A federal judge has endorsed a broad interpretation of a savings-and-loan era law that the U.S. Justice Department is trying to use in cases against Wall Street banks.
U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan said Monday that a "straightforward application of the plain words" of the Financial Institutional Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) allowed the interpretation sought by the government.
The law has a low burden of proof, strong subpoena power and a 10-year statute of limitations, twice as long as the typical limit for fraud cases.
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Rarely asserted until recently, it has become the basis of three lawsuits by lawyers under Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara against banks including Bank of America Corp, Wells Fargo & Co and Bank of New York Mellon Corp.
The latest decision came in a case the Justice Department brought last October against Bank of America over toxic mortgages that its Countrywide Financial mortgage unit sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the financial crisis.
The government's case, which is set for trial on Sept. 23, focuses on a program instituted in 2007 by Countrywide called "High Speed Swim Lane" and also known as "HSSL" or "Hustle."
The government contends the program speeded up some home loan processing by removing quality checkpoints, resulting in thousands of fraudulent and defective mortgages being sold to Fannie and Freddie.
Rakoff issued a brief order in May dismissing some claims but largely allowing the case to move forward.
His ruling on Monday explained his reasoning, particularly why the government could proceed with claims brought under a law adopted in the wake of the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s.
The FIRREA law allows the government to pursue civil penalties against those who commit frauds "affecting a federally insured financial institution."