Wall Street Perps Go Free as Banks Continue to Settle

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Federal regulators are stacking up cases against the big banks over alleged mortgage fraud, but they are still having a hard time finding evidence to prosecute individuals for any wrongdoing.

According to a Wall Street Journal report , while JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) will pay a "significant financial penalty" to the Securities and Exchange Commission in settling a probe into alleged mortgage fraud practices, no individuals will be charged. The bank won't be required to admit any wrongdoing either.

The settlement is expected to be the first in a series of SEC enforcements against banks involving the sale of mortgage-backed securities, according to the report, citing people close to the probe.

But for critics of the Wall Street culture of reckless risk taking that led to the financial collapse, the SEC's recent practice of entering into similar settlement agreements comes across as weak sauce.

Other prosecutors are also coming up short in holding individuals accountable for faulty underwriting practices.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a civil fraud lawsuit against J.P. Morgan that alleges widespread fraud by Bear Stearns but does not name any individuals.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit for over $1 billion last month against Bank of America ( BAC) for alleged multi-year mortgage fraud. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called it "brazen in scope." Yet the suit did not name any individuals as defendants.

It did identify two officals who oversaw the faulty mortgage origination process. One of them, Countrywide COO Rebcca Mairone, is now a mortgage lending executive at JPMorgan Chase, as TheStreet reported last month, and is involved with the bank's independent foreclosure review.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency is the only regulator that has so far been aggressive in going after individuals. The bank filed a lawsuit against 16 banks last year. In its suit against JPMorgan relating to $33 billion in mortgage securitizations, it named 42 individuals, according to the report

The FHFA might actually have a good case against the big banks. Alison Frankel at Reuters reports that banks might have to fear the recent rulings in the FHFA's cases against 16 banks.

According to the report, U.S. District Judge Denise Cote of Manhattan recently ruled against motions to dismiss by JPMorgan and Merrill Lynch. The Judge dismissed the banks' argument that Fannie and Freddie were sophisticated investors. The agencies may have known they were buying sub-prime securities, but they had no way of knowing that the origination process underlying the securities was so haphazard that it put in jeopardy even their AAA rated certificates, the judge said.

She also did not accept the argument that the securities fell in value because of a downturn in the housing market. She said the allegations in the lawsuit were enough to support the FHFA's demand for punitive damages.

If the recent rulings are any indication of how the case will shape up in the future, the individuals named in the lawsuit better lawyer up.

Of course, banks might see the writing on the wall and Wowsettle, eager to put the uncertainty surrounding legal claims to rest. Which means Main Street's thirst for blood will still go unquenched.

-- Written by Shanthi Bharatwaj in New York.

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors and reporters from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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