countrywide Financial was spectacularly brazen in scope. What the lawsuit basically alleges is that Countrywide sold defective loans to Fannie and Freddie without disclosing the poor quality of those loans.

The allegations center on a process used by Countrywide called the hustle, and the idea behind this process was to move high volumes of mortgages off of Countrywide's books at a really high speed. The government says that even Countrywide's own documents said those loans were supposed to, quote, "move forward, never backward." And prosecutors say to move and sell these mortgages as quickly as possible, they removed quality controls.

Countrywide executives allegedly knew all of this was going on and concealed it when they were selling loans to Fannie and Freddie. Meanwhile, Bank of America has now said it has acted responsibly, and it can't be expected to compensate for losses they say were caused by the economic downturn.

CORNISH: And why were Fannie and Freddie buying all these loans in the first place?

CHANG: Well, that's what they do. Fannie and Freddie buy mortgage loans from banks. They package them into securities, and they sell them to investors. That way, banks can make even more loans. So if someone defaults on a loan, Fannie and Freddie will guarantee payment to investors.

The problem is, according to the government, Fannie and Freddie don't have their own rigorous quality control to ensure the quality of the loans they buy. So they have to heavily rely on the quality checks the banks are supposedly doing.

CORNISH: And just a short time left, Ailsa, but this isn't the first mortgage fraud suit the government has brought.

CHANG: No. There's actually been several, but this is the first one involving Fannie and Freddie, which, as you'll remember, got bailed out by taxpayers at a cost of $183 billion so far. And this lawsuit could actually be a way for the federal government to recoup some of that taxpayer money.

The suit was also prominent because it's Bank of America, which is such a huge bank. Two weeks ago, Wells Fargo was also sued by the federal government for alleged mortgage fraud.

CORNISH: NPR's Ailsa Chang. Thank you.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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