Federal authorities are scrutinizing private consultants hired to clean up financial misdeeds like money laundering and foreclosure abuses, taking aim at an industry that is paid billions of dollars by the same banks it is expected to police.
The consultants operate with scant supervision and produce mixed results, according to government documents and interviews with prosecutors and regulators. In one case, the consulting firms enabled the wrongdoing. The deficiencies, officials say, can leave consumers vulnerable and allow tainted money to flow through the financial system.
"How can you be independent if you're hired by the entity you're reviewing?" Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, who sits on the Senate Banking Committee, said.
The pitfalls were exposed last month when federal regulators halted a broad effort to help millions of homeowners in foreclosure. The regulators reached an $8.5 billion settlement with banks, scuttling a flawed foreclosure review run by eight consulting firms. In the end, borrowers hurt by shoddy practices are likely to receive less money than they deserve, regulators said.
(Read More: Ten Banks Settle Foreclosure Suit for $8.5 Billion)
On Thursday, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, announced that they would open an investigation into the foreclosure review, seeking "additional information about the scope of the harms found."
Critics concede that regulators have little choice but to hire outsiders for certain responsibilities. after they find problems at the banks. The government does not have the resources to ensure that banks follow the rules. Still, consultants like Deloitte & Touche and the Promontory Financial Group can add to regulators' headaches, the government documents and interviews indicate. Some banks that work with consultants continue to run afoul of the law. At other times, consultants underestimate the extent of the misdeeds or facilitate them, preventing regulators from holding institutions accountable.
Now, regulators and lawmakers are rethinking their relationship with the consultants. Officials at the Federal Reserve, which oversees many large banks, are questioning the prudence of relying on consultants so heavily, said two people with direct knowledge of the matter.
When the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency penalized JPMorgan Chase last month for breakdowns in money-laundering controls, it imposed stricter requirements, ordering the bank to hire a consultant with "specialized experience" in money laundering and to ensure that the firm "not be subject to any conflict of interest." In a separate action against the bank related to a $6 billion trading loss last year, the agency opted not to mandate an outside consultant at all.
(Read More: JPMorgan bet Against Itself in 'Whale' Trade)
While the comptroller's office will continue requiring consultants in certain cases, some agency officials are worried about the quality of the work, as well as the consultants' independence, according to three government officials briefed on the matter.
Since the financial crisis, regulators have increasingly relied on consultants. The comptroller's office ordered banks to hire consultants in more than 130 enforcement actions since 2008, or nearly 15 percent of the cases.
It can be a lucrative business. In 2011, regulators mandated that 14 banks employ consultants to determine whether homeowners were wrongfully evicted. Over 14 months, the consultants collected about $2 billion in fees, according to regulators and bank officials.
Those fees amounted to more than half of what homeowners will receive under the $8.5 billion settlement that ended the review. As part of the deal, officials will disburse $3.3 billion to 3.8 million borrowers in foreclosure.
According to consultants and regulators, the broad review was plagued with inefficiencies. For example, Promontory initially instructed employees to calculate lawyers' fees for each loan, to assess if borrowers were overcharged. Later, it scrapped the original procedure, only to reverse the policy again two weeks later, according to two reviewers who worked for Promontory.
"From Day 1, Promontory strove to conduct its review work as thoroughly and independently as possible," a spokesman for the firm, Christopher Winans, said in a statement. "Our overarching concern at all times was to serve the best interests of borrowers."