DOJ Unveils New Policy on Individual Liability in White-Collar Prosecutions

On September 9, the Department of Justice (DOJ), issued a policy memorandum concerning DOJ’s goal of holding individuals accountable for corporate fraud or other misconduct.  While some of the guidelines set forth in the memorandum are statements of practices already being followed by DOJ, or by specific U.S. Attorney’s Offices, some of the measures are new and reflect an enhanced  focus on DOJ’s goal of holding individuals criminally or civilly liable for corporate wrongdoing. The memo sets forth “six key steps” to accomplish this goal and further DOJ’s underlying policies of deterring future illegal activity, incentivizing change in corporate behavior, holding proper parties responsible for their actions, and promoting public confidence in the justice system. Read more…


SDNY Orders Bank To Pay $1.3 Billion Following Verdict In GSE Civil Fraud Case

On July 30, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered a bank to pay a nearly $1.3 billion civil penalty after a jury found the bank liable in October 2013 on one civil mortgage fraud charge arising out of a program operated by a mortgage lender the bank had acquired. The case was the first in which the government alleged violations of FIRREA in connection with loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The government originally sought damages of $1 billion based on alleged losses incurred by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Subsequently the government argued the penalty should be calculated not based on loss to the GSEs, but rather based on gross gain to the lender, in order to accomplish “FIRREA’s central purpose of punishment and deterrence.” The government calculated a gross gain of $2.1 billion, and requested that the court impose a penalty in that amount.

In its order on civil penalties, the court noted that FIRREA provides no guidance on how to calculate a gain or loss or how to choose a penalty within the broad range permitted. To quantify the gain or loss on the 17,611 loans at issue, the court focused on the general principle that the “civil penalty provisions of FIRREA are designed to serve punitive and deterrent purposes and should be construed in favor of those purposes.” The court determined that both gain and loss should be viewed in terms of how much money the lender “fraudulently induced” the GSEs to pay. Even though many of the loans were in fact high quality, the Court included all of the loans in the gain and loss analysis because the jury found that the lender engaged in an intentional scheme to defraud the GSEs and that the lender intended to represent loans as being materially higher quality than they actually were. The court reasoned that the “happenstance that some of the loans may still have been of high quality should not relieve the defendants of bearing responsibility for the full payments they received from the scheme, at least not if the purposes of the penalty are punishment and deterrence.” As a result, the Court found the proper measure of both gain and loss to be the amount Fannie and Freddie paid for all loans at issue, and set $2,960,737,608 as the statutory maximum for the penalty. As a compensating factor, the court considered that 57.19 percent of the loans were not materially defective and reduced the penalty to 42.81 percent of the statutory maximum, or $1,267,491,770.


Federal, State Authorities Obtain Another Major RMBS Settlement

On July 14, the DOJ, the FDIC, and state authorities in California, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York, announced a $7 billion settlement of federal and state RMBS civil claims against a large financial institution, which was obtained by the RMBS Working Group, a division of the Obama Administration’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Federal and state law enforcement authorities and financial regulators alleged that the institution misled investors in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of certain RMBS. They claimed, among other things, that the institution received information indicating that, for certain loan pools, significant percentages of the loans reviewed as part of the institution’s due diligence did not conform to the representations provided to investors about the pools of loans to be securitized, yet the institution allowed the loans to be securitized and sold without disclosing the alleged failures to investors. The agreement includes a $4 billion civil penalty, described by the DOJ as the largest ever obtained under FIRREA. In addition, the institution will pay a combined $500 million to settle existing and potential claims by the FDIC and the five states. The institution also agreed to provide an additional $2.5 billion in borrower relief through a variety of means, including financing affordable rental housing developments for low-income families in high-cost areas. Finally, the institution was required to acknowledge certain facts related to the alleged activities.


Illinois AG Sues Student Debt Relief Firms

On July 14, Illinois Attorney General (AG) Lisa Madigan announced that her office filed separate civil lawsuits (here and here) in state court against two student debt relief firms and their principals.  The lawsuits allege that the defendants violated several state consumer protection statutes relating to their deceptive student debt relief practices and collection of improper fees.  The AG claims that the unlicensed companies and their sole principals improperly accepted upfront fees from student borrowers while claiming to have enrolled them in sham loan forgiveness programs or other legitimate loan relief programs that were available to borrowers free of charge.  The lawsuits also allege that the defendants engaged in extensive false and misleading advertisements that misrepresented their expertise, affiliation with the U.S. Department of Education, and the debt relief programs available to borrowers.

The AG maintains that these practices violate several state consumer protection statues, including:

  • The Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, prohibiting unfair and deceptive business practices, including making false representations and failing to disclose material facts to consumers;
  • The Credit Services Organizations Act, prohibiting unlicensed parties from acting as “debt settlement providers” or accepting illegal fees; and
  • The Debt Settlement Consumer Protection Act, prohibiting parties from accepting upfront payment for debt relief services.

The lawsuits seek injunctive and non-monetary relief in the form of permanent injunctions against each defendant and a rescission of all contracts with Illinois residents.  The AG is also pursuing a variety of monetary damages and penalties, including restitution, costs of prosecution and investigation, and civil penalties of $50,000 for each statutory violation with additional penalties for those conducted with the intent to defraud or perpetrated against elderly victims.


DOJ Obtains Settlement In FHA False Claims Act Case

On February 4, the DOJ announced the filing and simultaneous settlement of a complaint by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) against a mortgage lender alleged to have violated the False Claims Act (FCA) by submitting false loan-level certifications to HUD that fraudulently induced HUD to insure ineligible mortgage loans. The complaint makes similar claims with respect to loans insured by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This is the first FCA case brought by the SDNY to assert claims based on VA loans. Although the complaint was filed in a whistleblower qui tam case under seal in January 2013, it indicates the U.S. Attorney’s investigation of fraudulent lending practices has been on-going since 2011. In addition to allegations concerning reckless origination practices, the complaint also alleges that the lender’s underwriters manipulated the data entered into the AUS/TOTAL Scorecard system, repeatedly entering hypothetical data that lacked a factual basis with the goal of determining the lowest values that would generate an “accept/approve” recommendation. The U.S. Attorney claims this practice violated HUD guidance and encouraged fraud by both loan officers and borrowers, and also that the lender made false statements in its loan-level certifications when it falsely certified to the “integrity” of the data entered by underwriters into AUS/TOTAL. To resolve the matter, the lender agreed to pay a total of $614 million; $564.6 million to resolve the HUD claims and $49.4 million to resolve the VA claims. Consistent with the SDNY’s recent practice of requiring admissions in civil fraud cases, the settlement stipulation recites that the lender admits responsibility for certain specified allegations. The settlement also requires the lender to implement “an enhanced quality control program,” the terms of which are to be memorialized in a separate agreement still to be negotiated.