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April 9, 2012

Grassley’s Case Against DOJ Stance on Financial Fraud Is Vastly Overstated

By: Ifrah Law

In recent weeks, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has criticized the Department of Justice’s handling of executives that some argue are responsible for the financial crisis.

Sen. Grassley, the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, held a hearing in February that looked at mortgage fraud, foreclosure abuse and lending discrimination practices. During his opening statement at that hearing, Sen. Grassley stated, “The department’s message is that crime does pay. They also invite crimes of this sort against similar future victims. How are the department’s enormous resources being used?”

In his statement at the hearing, Sen. Grassley expressed anger that no criminal charges were brought by the DOJ Criminal Division against former Countrywide Financial CEO Angelo Mozilo. Sen. Grassley stated, “The Justice Department has brought no criminal cases against any of the major Wall Street banks or executives who are responsible for the financial crisis.” He concluded his statement by saying, “All that matters is results – prosecutions and conviction. The American people are still waiting.”

Grassley was also disappointed with the terms of the Bank of America/Countrywide Financial settlement with DOJ of $335 million, which was the largest settlement of its kind in DOJ history. According to Sen. Grassley, the settlement will provide only $1,700 per victim, which he said will do very little, if anything, to prevent these homeowners from defaulting on their mortgages. Sen. Grassley noted in his statement to the Judiciary Committee that one third of all Countrywide mortgages ended in default and said that this settlement was a “mere cost of doing business.”

A spokesman for DOJ responded to the statement from Sen. Grassley by stating, “The Department of Justice, through our U.S. Attorney’s Office and litigating divisions, has brought thousands of mortgage fraud cases over the past three years, and secured numerous convictions against CEOs, CFOs, board members, presidents and other executives of Wall Street firms and banks for financial crimes.”

In response, Sen. Grassley wrote the letter to DOJ asking for details on the “thousands of mortgage fraud cases” that the Department of Justice has brought. The full text of the letter is available here.  Sen. Grassley asked DOJ to respond to his request by March 31. A DOJ spokesman has said the agency is reviewing the letter. The reply has not yet been received.

Sen. Grassley has taken a very strong stance that may not be justified. The Department of Justice has created task forces and has devoted a wealth of resources to investigating crimes associated with the financial crisis, such as mortgage fraud, and in many cases has elected not to prosecute. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer told CBS that he believes that the Department of Justice was “bringing every case that we believe can be made.”

Some argue that the lack of prosecutions is evidence that criminal behavior may not have taken place or that there is insufficient evidence to prove it. There was surely some poor business decision making, but simply because there was a loss does not mean that there criminal intent or that a crime has occurred.

Sen. Grassley’s letter is also ignoring the fact that there have been dozens of civil cases brought by the government against firms and individuals involved in mortgage fraud and other abuses associated with the financial crisis. Over $2 billion in penalties have been ordered in connection with the SEC’s investigations alone.

There is no evidence to support the outrage that Sen. Grassley expressed in his letter. This type of grandstanding relates to an area of the law that is already garnering sufficient attention from law enforcement. Those individuals who have been charged and convicted are receiving more than adequate sentences for their actions, and those who have not been charged, in all probability, did not deserve to face criminal sanctions.