Jury Finds Bank Of America Liable For Mortgages Fraud

A jury has found Bank of America liable for fraud for shoddy mortgages sold by its Countrywide unit. The rare win by the government in a jury trial against a financial institution could open the door to more lawsuits against banks.

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A federal jury has found that Bank of America is liable for fraud by selling defective mortgages through its Countrywide Financial unit. Countrywide sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of troubled home loans to the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The mortgage giants collapsed after buying too many bad loans. A senior bank manager was also found liable in the civil case. The lawsuit was brought by U.S. attorney in New York, and the jury verdict is likely to give a boost to private lawsuits against the bank.

NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: The details in this case come from the tail end of the housing bubble and they're pretty colorful. The case involves a lending program at Countrywide that managers there actually called the hustle.

WILLIAM BLACK: This case arose from a whistleblower who was an insider - in fact, a fairly senior insider - at Countrywide.

ARNOLD: That's William Black. He's a former federal regulator and now a law professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Countrywide, of course, was the biggest home lender in the U.S. back during the housing bubble. It was later purchased by Bank of America. And this case involves a loan program that started after the housing market was already falling apart in the second half of 2007.

BLACK: So, now the time period is that the world has blown up; that the non-prime mortgages, which are the liars' loans, are suffering incredible default rates. Major institutions are failing everywhere.

ARNOLD: The complaint says that rather than be more cautious and dial back, Countrywide allegedly gutted its quality control system, to push more sketchy loans through the pipeline three times faster than before. Sometimes loans would even be approved in a single day.

BLACK: Now, notice this is significantly insane. And a number of people, including the whistleblower, at Countrywide say: But this will produce the same disaster that we've just produced. And the decision is made to go forward.

ARNOLD: The lawsuit says that Countrywide ignored warnings that the loans were going bad and kept selling them to investors anyway, and the jury agreed. For its part, Bank of America said in a statement that the jury's decision concerned a single Countrywide program that ended before Bank of America's acquisition of the company.

Rebecca Mairone was the senior manager who was in charge of the so-called hustle program - and she was found liable. Her attorney Marc Mukasey says the lawsuit was misguided and said his client is...

MARC MUKASEY: A very hardworking, honest woman who's never crossed an improper line in her life, is the victim of this.

ARNOLD: Mukasey says the whistleblower had a grudge against his client. She now works at JPMorgan Chase.

As far as what a successful jury verdict in the case will mean for private litigation against Bank of America, Gary Klein is a consumer rights attorney in Boston.

GARY KLEIN: I think it's going to be used in cases that are already pending on these issues on behalf of investors. I don't think there's any doubt about that.

ARNOLD: Klein says though he'd like to see more cases brought by the government on behalf of homeowners themselves, not just investors. William Black would like to see more criminal cases brought against senior bank managers and executives. In this civil case the bank could face a fine of about $850 million. Bank of America and Rebecca Mairone are both considering their options for appeal.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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