Legal Bills for Fannie and Freddie Abuses Cost Taxpayers $160 Million
Gretchen Morgenson|New York Times
Since the government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, taxpayers have spent more than $160 million defending the mortgage finance companies and their former top executives in civil lawsuits accusing them of fraud. The cost was a closely guarded secret until last week, when the companies and their regulator produced an accounting at the request of Congress.
The bulk of those expenditures — $132 million — went to defend Fannie Mae and its officials in various securities suits and government investigations into accounting irregularities that occurred years before the subprime lending crisis erupted. The legal payments show no sign of abating.
Documents reviewed by The New York Times indicate that taxpayers have paid $24.2 million to law firms defending three of Fannie’s former top executives: Franklin D. Raines, its former chief executive; Timothy Howard, its former chief financial officer; and Leanne Spencer, the former controller.
Late last year, Randy Neugebauer, Republican of Texas and now chairman of the oversight subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, requested the figures from the Federal Housing Finance Agency. It is the regulator charged with overseeing the mortgage finance companies and acts as their conservator, trying to preserve the company’s assets on behalf of taxpayers.
“One of the things I feel very strongly about is we need to be doing everything we can to minimize any further exposure to the taxpayers associated with these companies,” Mr. Neugebauer said in an interview last week.
It is typical for corporations to cover such fees unless an executive is found to be at fault. In this case, if the former executives are found liable, the government can try to recoup the costs, but that could prove challenging.
Since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the government in September 2008, their losses stemming from bad loans have mounted, totaling about $150 billion in a recent reckoning. Because the financial regulatory overhaul passed last summer did not address how to resolve Fannie and Freddie, Congress is expected to take up that complex matter this year.
In the coming weeks, the Treasury Department is expected to publish a report outlining the administration’s recommendations regarding the future of the companies.
Well before the credit crisis compelled the government to rescue Fannie and Freddie, accounting irregularities had engulfed both companies. Shareholders of Fannie and Freddie sued to recover stock losses incurred after the improprieties came to light.
Freddie’s problems arose in 2003 when it disclosed that it had understated its income from 2000 to 2002; the company revised its results by an additional $5 billion. In 2004, Fannie was found to have overstated its results for the preceding six years; conceding that its accounting was improper, it reduced its past earnings by $6.3 billion.
Mr. Raines retired in December 2004 and Mr. Howard resigned at the same time. Ms. Spencer left her position as controller in early 2005. The following year, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, then the company’s regulator, published an in-depth report on the company’s accounting practices, accusing Fannie’s top executives of taking actions to manipulate profits and generate $115 million in improper bonuses.