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Florida, Nevada Can't Win for Losing on Mortgage Crisis

This is the second in a series examining some $65 billion of penalties paid by banks to U.S. regulators over mortgage-related abuses.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Florida and Nevada have seen the largest home price declines since the housing market peaked in 2006, but when Citigroup (C - Get Report)C paid $7 billion in fines in July and JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Get Report)JPM paid $13 billion in fines in November to settle mortgage-related lending abuses, neither was among the five states that got individual cash payouts.

Also left out were Arizona and Michigan, two other states particularly hard hit by the housing crisis, according to data on foreclosures and home price declines from CoreLogic and RealtyTrac.

Instead, sizeable cash payments went to five states: New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, California and Delaware. Those states have attorneys general who have been particularly aggressive in going after the banking industry for the mortgage abuses that ultimately led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In the latest such case, Morgan Stanley (MS)MS disclosed in its quarterly filing Tuesday that the California attorney general's office may seek damages against the company alleging "knowing and material misrepresentations" regarding residential mortgage backed securities it sold to the California Public Employees Retirement System. The California attorney general's office declined requests for comment.

Both the JPMorgan and Citigroup settlements were obtained by the Residential Mortgage Backed Securities (RMBS) Working Group, established by President Obama in 2012 as a collaboration between numerous state and federal authorities. Led by the U.S. Justice Department, the group is working on at least a dozen other cases including a potential $17 billion deal with Bank of America, and it offers a unique window into the peculiar way justice is being meted out some six years after the crisis began. 

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The RMBS Working Group was created "to investigate those responsible for misconduct contributing to the financial crisis through the pooling and sale of residential mortgage-backed securities" -- bonds backed by pools of individual mortgages. 

President Obama created the group in January 2012 just as state and federal authorities were wrapping up the so-called "National Mortgage Settlement" -- a $25 billion settlement with the five largest collectors of mortgage debt at that time -- Bank of America (BAC - Get Report)BAC, Citigroup, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo (WFC - Get Report)WFC and Ally Financial (ALLY - Get Report)ALLY (formerly GMAC) -- regarding abuses tied to foreclosures and mortgage debt collecting practices. Several attorneys general who eventually signed onto that settlement, including New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, California's Kamala Harris, Delaware's Beau Biden and Lisa Madigan of Illinois, successfully argued at the time that the National Mortgage Settlement should not protect the banks from inquiries tied to the packaging and sale of mortgages.

Indeed, it's unlikely the settlement could have been reached without the creation of the working group, which held out the possibility of additional mortgage-related punishment for banks.

Still, when Obama created the group, there was considerable skepticism it would amount to anything. More than two months after the president first mentioned the group in his State of the Union speech, Schneiderman, a co-chair who was in charge of leading the state-level inquiries, "had no office, no phones, no staff and no executive director," according to a pair of housing-rights activists writing in the New York Daily News who cited conversations they'd had with Schneiderman. The two writers added that "none of the 55 staff members promised by [U.S. Attorney General Eric] Holder had materialized."

Zero to Hero

Despite that inauspicious start, the group now looks like a powerhouse. Justice Department press releases now assert that the group includes "more than 200 attorneys, investigators, analysts and staff." It is also said to include "more than 10 state Attorneys General offices around the country." U.S. Justice spokeswoman Ellen Canale would only disclose six states, however, which she said had "made their participation public."

Those are New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Delaware and Maryland. Connecticut and Kentucky confirmed their involvement to TheStreet. The other group members are West Virginia, New Jersey and Missouri, according to a person who works in an office involved in the group, citing a document related to its work.

Beth Ryan, spokeswoman for West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Jeff Lamm, spokesman for acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman and Nanci Gonder, spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, all declined to comment. 

It's not necessarily a requirement that a state attorney general be an official group member to receive a cash payout from one of the group's settlements, but so far, at least, the only states that have received such payouts are indeed group members.

The winners and losers among the states are separated by the savvy of their attorneys general. Some state attorneys general were better prepared and more determined than others when it came to seeking damages from banks over their conduct during the subprime housing boom. Paradoxically, many of the hardest hit states were among the worst equipped and least willing to punish the banks for their misconduct.


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