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A report issued by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, underscores the danger of extolling short-term results when it comes to prosecuting white-collar crimes. The report highlights how generating headlines seemed to take precedence over accurate figures in the government’s fight against mortgage fraud.
In October 2012, less than a month before the presidential election, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called a news conference to trumpet the Justice Department’s success in combating foreclosure fraud through a program called the Distressed Homeowner Initiative. “The success of the Distressed Homeowner Initiative, and the developments we announce today, underscore our determination to pursue these and other financial fraud criminals around the country,” Mr. Holder said in a statement.
The claims of great success came during a time of persistent criticism that the Justice Department was not taking stronger action to pursue fraud in the run-up to the financial crisis. The numbers offered by Mr. Holder for the first year of the initiative were impressive: charges filed against 530 defendants, including 172 executives, from frauds that resulted in losses of more than $1 billion.
After questions from the news media about those claims, almost a year later the Justice Department revised those figures significantly downward. The total number of defendants charged was 107, with no reference to any executives, and the loss from criminal activity was $95 million. In response to Mr. Horowitz’s report, a Justice Department spokeswoman pointed out: “In the time period in question, the number of mortgage fraud indictments nearly doubled, and the number of convictions rose by more than 100 percent.”
An interesting question is whether accurate reporting of the results, like a 100 percent increase in convictions, would have generated the kind of headlines the government seemed to want. Bringing that many more cases for a complex white-collar crime is a good result, but claiming to pursue several corporate executives gave the original numbers much more punch in light of accusations that the Justice Department was being soft on Wall Street.
The inspector general’s report puts much of the blame for the inflated figures on how the F.B.I. gathered the information for Mr. Holder. Mr. Horowitz noted that “we found significant breakdowns in the process used to develop the results of the Distressed Homeowners Initiative.” That occurred at least in part because the F.B.I. had “too little time and resources available to allow for vetting of the data.”
The report does not give a reason for taking such a slapdash approach, but I think it is clear that there was pressure to announce the success of the initiative to demonstrate how the Justice Department was responding to public outcry over the lack of tangible evidence that prosecutors were taking a hard line. And so we have an example of “act in haste, repent at leisure.”
Intensifying the pressure to report robust results was additional money provided by Congress for positions to be used to combat mortgage fraud after the financial crisis. Both the Justice Department and the F.B.I. received millions of dollars for new employees, and that means showing the money was put to good use. But Mr. Horowitz’s report states that mortgage fraud was not a high priority for the F.B.I., in part because it was declining as lenders toughened their standards. In these days of tight budgets, however, no agency turns down an appropriation.
The government is fond of calling a new initiative an operation, which implies a sense of urgency and resolve. In 2010, before the Distressed Homeowner Initiative, the Justice Department started Operation Stolen Dreams to take on a broad array of mortgage frauds. Less than three months after it started, Mr. Holder announced that prosecutors had brought cases involving “1,215 criminal defendants nationwide, including 485 arrests, who are allegedly responsible for more than $2.3 billion in losses.”
Those are impressive numbers for a white-collar crime, especially in such a short period, but their validity may be open to question. Mr. Horowitz’s report points out that his office did not audit these figures, and in light of the other findings, he recommends that the Justice Department “revisit the results.”
Catching those engaged in mortgage fraud is not like operating a sobriety checkpoint or drug dragnet that quickly yields arrests. Trumpeting initiatives for pursuing complex white-collar crimes whose success will be reported in months rather than years runs the risk of offering results that don’t grab the public’s attention — or worse, makes them look like failures.
As an initial matter, just figuring out what the numbers are can be difficult. Mortgage fraud is not a separate crime but a subset of federal offenses like bank fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud. So prosecutions involving mortgages may not show up easily in government records.
A greater problem in announcing a crackdown is that these types of cases often don’t come to light until months, or even years, after the transactions, and the fraud can take many different forms. During the period when real estate values soared, there were schemes to inflate property values so that lenders were making loans for far more than houses were worth. Once the housing bubble burst around 2007, mortgage frauds morphed into schemes to defraud homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure.
Putting together a mortgage fraud case requires amassing a large volume of documents to track ownership, housing values and the transfer of money. Even figuring out where a fraud involving inflated housing values took place usually requires a bank or real estate company to report suspicious activity, which could come long after the scheme ended when the loan finally defaults.
For scams involving homeowners who face foreclosure, just identifying whether a crime took place is difficult. Those in danger of losing their homes may grasp at straws in seeking help, with companies taking advantage of them by doing just enough to make it appear they tried to help. Victims may not recognize a fraud or have the time and energy to pursue a complaint in the face of losing their homes.
This type of scheme often involves modest sums taken from those who can least afford it. The Justice Department tends not to pursue small cases, leaving them to local law enforcement, so any number of violations could easily fall through the cracks.
Mortgage fraud, like most white-collar crimes, requires painstaking investigation over a long period, so there will never be a flood of cases. And even when the government commits resources to investigations, there will be some that do not pan out.
But that does not make headlines when the government paints itself into a corner by pursuing initiatives that imply a promise of quick results.