January 24, 2012: President Barack Obama’s State of the Union pledge to create a special unit to punish fraud in mortgage finance met with skepticism Wednesday for coming so late in his term and amid signs that his administration is close to settling with large banks accused of shoddy mortgage-lending practices.
Obama said Tuesday night that he was asking Attorney General Eric Holder to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general “to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.”
The new unit, the president said, would “help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.”
Critics said the announcement might have been more appropriate at the start of the Obama administration, not in the fourth year of his term. And it appears to duplicate a lot of groundwork already done.
“It just seems like more maneuvering,” said Chris Farrell, director of research for Judicial Watch, a conservative group that promotes transparency in government.
A sympathetic member of the congressionally created Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, charged with getting to the bottom of the 2008 financial crisis, also questioned Obama’s timing.
“He should have done it three years ago in January 2009, when the trail would have been fresh, witnesses’ memory would have been fresh, the statutes of limitations would have been necessarily missed,” said the commissioner, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “I think it’s high time that it be done – people need to be held accountable.”
The work group is being created even as the Securities and Exchange Commission over the past two years has been settling civil lawsuits against big banks such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and Citibank. They all stood accused of misrepresentation about the safety of complex mortgage bonds they sold to investors.
“Personally, I’ve certainly been disappointed in the outcomes of the SEC investigations, and as yet they have not brought significant actions against entities that … had all kinds of misrepresentation,” said Barry Zigas, director of housing policy for the Consumer Federation of America.
Consumer advocates, and many ordinary Americans, are unhappy that no big Wall Street figures have been sent to jail for financial crimes tied to the near-collapse of the U.S. financial system in 2008, a crisis rooted in shoddy mortgage lending.
Significantly, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will take the lead on the working group for state attorneys general. He forcefully argued against a proposed $20 billion to 25 billion settlement being worked out by the Obama administration and five large banks – Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Ally Financial. Schneiderman exited the talks last summer angry that a settlement would stop further investigation.
His appointment to the new unit, however, seems a way to clear obstacles for a proposed settlement that was sent to states for review on Monday, prompting speculation that a deal is near.