February 19, 2011 in Nation/World

Mozilo investigation dropped

Helped fuel subprime mortgage crisis
E. Scott Reckard Los Angeles Times
 

Mozilo
(Full-size photo)

LOS ANGELES – Federal prosecutors have shelved a criminal investigation of Angelo R. Mozilo after determining that his actions in the mortgage meltdown – which led to a $67.5-million settlement against him – did not amount to criminal wrongdoing.

As the former chairman of Countrywide Financial Corp., Mozilo helped fuel the boom in risky subprime loans that led to the crippling of the banking industry and the near-collapse of the financial system.

A federal grand jury in Los Angeles began probing Mozilo in 2008, and four months ago he agreed to pay a $22.5 million fine and to repay $45 million in what the government said were ill-gotten gains to former Countrywide shareholders. The payments settled a civil action by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But the criminal investigation has wound down without indictments of Mozilo or others at his company, according to people familiar with both the prosecution and the defense teams.

“Sometimes the public thinks all you have to do is to indict someone and that’s it,” one of the federal sources said. “But you have to be able to prove your case, and it can be worse losing a case than not bringing one at all.”

The 72-year-old Mozilo hung up the phone when contacted for comment at his home in the Lake Sherwood golf community in Ventura County, Calif.

Columbia University law professor John Coffee said mortgage cases like Mozilo’s were muddied by the numerous parties involved, unlike Enron and other “cook the books” cases in which executives were convicted.

Countrywide’s model was to make or buy mortgages only to sell them off immediately to Fannie Mae or Wall Street as fodder for securities.

Given that model, Coffee said, blame could be assigned to an entire chain of players: mortgage brokers who falsified applications; investment bankers who concocted complex and “opaque” mortgage bonds; rating firms that provided high ratings on the bonds but said they were lied to; and institutional investors that relied on dubious ratings because the securities carried above-market interest while promising to be risk-free.

“All share responsibility, but none are culpable enough by themselves to compare with Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling (both of Enron) or the WorldCom CEO,” Coffee said.

The criminal investigation into Mozilo was never announced publicly, and as a rule federal prosecutors make no formal announcement when such cases are closed.

One defense attorney, however, said the government would probably keep a close watch on civil litigation by Countrywide shareholders against Mozilo and could still decide to bring charges depending on what develops in those cases.

“He may have to testify, and you never know what may come up,” the attorney said.

Countrywide, at one time the nation’s top mortgage company, collapsed under the weight of soured loans and was acquired by Bank of America Corp. – which also has suffered heavy financial damage from Countrywide loans.


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