FDIC sits on potential 50 lawsuits as it tries to reach settlements

In the more than two years since Lehman Brothers went bust, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has shuttered more than 250 banks.

Last week, the agency closed Wakulla Bank of Crawfordville, Fla. and Shoreline Bank of Shoreline, Wash., bringing the number of failed banks in 2010 to 129. As Financial Reform Watch recently reported, the FDIC considers another 829 banks “troubled.”

And yet, despite extensive evidence that many lenders used fraudulent and deceptive tactics to push mortgages to unqualified borrowers, and that these same loans later sank the banks, the FDIC so far has sued executives from just one financial institution: IndyMac.

What’s the holdup? On Friday, Bloomberg News reported that the agency has lawsuits against more than 50 officers and directors of failed banks whose actions may have led to bank collapses queued up and ready to go — but has held back on filing them while settlement talks with the executives proceed.

The FDIC’s tactics here are par for the course for Washington regulators. The Securities and Exchange Commission routinely files civil fraud complaints against individuals or corporations at the same time that it announces that it has settled those cases.

But in dealing with the fallout from the financial crisis, the SEC has also taken a more aggressive stance: charging Angelo Mozilo, the former head of Countrywide Financial with securities fraud and insider trading; three former top officers of New Century Financial with securities fraud; and, of course, Goldman Sachs and one of its traders with civil fraud over mortgage securities sold under its “Abacus” deals. Goldman Sachs, which recently settled its suit for $550 million, complained that it was caught off guard by the lawsuit—the Wall Street giant didn’t know it was coming.

The FDIC doesn’t appear to have gotten the get-tough memo.

To be fair, the agency also has different priorities than the SEC. As the federal receiver for failed banks, the agency uses its deposit insurance fund to backstop the cost of bank failures. And that fund is in the hole to the tune of $15.2 billion, as of the second quarter of 2010. Possibly as a result, the agency’s strategy is less about righting wrongs and more about raising money. The FDIC brings suits “only where they are believed to be sound on the merits and likely to be cost effective,” according to a policy statement.

An FDIC spokesman said that the recently authorized lawsuits, if filed by the agency and not settled, would claim damages of more than $1 billion, according to the Bloomberg News article. The goal is to reach as many settlements as possible, he said.

The agency has three years from the date of a bank failure to file a lawsuit.

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