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Schneiderman Teams Up With FHFA IG on Foreclosure Fraud Investigation

As other Attorneys General took the lead in efforts to fight foreclosure fraud, with lawsuits from Delaware’s Beau Biden, Massachusetts’ Martha Coakley and Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, we hadn’t heard as much from New York’s Eric Schneiderman lately. But he’s back in the news, teaming with a federal Inspector General on an investigation:

The federal watchdog overseeing US mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is joining forces with New York’s attorney-general to investigate banks’ mortgage securitisation practices, a partnership that could make it easier for authorities to bring fraud charges against Wall Street companies.

Eric Schneiderman, New York attorney-general, and Steve Linick, the inspector general supervising Fannie and Freddie and the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the unit responsible for the taxpayer-owned home loan financiers, signed a co-operation agreement in recent weeks that allows the two investigators to share documents, findings and to pool their resources, according to people familiar with the matter.

The collaboration escalates Mr Schneiderman’s probe into roughly a dozen banks and mortgage insurers as part of a broad investigation into whether banks properly bundled hundreds of billions of dollars worth of home loans into now-soured securities sold to investors.

This is pretty big news. Schneiderman has the Martin Act to allow him to investigate securities fraud with a lower barrier of proof than even federal regulators need. He need not prove intent, only that fraud was committed. So now, he can access the FHFA Inspector General’s documents and depositions to find that evidence of fraud.

It’s also a huge move for Steve Linick, as Yves Smith explains:

I’m not certain of the precise scope of powers of the FHFA inspector general. But typically, federal inspector generals have limited scope of action. They can only subpoena documents and cannot subpoena witnesses. And, of course, they are not prosecutors and cannot launch cases. The theory of IGs is that if they uncover something unsavory, they’ll hand it off to the Department of Justice. But as a former IG has pointed out, the DoJ does not take case leads from the IGs unless they are fully fleshed out, and that is well nigh impossible to do in the absence of speaking to witnesses.

The Department of Justice has AWOL on the mortgage and banking beat, no doubt to avoid ruffling powerful possible Obama donors. Inspectors general are in theory independent, and on top of that, the FHFA is an independent agency and is not running the Administration playbook (I’ve been told by people involved in bank regulation that Geithner has tried pressuring FHFA acting chief DeMarco to no avail).

So what does the FHFA inspector general do, certain that Eric Holder will ignore any misdeeds he finds? Turn to another prosecutor who can bring cases that . . .  are national in scope.

So Linick just made an end-run around the Justice Department, finding a willing partner in Schneiderman, and now the two can join forces on prosecuting fraud. Recall that Linick has recently come out with some explosive reports, including a report that the GSEs knew about foreclosure fraud back in 2003. So that’s a wealth of knowledge from which to draw, and the IG can compel some more of it, though as said above they are somewhat limited. If Schneiderman sought these documents and depositions by himself, federal regulators could have overruled him. Now he can just use Linick as a conduit.

The FHFA, over which Linick monitors, sued 17 banks for securities fraud earlier this year. So you’re almost seeing a consolidation of lawsuits and actions between Schneiderman and a rogue independent housing agency. It’s really nice to see.

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David Dayen

David Dayen