WASHINGTON - The Securities and Exchange Commission announced a dramatic lawsuit on Friday alleging that six former top executives of mortgage finance titans Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac committed fraud by authorizing misleading statements about their balance sheets.
Fannie and Freddie were congressionally chartered private companies with implicit government backing until they were put into government receivership by the Bush administration in September 2008.
That move came at the start of a global financial crisis that has proved to be the worst since the Great Depression. The financial crisis was triggered by excessive subprime mortgages given to the weakest borrowers, and former Fannie and Freddie executives now stand accused of deliberately misleading about their exposure to these subprime loans.
"Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives told the world that their exposure was substantially smaller than it really was," Robert Khuzami, director of the SEC's enforcement division, said in a statement "These material misstatements occurred during a time of acute investor interest in financial institutions' exposure to subprime loans, and misled the market about the amount of risk on the company's books. All individuals, regardless of their rank or position, will be held accountable for perpetrating half-truths or misrepresentation about matters materially important to the interest of our country's investors."
In Friday's statement, the SEC said Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had each entered into a nonprosecution agreement with the SEC, accepting responsibility without dispute for the actions of their former executives. It frees the agencies from costly and embarrassing civil prosecution.
The securities fraud charges were lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In one complaint, fraud charges were leveled against former Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd, his former chief risk officer, Enrico Dallavecchia, and Thomas Lund, the former executive vice president for Fannie's single-family mortgage business.
In the second complaint, in the same court and against Freddie Mac, the SEC alleged fraud by former CEO and Chairman Richard Syron, former Executive Vice President and Chief Business Officer Patricia Cook, and Donald Bisenius, the former executive vice president for Freddie's single-family guarantee business.
The SEC is seeking unspecified financial penalties, return of ill-gotten gains with interest and a bar against the executives serving as officers or directors of companies. That's a big potential hit on Mudd, who is CEO of Fortress Investment Group.
In a blistering response Friday, Mudd - the son of legendary television newsman Roger Mudd - said politics is behind the case.
"Every piece of material data about loans held by Fannie Mae was known to the United States government and to the investing public. The SEC is wrong, and I look forward to a court where fairness and reason - not politics - is the standard for justice," he said in a statement issued through the law firm DLA Piper LLP.
Syron, through an attorney, said the case was without merit and fatally flawed.
"The SEC has ignored the fact that the term 'subprime' had no uniform definition in the market and that the federal government itself refused to define the term and bring clarity to the industry and the market," said the statement of Sidley Austin LLP, representing Syron.
The SEC alleged Fannie executives engaged in fraud when they withheld information and abetted others in providing misleading information to investors about subprime exposure between December 2006 and August 2008. The alleged fraud for Freddie Mac executives occurred between March 2007 and August 2008. The agency alleges both mortgage finance giants said they had limited exposure to subprime loans in the billions, but actually had exposure in the tens and even hundreds of billions.
Aside from masking its true exposure to subprime loans on its books, the SEC alleged, Fannie executives also made misrepresentations about exposure to Alt-A loans, which were one step up the credit quality ladder from subprime loans.
"The misleading disclosures were made as Fannie Mae's executives were seeking to increase the company's market share through increased purchases of subprime and Alt-A loans, and gave false comfort to investors," the SEC alleged Friday.