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June 23, 2017

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US sues Wells Fargo in civil mortgage fraud case

By Rick Rothacker and Aruna Viswanatha--The U.S. government filed a civil mortgage fraud lawsuit on Tuesday against Wells Fargo & Co., the latest legal volley against big banks for their lending during the housing boom.

The complaint, brought by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, seeks damages and civil penalties from Wells Fargo for more than 10 years of alleged misconduct related to government-insured Federal Housing Administration loans.

The lawsuit alleges the FHA paid hundreds of millions of dollars on insurance claims on thousands of defaulted mortgages as a result of false certifications by Wells Fargo, the fourth-biggest U.S. bank as measured by assets.

Wells, the largest U.S. mortgage lender, denied the allegations and said in a statement it believes it acted in good faith and in compliance with FHA and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rules. The bank said many of the allegations have been previously addressed with HUD and added that its FHA delinquency rates have been as low as half the industry average.

In a regulatory filing in August, the bank said it was being investigated for possible violations of laws and regulations relating to mortgage origination practices, including FHA loans. Wells said it will vigorously defend itself against the suit.

Bharara's office has brought similar cases in the past few years, including one against Citigroup Inc. unit CitiMortgage Inc., which settled the case for US$158.3 million in February, and against Deutsche Bank, which paid US$202.3 million in May to resolve its case.

The U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn brought the biggest such case, against Bank of America Corp.'s Countrywide unit, which agreed in February to pay US$1 billion to resolve the allegations.

The Wells Fargo case is brought under the False Claims Act, which provides penalties for fraud against the government, and under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act, or FIRREA for short, a little-used statute that has grown in popularity in the past year. The law requires a lower burden of proof than criminal charges, has a longer statute of limitations than other financial laws and potentially could bring big fines.

A civil fraud unit that Bharara created in March 2010 filed its first lawsuit under FIRREA in December of that year.

At issue In Tuesday's suit are loans Wells Fargo made through a program that allows banks to originate, underwrite and certify mortgages for FHA insurance, according to the complaint. Under the so-called Direct Endorsement Lender program, neither the FHA nor HUD reviews a loan before it is approved for FHA insurance, but lenders are supposed to follow program rules.

The complaint seeks treble damages and penalties for hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance claims already paid to Wells Fargo, as well as penalties on claims HUD may pay in the future.

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