Standard and Poor's

The government sues Standard & Poor’s, saying it improperly gave high marks to mortgage securities that failed and sparked the financial crisis.

By Alejandro Lazo and Andrew Tangel, Los Angeles Times
February 4, 2013, 10:14 p.m.

The federal government is embarking on one of its most ambitious efforts to assign blame for the financial crisis, going after Wall Street’s biggest credit rating firm for its role in pumping up the housing bubble.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit late Monday in Los Angeles federal court against Standard & Poor’s Corp. The suit accuses the company’s analysts of issuing glowing reviews on troubled mortgage securities whose subsequent failure helped cause the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The action marks the first federal crackdown against a major credit rater, and it signals an untested legal tack after limited success in holding the nation’s banks accountable for the part they played in the crisis.

The government selected Los Angeles as the venue to file the lawsuit in part because it was one of the regions hardest hit when the bottom fell out of the housing market. Hundreds of thousands of California residents lost their homes to foreclosure, and others saw their wealth evaporate as properties plummeted in value.

“The DOJ is playing hardball and they’re coming at the ratings agency in a very different direction with a potentially very powerful weapon to push S&P to the settlement table,” said Jeffrey Manns, a law professor at George Washington University.

In addition to the Justice Department, several state attorneys general are investigating the ratings agency. States such as California and New York are expected to pursue their own investigations and legal action, people familiar with the matter said.

S&P has faced other lawsuits from investors and the states of Illinois and Connecticut.

California is expected to sue S&P under the state’s False Claims Act, one person familiar with the matter said. The law makes it a crime to defraud the state, and damages of up to three times the amount of the claim can be awarded if the victim was an institutional investor, such as one of the state’s pension funds.

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