WASHINGTON — A civil lawsuit against investment giant JPMorgan Chase, announced Tuesday in Washington by New York’s top prosecutor, is aimed at the root of the nation’s brutal 2008 financial crisis. Consumer advocates, however, questioned why it took so long and why prosecutors didn’t bring a criminal case.
Speaking at a news conference at Department of Justice headquarters, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman offered no apologies for going after JPMorgan Chase for sins committed by investment bank Bear Stearns, which it bought with government help in March 2008.
Bear Stearns was a top bundler of mortgages into complex bonds that turned out to be junk, sparking the deep financial crisis in 2008. Schneiderman’s civil suit, which seeks unspecified financial damages on behalf of residents of the state of New York, alleges widespread deception and misconduct in the packaging, selling and monitoring of the complex financial instruments.
JPMorgan Chase officials declined to comment on the suit.
At issue are the actions of EMC Mortgage, the Texas-based mortgage unit of Bear Stearns in the run-up to the crisis. The 31-page civil complaint alleges that the bank and EMC failed to properly evaluate the mortgages packaged into bonds for sale to investors, failed to fix problems in the due diligence process and secured monetary repayment for the bank instead of investors when mortgages went bust.
Officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Justice Department lined up on the podium for the announcement. Together they make up the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group, federal and state officials who are probing the mortgage finance component of the nation’s deep financial crisis.
No criminal charges were announced, not against former Bear Stearns executives such as former CEO Alan Schwartz and former Chairman Jimmy Cayne, nor against executives who worked at EMC.
“The Justice Department has just been embarrassingly passive in terms of criminal prosecution,” said Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor, former commodities regulator and former top DOJ adviser. “Is this the first shoe to drop? Is it a one-off, or does it really mean that the mortgage-fraud task force is at work and there will be other civil actions and criminal actions to follow?”
Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West deflected questions of political timing, with the announcement coming a month before the presidential election, noting that, “We follow the facts and the law, wherever they may lead.”
Consumer groups urged more.
“We’re all frustrated,” said Ira Rheingold, the executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “It’s a shame more cases haven’t been brought. It’s a shame that the heads of the banks got their golden parachutes. And, unfortunately, I think the saddest part about the whole thing is that I have no sense that there’s any real remorse out of these institutions. Immediately they’re back to business as usual.’’
The consumer groups said that meant settling civil lawsuits was seen as a business cost.
“You can make a lot of money doing corporate crime and unfortunately the risks are very low, as seen by how few people have gone to jail and how little money has been returned to people harmed in the fiscal crisis,” said Ed Mierzwinski, the consumer program director for advocacy group U.S. PIRG. “These corporations so far are paying an infinitesimal amount of money compared to the havoc they wreaked on families, homes and the economy.”
The government action came against a bank that the government had asked to take over Bear Stearns for the good of the country.
The Bush administration sought the sale to thwart a financial meltdown like the one that ensued in September 2008 when investment bank Lehman Brothers couldn’t find a suitor. Then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson leaned on JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to purchase Bear Stearns at a fire-sale price during a turbulent weekend in March 2008.
“I called Jamie Dimon at 4:30 p.m. and told him we needed to get the deal done by the end of the weekend,” Paulson later wrote. “Self-assured, charismatic and quick-witted, Jamie had the ability to walk the line between being a tough businessman and knowing when to rein in his competitive instincts for the good of the financial system.”
Later in his memoir, Paulson noted that JPMorgan Chase “was particularly concerned with the firm’s mortgage portfolio” and the bank “didn’t want any of Bear’s mortgage portfolio,” then valued at around $35 billion.
Schneiderman wasn’t bothered by going after the bank that had been asked to save the financial system, noting that JPMorgan Chase had acquired both assets and liabilities in the deal.
Asked by McClatchy whether he’d personally discussed the civil complaint with Dimon, one of the only financial actors to come out of the crisis with his reputation untarnished, Schneiderman said, “We have not spoken recently.”