Florida Is Latest State to Put Countrywide's Lending Under Microscope
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Countrywide Financial Corp., the nation's largest mortgage lender, is finding itself under increasing scrutiny by shareholders and state governments.
Florida's attorney general is the latest to say he's eager to examine the way Countrywide does business and is investigating the company for possible unfair and deceptive business practices.
"We've had a number of complaints about Countrywide, as well as other mortgage companies in the subprime arena," the state's Attorney General Bill McCollum said Thursday.
Since the collapse of the subprime mortgage market last summer, Countrywide has been hit with lawsuits by investors and consumers, and investigations by state officials in California and Illinois.
In addition, Chairman and Chief Executive Angelo Mozilo is having his stock sales scrutinized as part of an informal inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Florida inquiry involves "how some of their business was conducted in terms of marketing and in terms of advertising," McCollum said.
A subpoena issued Jan. 17 directs Countrywide to provide documents and other information describing the procedures it used to determine if borrowers qualified for subprime loans for people with shaky credit.
Among other things, Florida wants information on how Countrywide credited borrowers' payments after January 2005.
In addition, the U.S. Trustee, which seeks to prevent bankruptcy fraud, is looking into Countrywide's dealings with two South Florida borrowers seeking bankruptcy protection.
McCollum said he also was interested in comments made by several bankruptcy judges concerning how Countrywide treats people seeking mortgage relief.
Calabasas, Calif.-based Countrywide said it had received the subpoena "and will cooperate fully with the state's investigation" but declined further comment.
The lender has until Feb. 11 to provide the information sought by the subpoena.
The Florida attorney general said he was investigating other unidentified mortgage companies but has not filed any other subpoenas.
Meanwhile, the FBI has said it is investigating 14 unidentified companies, from mortgage lenders to investment banks, for possible accounting fraud, insider trading or other issues connected to the subprime mortgage lending.
The FBI, which disclosed the probe on Tuesday, has declined to name the companies.
Now-defunct subprime loan giant New Century Financial Corp. has also been deluged with investor lawsuits and disclosed last year that it was the target of a criminal inquiry by federal prosecutors in California.
Countrywide, like many in the mortgage industry, has suffered under the weight of the subprime fallout as thousands of customers default on home loans.
Shareholders are also taking shots at Countrywide, which received a $4.1 billion stock buyout offer in January from Bank of America Corp.
SRM Global Fund, which owns a 5.2 percent stake in Countrywide, said the acquisition is a bad deal for shareholders, according to a regulatory filing Thursday. The Cayman Islands-based private investment fund said it plans to vote against the takeover.
In the SEC filing, the hedge fund said the acquisition deal does not provide sufficient value to shareholders, based on publicly available information.
Countrywide said it's preparing materials and meeting requirements set forth in securities regulations. It said information about the deal will be available to the public upon filing with the SEC.
Meanwhile, Countrywide said Thursday it may begin cutting off some borrowers' access to their home equity lines of credit.
The lender was reviewing the equity lines to determine, among other things, what impact declining home values were having on the accounts.
"This analysis may result in the company suspending borrowers' future access to existing lines of credit," Countrywide said.
"These measures do not impact the company's desire to originate new home equity lines of credit based on current property values and borrower qualifications," the company said.
The company estimated that about 122,000 of its borrowers would be affected.
Countrywide shares rose 49 cents, or 7.6 percent, to $6.96 on Thursday.
Associated Press writers David Fischer and Dave Royse in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.
Countrywide Financial Corp.: http://www.countrywide.com