Crimes suspected in 20 bailout cases -- for starters
The special inspector general says TARP is 'inherently vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.' The risk grows as the plan becomes more complex, he says.
By Ralph Vartabedian and Tom Hamburger
Los Angeles Times
April 21, 2009
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Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — In the first major disclosure of corruption in the $750-billion financial bailout program, federal investigators said Monday they have opened 20 criminal probes into possible securities fraud, tax violations, insider trading and other
The cases represent only the first wave of investigations, and the total fraud
could ultimately reach into the tens of billions of dollars, according to Neil
Barofsky, the special inspector general overseeing the bailout program.
The disclosures reinforce fears that the hastily designed and rapidly changing bailout program run by the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve is going to carry a heavy price of fraud against taxpayers -- even as questions grow about its ability to stabilize the nation's
Barofsky said the complex nature of the bailout program makes it "inherently
vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse, including significant issues relating to
conflicts of interest facing fund managers, collusion between participants, and
vulnerabilities to money laundering."
The report said little about who is under investigation and how the fraudulent schemes work, but investigators are already on alert for a long list of potential scams. Such schemes could include obtaining bailout money under false pretenses, bilking the government with phony
mortgage modifications, and cheating on taxes with fraudulent filings.
"You don't need an entirely corrupt institution to pull one of these schemes
off," Barofsky said. "You only need a few corrupt managers whose compensation
may be tied to the performance of these assets in order to effectively pull off
a collusion or a kickback scheme."
The risk of fraud is only increasing as the bailout becomes "more complex and larger in scope," he said.
Indeed, much of the 247-page report released in Washington today by Barofsky's office focuses on a segment of the bailout that is only now being put into motion -- an effort to buy toxic securities from banks and other investment groups in which the federal government would
provide up to 92.5% of the money. That effort could be the most vulnerable to
fraud, Barofsky said, because investors would have so little at risk.
Among the toughest recommendations in the report is for the Treasury to abandon its planned structure for buying the toxic securities, which include intricate bundles of bad mortgages and loans, before it gets rolling.
Members of Congress and consumer advocates expressed outrage Monday when they
heard about the findings of the report.
"It shouldn't be a big surprise that a huge pot of honey attracts a lot of flies," said Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which is also examining the program. "I would guess that 20 investigations, while a
good start, is only the tip of the iceberg."
"That's an appalling record," Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, said of the 20 criminal investigations. "In the midst of this crisis from which they are being bailed out, the same people who created this mess are apparently still
breaking the law. What is it with these people?"
In a series of recommendations, Barofsky asked the Treasury Department for
greater transparency and greater fraud protections.
The Treasury Department's bailout chief, Neel Kashkari, said in a letter dated
April 14 that the recommendations would be "considered."
The report underscores just how complicated the bailout program has become.
What started out in October as a $750-billion effort only to buy toxic
securities has morphed into 12 separate programs that cover up to $3 trillion in
direct spending, loans and loan guarantees -- an amount roughly equal to the
annual federal budget.
Today, banks, insurers, brokerages, auto companies, car parts makers and
homeowners are just some of the beneficiaries of the program, known formally as
the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
The report dedicated an entire section to what many experts believe is its most risky operation -- a toxic asset purchase plan under a broader program known as the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility, known as TALF. Originally, TALF was aimed at expanding
consumer lending programs for autos, student loans and other types of credit.
But the Obama administration expanded TALF to include funding and federal loan
guarantees to purchase toxic securities.
That program has at least two parts: one to buy up bad loans from banks and
another to buy up bundled loans in the form of mortgage-backed securities from
investment markets. The government would split any profits with the private
investors it partnered with.
The latter has sparked greater concern because of the possibility that buyers
could collude to manipulate prices and extract kickbacks, with the government
taking virtually all of the risk.
"When you are buying from the market or the street, transparency comes into question," Barofsky, a former federal prosecutor, said. "The potential for pricing fixing and collusion becomes greater because the government doesn't have control or knowledge of who" all the players
Members of Congress, who were given Barofsky's report Monday, have already
expressed concern over the plan.
House Financial Services Committee member Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), a
certified public accountant, said that under the plan, taxpayers would take
virtually all the risk, get zero control and only 50% of the profits.
"That doesn't sound like a good deal," he said.
"I can't imagine Warren Buffett signing something like that."