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FBI mortgage probe examining 17 large firms

The FBI's criminal probe of the mortgage lending industry has grown to 17 firms, involves large companies, and could take years to conclude.

The investigation now involves 17 firms, up from 16 previously acknowledged, the officials said.

“The corporate fraud cases are pretty large entities,” said Neil Power, economic crimes unit chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's financial crimes section. “The majority I would think we're looking at years.”

Power declined to comment when asked if the FBI was looking into the collapse of Bear Stearns, which led to an emergency sale to JPMorgan Chase last weekend. However, he said, “common sense would indicate that we would look at something that big.”

The hundreds of FBI agents taking part in the probe are looking at issues including all phases of the process of securitizing loans, insider trading and whether firms properly disclosed the value of their assets.

Corporate employees ranging from senior executives to lower-level management were under scrutiny, an official said.

The officials described widespread opportunities for fraud in the industry, which can all be traced back to human greed, and to lax documentation in loan applications, which allowed for loans based on false values or income.

“The problem is that banks weren't doing their due diligence,” Power said.

The FBI disclosed in January that it was investigating 14 firms in its probe of the mortgage-lending industry, where a foreclosure crisis has spread from subprime lenders to the housing market overall, shaken Wall Street and major financial institutions, and threatened the US economy with recession.

The FBI later raised the number of targets to 16. That has since grown to 17, Power said, but the number changes as investigations open and close. Asked if the number would grow, he said “yes,” but declined further characterization and said the probes were in preliminary stages.

Among companies implicated in FBI mortgage probes are Beazer Homes and Doral Financial Corp. A former Doral treasurer was indicted for investment fraud earlier this month. He denied the allegations and the company declined to comment.

The largest US mortgage lender, Countrywide, is also under FBI investigation, authorities have said, although the FBI has declined to comment and Countrywide said it was unaware of any investigation. (Reuters)