The Justice Department filed civil fraud charges late on Monday against the nation's largest credit-ratings agency, Standard & Poor's, accusing the firm of inflating the ratings of mortgage investments and setting them up for a crash when the financial crisis struck.
The suit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, is the first significant federal action against the ratings industry, which during the boom years reaped record profits as it bestowed gilt-edged ratings on complex bundles of home loans that quickly went sour. The high ratings made many investments appear safer than they actually were, and are now seen as having contributed to a crisis that brought the financial system and the broader economy to its knees.
More than a dozen state prosecutors are expected to join the federal suit, and the New York attorney general is preparing a separate action. The Securities and Exchange Commission has also been investigating possible wrongdoing at S.& P.
From September 2004 through October 2007, S.&P. "knowingly and with the intent to defraud, devised, participated in, and executed a scheme to defraud investors" in certain mortgage-related securities, according to the suit filed against the agency and its parent company, McGraw-Hill Companies. S.&P. also falsely represented that its ratings "were objective, independent, uninfluenced by any conflicts of interest," the suit said.
S.& P., first contacted by federal enforcement officials three years ago, said in a statement Monday in anticipation of the suit that it had acted in good faith in issuing the ratings.
"A D.O.J. lawsuit would be entirely without factual or legal merit," it said, adding that its competitors had given exactly the same ratings to all the securities it believed to be in question.
Settlement talks between S.& P. and the Justice Department broke down in the last two weeks after prosecutors sought a penalty in excess of $1 billion and insisted that the company admit wrongdoing, several people with knowledge of the talks said. That amount would wipe out the profits of McGraw-Hill for an entire year. S.& P. had proposed a settlement of around $100 million, the people said.
S.& P. also sought a deal that would allow it to neither admit nor deny guilt; the government pressed for an admission of guilt to at least one count of fraud, said the people. S.& P. told prosecutors it could not admit guilt without exposing itself to liability in a multitude of civil cases.
It was unclear whether state and federal authorities were looking at the other two major ratings agencies, Moody's Investors Service and Fitch.
A spokesman for Moody's declined to comment. A spokesman for Fitch, Daniel J. Noonan, said the agency could not comment on an action that appeared to focus on Standard & Poor's, but added, "we have no reason to believe Fitch is a target of any such action."
Source: The New York Times | ANDREW ROSS SORKIN AND MARY WILLIAMS WALSH