Federal, State Mortgage-Related Investigations Yield Largest Ever Civil Settlement

On August 21, the DOJ announced that a large financial institution agreed to resolve federal and state mortgage-related claims through what the DOJ characterized as the largest ever civil settlement with a single entity. The agreement actually resolves numerous federal and state investigations related to various alleged practices conducted by the institution and certain former and current subsidiaries that it acquired during the financial crisis. Such allegations relate to the packaging, marketing, sale, arrangement, structuring, and issuance of RMBS and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), as well as the underwriting and origination of mortgage loans. In total, the institution agreed to pay $9.65 billion in penalties and fines and provide $7 billion in relief to borrowers. Of the more than $9 billion in civil payments, $5 billion resolves several DOJ investigations related to RMBS and CDOs under FIRREA, as well as the allegedly fraudulent origination of loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or insured by the FHA. The origination investigations centered on alleged violations of the False Claims Act in the selling of, or seeking of government insurance for, loans alleged to be defective. Other penalty payments resolve RMBS-related claims by the SEC, the FDIC, and several states. In total, the state participants will receive nearly $1 billion, with California and New York obtaining the largest amounts at $300 million each. An independent monitor will be appointed to oversee the borrower relief provisions, which will require the institution to: (i) offer principal reduction loan modifications; (ii) make loans to “credit worthy borrowers struggling to obtain a loan”; (iii) make donations to certain communities harmed during the financial crisis; and (iv) provide financing for affordable rental housing. The institution also agreed to provide funding to defray any tax liability that will be incurred by borrowers who receive certain types of relief if Congress fails to extend the tax relief coverage of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007.

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House Oversight Committee Seeks DOJ Documents On RMBS Settlements

On July 24, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter to Attorney General Holder raising questions about the DOJ’s “inclination to enter into settlement agreements with respect to mortgage securities fraud” claims. The Chairman notes that large RMBS settlements to date have been predicated on violations of FIRREA, which allows the DOJ to initiate lawsuits seeking civil money penalties. The letter suggests the DOJ’s decision not to litigate or secure a criminal plea diverges from the agency’s strategy in other contexts. Chairman Issa asks the DOJ to produce, by August 14, all documents and communications since January 2011 referring or relating to two recent major RMBS settlements, as well as any policies in effect during that time governing the decision to conclude pre-suit negotiations.

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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.

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Mortgage Company Resolves HAMP-Related Criminal Allegations

On July 3, the DOJ announced the resolution of a multi-agency criminal investigation into the way a large mortgage company administered the federal Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). According to a Restitution and Remediation Agreement released by the company’s parent bank, the company agreed to pay up to $320 million to resolve allegations that it made misrepresentations and omissions about (i) how long it would take to make HAMP qualification decisions; (ii) the duration of HAMP trial periods; and (iii) how borrowers would be treated during those trial periods. In exchange for the monetary payments and other corrective actions by the company, the government agreed not to prosecute the company for crimes related to the alleged conduct. The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, as well as the FHFA Inspector General—which has authority to oversee Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s HAMP programs—and the Special Inspector General for TARP—which has responsibility for the Treasury Department HAMP program and jurisdiction over financial institutions that received TARP funds. This criminal action comes in the wake of a DOJ Inspector General report that was critical of the Justice Department’s mortgage fraud enforcement efforts, and which numerous members of Congress used to push DOJ to more vigorously pursue alleged mortgage-related violations. In announcing the action, the U.S. Attorney acknowledged that other HAMP-related investigations are under way, and that more cases may be coming.

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S.D.N.Y. U.S. Attorney Obtains FHA, GSE False Claims Settlement

On July 1, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that a large bank agreed to pay $10 million to resolve allegations that prior to 2011 it violated the False Claims Act and FIRREA by failing to oversee the reasonableness of foreclosure-related charges it submitted to the FHA and Fannie Mae for reimbursement, contrary to program requirements and the bank’s certifications that it had done so. The government intervened in a whistleblower suit claiming that, notwithstanding FHA program requirements and the bank’s annual FHA certifications, prior to 2011, the bank failed to create or maintain an adequate FHA quality control program to review the fees and charges submitted by outside counsel and other third-party providers to the bank, which the bank then submitted to FHA for reimbursement. The government also claimed that the bank failed to create or maintain Fannie Mae audit and control systems sufficient to ensure that the fees and expenses submitted by outside counsel and other third-party providers to the bank, which the bank then submitted to Fannie Mae for reimbursement, were reasonable, customary, or necessary. In addition to the monetary settlement, the bank was required to admit to the allegations and agreed to remain compliant with all rules applicable to servicers of mortgage loans insured by FHA and to servicers of loans held or securitized by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

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Attorney General Vows To Continue Operation Choke Point

On June 23, the DOJ released a transcript of a message delivered by Attorney General Eric Holder in which he pledged to continue investigations of financial institutions “that knowingly facilitate consumer scams, or that willfully look the other way in processing such fraudulent transactions.” These investigations are part of the DOJ’s “Operation Choke Point,” which has faced criticism from financial institutions and their advocates on Capitol Hill, and which payday lenders recently filed suit to halt. Opponents of the operation assert that the DOJ investigations, combined with guidance from prudential regulators, are targeting lawful businesses and cutting off their access to the financial system. In his remarks, the AG promised that the DOJ will not target “businesses operating within the bounds of the law,” but vowed to continue to pursue “a range of investigations into banks that illegally enable businesses to siphon billions of dollars from consumers’ bank accounts in exchange for significant fees.” Mr. Holder stated that he expects the DOJ to resolve some of these investigations in the coming months.

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Federal, State Authorities Announce Substantial Mortgage Settlement

On June 17 the DOJ, the CFPB, HUD, and 49 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia’s attorney general announced a $968 million consent judgment with a large mortgage company to resolve numerous federal and state investigations regarding alleged improper mortgage origination, servicing, and foreclosure practices. The company agreed to pay $418 million to resolve potential liability under the federal False Claims Act for allegedly originating and underwriting FHA-insured mortgages that did not meet FHA requirements, failing to adhere to an effective quality control program to identify non-compliant loans, and failing to self-report to HUD the defective loans it did identify. The company also agreed to measures similar to those in the National Mortgage Settlement (NMS) reached in February 2012.  In particular, the company will (i) provide at least $500 million in borrower relief in the next three years, including by reducing the principal on mortgages for borrowers who are at risk of default, reducing mortgage interest rates for current but underwater borrowers, and other relief; (ii) pay $50 million to redress its alleged servicing violations; and (iii) implement certain changes in its servicing and foreclosure activities to meet new servicing standards. The agreement is subject to court approval, after which compliance with its terms, including the servicing standards, will be overseen by the NMS Monitor, Joseph A. Smith Jr.

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Court Orders Bank To Forfeit Funds Laundered With Assistance Of Branch Teller

On June 18, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland announced that a federal judge ordered a bank to forfeit  $560,000 in drug proceeds laundered through the bank on which the bank failed to file currency transaction reports. The DOJ claimed that a member of a drug trafficking organization asked a teller at a Maryland bank branch to convert the proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs from small denomination bills to $100 bills, and paid the teller a one percent fee for each transaction for making the exchange without filing a currency transaction report. The government filed a civil action in February 2014 seeking forfeiture and alleging that the money was subject to forfeiture because the bank failed to file currency transactions reports on bank transactions in amounts in excess of $10,000, as required by law. The teller admitted that on each occasion she converted the bills without filing or causing anyone else at the bank to file a currency transaction report. She was sentenced to a month in prison followed by eight months of home detention for failing to file currency transaction reports on suspected drug proceeds, and must perform community service and forfeit the $5,000 she was paid in the scheme.

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DOJ, CFPB Fair Lending Enforcement Actions Target Credit Card Repayment Programs, Marketing Of Add-On Products

On June 19, the CFPB and the DOJ announced parallel enforcement actions against a federal savings bank that allegedly violated ECOA in the offering of credit card debt-repayment programs and allegedly engaged in deceptive marketing practices in the offering of certain card add-on products. The bank will pay a total of $228.5 million in customer relief and penalties to resolve the allegations.

ECOA Violations

The CFPB and DOJ charge that the bank excluded borrowers who indicated that they preferred communications to be in Spanish or who had a mailing address in Puerto Rico, even if the consumers met the promotion’s qualifications. The CFPB and DOJ assert that as a result, Hispanic populations were unfairly denied the opportunity to benefit from the promotions, which constitutes a violation of the ECOA’s prohibition on creditors discriminating in any aspect of a credit transaction on the basis of characteristics such as national origin. Read more…

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House Oversight Committee Choke Point Inquiry Shifts To FDIC

On June 9, Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Jim Jordan (R-OH), an Oversight subcommittee chairman, sent a letter to FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg that seeks information regarding the FDIC’s role in Operation Choke Point and calls into question prior FDIC staff statements about the agency’s role. The letter asserts that documents obtained from the DOJ and recently released by the committee demonstrate that, contrary to testimony provided by a senior FDIC staff member, the FDIC “has been intimately involved in Operation Choke Point since its inception.” The letter also criticizes FDIC guidance that institutions monitor and address risks associated with certain “high-risk merchants,” which, according to the FDIC, includes firearms and ammunition merchants, coin dealers, and payday lenders, among numerous others. The letter seeks information to help the committee better understand the FDIC’s role in Operation Choke Point and its justification for labeling certain businesses as “high-risk.” For example, the letter seeks (i) all documents and communications between the FDIC and the DOJ since January 1, 2011; (ii) all FDIC documents since that time that refer to the FDIC’s 2012 guidance regarding payment processor relationships; and (iii) all documents referring to risks created by financial institutions’ relationships with firearms or ammunition businesses, short-term lenders, and money services businesses.

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D.C. Circuit Holds Government False Claims Case Not Precluded By National Mortgage Settlement

On June 10, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the district court’s decision not to enjoin the federal government from pursuing alleged False Claims Act violations against a bank that argued such claims were precluded by the terms of the National Mortgage Settlement. United States v. Bank of Am. Corp., No 13-5112, 2014 WL 2575426 (D.C. Cir., Jun. 10, 2014). The bank sought to halt a suit filed by the government in the Southern District of New York (SDNY), in which the government alleges that the bank’s certification of loans as eligible for FHA insurance under the FHA’s Direct Endorsement Lender Program violated the False Claims Act. The bank asserted that the National Mortgage Settlement contains a comprehensive release for certain liability with respect to its alleged FHA mortgage lending conduct. The appeals court held that the agreement releases only the narrower category of liability for loans based on allegations that the bank’s annual certification was false without regard to whether any such loans contain material violations of HUD-FHA requirements, , and held that distinct loan-level violations for such loans would provide an independent basis for liability. However, the appeals court agreed that the SDNY must construe the government’s complaint and “ensure that the claims are litigated in a manner that comports with the [National Mortgage Settlement] Release’s limitations.” The appeals court agreed with the bank that some of the government’s claims “tread on the verge of the released claims, referencing false annual certifications explicitly.” The appeals court noted that the government repeatedly conceded that, to comport the SDNY suit with the National Mortgage Settlement release terms, “material violations do need to be demonstrated with respect to individual loans,” and cautioned the government that, should prosecution of its claims depart from that concession, the bank may seek appropriate relief.

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Treasury Department Announces $21 Million Resolution Of Alleged Iran and Sudan Sanctions Violations

On June 5, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) announced a Dutch aerospace firm has agreed to pay $21 million to resolve allegations that the company violated U.S. sanctions on Iran and Sudan. OFAC alleged that from 2005 to 2010, the company indirectly exported or re-exported aircraft spare parts to Iranian or Sudanese customers, which the company either specifically procured from or had repaired in the United States, and required the issuance of a license by a federal agency at the time of shipment. The company self-reported 1,112 apparent violations of the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations, and 41 apparent violations of the Sudanese Sanctions Regulations. The settlement includes the payment of a $10.5 million civil penalty to OFAC and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security, a forfeiture of an additional $10.5 million pursuant to a deferred prosecution agreement reached with the DOJ, and the acceptance of responsibility for its alleged criminal conduct. OFAC stated that the base penalty for the alleged violations was over $145 million, however it agreed to a lower settlement after considering that the company self-disclosed the violations and the company: (i) had no OFAC sanctions history in the five years preceding the date of the earliest of the alleged violations; (ii) adopted new and more effective internal controls and procedures, and (iii) provided substantial cooperation during the investigation.

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House Oversight Committee Report Challenges DOJ’s Operation Choke Point

On May 29, the House Oversight Committee released a staff report on Operation Choke Point, DOJ’s investigation of banks and payment processors purportedly designed to address perceived consumer fraud by blocking fraudsters’ access to the payment systems. The report provides the following “key findings”: (i) the operation was created by DOJ to “choke out” companies it considers to be “high risk” or otherwise objectionable, despite the fact that those companies are legal businesses; (ii) the operation has forced banks to terminate relationships with a wide variety of lawful and legitimate merchants; (iii) DOJ is aware of these impacts and has dismissed them; (iv) DOJ lacks adequate legal authority for the initiative; and (v) contrary to DOJ’s public statements, Operation Choke Point is primarily focused on the payday lending industry, particularly online lenders. The findings are based on documents provided to the committee by DOJ, including internal memoranda and other documents that, among other things, “acknowledge the program’s impact on legitimate merchants” and show that DOJ “has radically and unjustifiably expanded its [FIRREA] Section 951 authority.” The committee released the nearly 1,000 pages of supporting documents, which are available in two parts, here and here.

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Swiss Bank Pleads Guilty In Alleged Tax Evasion Conspiracy

On May 19, the DOJ announced that a Swiss bank pleaded guilty and entered into agreements with federal and state regulators to resolve a multi-year investigation into the bank’s alleged conspiracy to assist U.S. taxpayers in filing false income tax returns and other documents with the IRS by helping those individuals conceal undeclared foreign bank accounts. Under the plea agreement, the bank agreed to (i) disclose its cross-border activities; (ii) cooperate in treaty requests for account information; (iii) provide detailed information as to other banks that transferred funds into secret accounts or that accepted funds when secret accounts were closed; (iv) close accounts of account holders who fail to come into compliance with U.S. reporting obligations; and (v) enhance compliance, recordkeeping, and reporting programs.  The plea agreement also reflects a prior related settlement with the SEC in which the bank paid $196 million in disgorgement, interest, and penalties. Under the current agreements, the bank will pay $2.6 billion in fines and penalties, including $1.8 billion to the DOJ, $100 million to the Federal Reserve Board, and $715 million to the New York DFS. Federal authorities did not individually charge any officers, directors, or senior managers, and the agreements do not require the bank to dismiss any officers or employees, but eight bank executives have been indicted since 2011 and two of those individuals pleaded guilty. Further, federal and state regulators did not directly restrict the bank’s ability to operate in the U.S.—the New York Federal Reserve Bank allowed the bank to remain a primary dealer and the New York DFS did not revoke the bank’s state banking license.

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CFPB Report Recaps Fair Lending Activities

On April 30, the CFPB published its second annual report to Congress on its fair lending activities. According to the report, in 2013 federal regulators referred 24 ECOA-related matters to the DOJ—6 by the CFPB—as opposed to only 12 referrals in 2012. The report primarily recaps previously announced research, supervision, enforcement, and rulemaking activities related to fair lending issues, devoting much attention to mortgage and auto finance.  However, the Bureau notes that it is conducting ongoing supervision and enforcement in other product markets, including credit card lending. The Bureau also identifies the most frequently cited technical Regulation B violations.   Read more…

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