DOJ Files Civil Charges Against Bank Of America

The Justice Department alleges Bank of America made false statements about the quality of $850 million worth of home-loans that it sold to investors. The move is the latest in a series of cases being brought against financial firms.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Justice Department is bringing civil charges against one of the nation's largest banks. The government alleges that Bank of America made false statements about the quality of home loans it sold off to investors, $850 million worth of loads. The Justice Department move is the latest in a series of cases being brought against financial firms.

NPR's Chris Arnold has been following all of this and joins us now. Good morning.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about exactly what these civil charges are against Bank of America?

ARNOLD: OK, so the Justice Department is alleging basically this, that Bank of America told investors it was selling them this big bundle of mortgages back in 2008 and that the mortgages were of good quality or prime quality. But they say that the bank was lying about that. And in fact they say Bank of America didn't really look at the loan quality and sold off a lot of garbage loans as part of that big pool of loans, and in addition to that the complaint says that some managers at Bank of America were saying, hey, wait a minute, we should look into this more, we normally look into things like this more, why aren't we taking a closer look at these loans, and they were overruled.

Also according to the complaint, more than 40 percent of the mortgages didn't comply with the bank's quality control standards and so there were all these, quote, glaring problems - overstated income, fake employment, that's - you know, somebody works at McDonald's or Burger King and then the mortgage broker writes down that they're a dentist and makes it look like they make more money, so all kinds of stuff like that was going on.

So the government says, look, investors lost millions of dollars when these loans went bad and it's Bank of American's fault.

MONTAGNE: And Bank of America, what's it saying in its defense?

ARNOLD: Well, Bank of America said in a statement that these loans were sold to sophisticated investors and they had ample access to the loan data. Basically, look, these people knew what they were buying. A spokesman also said that the bank is, quote, not responsible for the housing market collapse that caused mortgage loans to default. And in general banks have said, look, if somebody commits a crime, they should go to jail. But making mistakes and bad investments, it's not illegal. It's unfortunate, but it's not illegal. And they say that's most of what went wrong in the run-up to the financial crisis.

MONTAGNE: And Chris, speaking of crime and going to jail, to a lot of people this will sound like fraud. Why not criminal charges? Why civil charges?

ARNOLD: Well, that's exactly the kind of question that a lot of people are asking. You know, the notion that these big financial firms, they helped to wreck the economy and there's been no criminal charges or hardly any, nobody's really gone to jail over all this. And in civil cases like this one and others brought by the SEC, companies usually settle. They don't admit wrongdoing. It's not quite as, you know, the hammer of justice coming down kind of thing.

So we have seen some criminal charges brought for insider trading cases. Just recently this hedge fund, SAC, that was founded by this billionaire guy, Steve Cohen, the company itself has criminal charges being brought against it, but hardly any against these large banks and financial firms who arguably played a big role in the financial crisis.

MONTAGNE: Well, in a sense, again, why are prosecutors going after insider traders and not the big banks in a criminal way?

ARNOLD: Well, one reason is that insider trading cases are easier to prove. So there's been focus on that. But it's interesting too. I've been talking to some former federal prosecutors about all this, and they say it's useful to look back at the savings and loan debacle back in the 1980s. And they say then, at the peak, the government had a thousand FBI agents working on those cases. And when the financial crisis hit, they said, we only had about 120 FBI agents working on bank fraud.

And so there just hasn't been a big prosecutorial staffing up to go after the fraud of the big financial firms. Some of those white collar investigators were already involved in insider trading stuff. So it's basically a manpower issue is one reason.

MONTAGNE: So might that change?

ARNOLD: It could. One former top prosecutor I talked to said, look, I don't see the will in Washington at this point to make a big change. But another said, look, if the government got more serious about prosecutions, they could find a lot of criminal activity that was going on at the big banks.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Chris Arnold. Thanks very much.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Renee.

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