WASHINGTON — The Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday brought civil fraud charges against six former top executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, saying they misled investors about risky subprime loans the mortgage giants held when the housing bubble burst.
Those charged include the agencies' two former CEOs, Fannie's Daniel Mudd and Freddie's Richard Syron. They are the highest-profile individuals to be charged in connection with the 2008 financial crisis.
The federal government has faced criticism for not bringing charges against top executives who may have contributed to the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression.
Mudd, 53, and Syron, 68, led the mortgage giants in 2007, when home prices began to collapse. The four other top executives also worked for the companies during that time.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in New York City.
"Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives told the world that their subprime exposure was substantially smaller than it really was," said Robert Khuzami, SEC's enforcement director. "These material misstatements occurred during a time of acute investor interest in financial institutions' exposure to subprime loans, and misled the market about the amount of risk."
Fannie and Freddie both entered into agreements with the government on Friday, accepting responsibility for its conduct without admitting or denying the charges. The government-controlled companies also agreed to cooperate with the SEC on the cases against the former executives.
The Justice Department has opened up probes into Fannie and Freddie but has not charged anyone with a crime.
In a statement released through his attorney, Mudd said the lawsuit "should never have been brought" and said the government reviewed and approved all of the company's financial disclosures.
"Every piece of material data about loans held by Fannie Mae was known to the United States government to the investing public," Mudd said. "The SEC is wrong, and I look forward to a court where fairness and reason — not politics — is the standard for justice."
Syron's lawyers said the case was "without merit," and said the term "subprime had no uniform definition in the market" at that time.
"There was no shortage of meaningful disclosures, all of which permitted the reader to assess the degree of risk in Freddie Mac's" portfolio, the lawyers said in a statement. "The SEC's theory and approach are fatally flawed."
According to the lawsuit, Fannie told investors in 2007 that it had roughly $4.8 billion worth of subprime loans on its books, or just 0.2 percent of its portfolio. The SEC says that Fannie actually had about $43 billion worth of products targeted to borrowers with weak credit, or 11 percent of its holdings.
Mudd told a congressional panel in March 2007 that Fannie's subprime business represented less than "2 percent of our book." He also said the company held subprime mortgages "very carefully." A month later, he told a separate congressional panel that subprime loans represented less than 2.5 percent of Fannie's books.
Freddie told investors in 2006 that it held between $2 billion and $6 billion of subprime mortgages on its books. The SEC says its holdings were actually closer to $141 billion, or 10 percent of its portfolio in 2006, and $244 billion, or 14 percent, by 2008.
In a May 2007 speech in New York, Syron said Freddie had "basically no subprime exposure," according to the suit.
Fannie and Freddie buy home loans from banks and other lenders, package them into bonds with a guarantee against default and then sell them to investors around the world. The two own or guarantee about half of U.S. mortgages, or nearly 31 million loans.
During the financial crisis, the two firms verged on collapse. The Bush administration seized control of them in September 2008.
So far, the companies have cost taxpayers almost $150 billion — the largest bailout of the financial crisis. They could cost up to $259 billion, according to its government regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Administration.
Mudd was fired from Fannie after the government took over. He's now the chief executive of the New York hedge fund Fortress Investment Group.
Syron resigned from Freddie in 2008. He's now an adjunct professor at Boston College.
The other executives charged were Fannie's Enrico Dallavecchia, 50, a former chief risk officer, and Thomas Lund, 53, a former executive vice president; and Freddie's Patricia Cook, 58, a former executive vice president and chief business officer, and Donald Bisenius, 53, a former senior vice president.
Lund's lawyer, Michael Levy, said in a statement that Lund "did not mislead anyone." Lawyers for the other defendants declined to comment Friday morning.
Fannie and Freddie had traditionally purchased a small number of subprime mortgage loans, which involved borrowers with credit problems who could not qualify for cheaper prime loans. But starting in the late 1990s many firms started purchasing subprime loans, and Fannie and Freddie followed suit.
Legal experts say the cases, while unusual, might not yield much in penalties against the former executives.
In July, Citigroup paid just $75 million to settle similar civil charges with the SEC. The company's chief financial officer and head of investor relations were accused of failing to disclose more than $50 billion worth of potential losses from subprime mortgages. The two executives charged paid $100,000 and $80,000 in civil penalties.
A federal judge in the case said she was "baffled" by the low settlement.
Fines against executives charged in SEC civil cases can reach up to $150,000 per violation. SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro has asked Congress to raise the limit to $1 million.
Mudd made nearly $4 million in salary and bonuses in 2007, and Syron made more than $18 million, according to company statements.
The SEC has charged more than 80 people, including 40 CEOs and senior executives, with violations stemming from the 2008 financial crisis.