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October 25, 2012

Fed suit alleges 'brazen' fraud at Countrywide

NEW YORK — The latest federal lawsuit over alleged mortgage fraud paints an unflattering picture of a doomed lender: Executives at Countrywide Financial urged workers to churn out loans, accepted fudged applications and tried to hide ballooning defaults.

The suit, filed yesterday by the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, also underscored how Bank of America’s purchase of Countrywide in July 2008, just before the financial crisis, backfired severely.

The prosecutor, Preet Bharara, said he was seeking more than $1 billion, but the suit could ultimately recover much more in damages.

“This lawsuit should send another clear message that reckless lending practices will not be tolerated,” Bharara said in a statement. He described Countrywide’s practices as “spectacularly brazen in scope.”

He also charged that Bank of America has resisted buying back soured mortgages from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which bought loans from Countrywide.

Bank of America spokesman Lawrence Grayson said the bank “has stepped up and acted responsibly to resolve legacy mortgage matters.” He called the allegation that the bank has failed to buy back loans “simply false.”

“At some point,” Grayson said, “Bank of America can’t be expected to compensate every entity that claims losses that actually were caused by the economic downturn.”

Countrywide was a giant in mortgage lending, but was also known for approving exotic, even risky, loans. By 2007, as the market for subprime mortgages collapsed, Countrywide was anxious for revenue.

The lawsuit alleged that the company loosened its standards for making loans while telling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were buying loans from Countrywide, that standards were getting tighter.

Fannie and Freddie, which packaged loans into securities and sold them to investors, were effectively nationalized in 2008 when they nearly collapsed under the weight of their mortgage losses.

To churn out more mortgage loans, Bharara said, Countrywide introduced a program called the “Hustle,” shorthand for “High-Speed Swim Lane.” It operated under the motto, “Loans Move Forward, Never Backward.”

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