President Obama's top housing official said Wednesday that lenders are within their rights to resume foreclosures this month despite allegations that they erred in processing documents. But he said the banks could face fines if found to have broken the law.
"They've made a business decision," Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, said in an interview at the White House.
Two big lenders — Bank of America Corp. and Ally Financial Inc.'s GMAC Mortgage unit — are restarting foreclosures after halting them temporarily. They had frozen those cases amid allegations that employees signed but didn't read foreclosure documents that may have contained errors. The companies say they're fixing the problems in the documents.
Mr. Donovan noted that several federal agencies, including his department and the Federal Trade Commission, have authority to penalize mortgage companies if they're found to have violated the law.
"We are going to hold them accountable," he said.
The housing secretary discussed the foreclosure document mess earlier in the day with officials from 11 federal agencies that are reviewing the issue. He said the government is also in contact with 50 state attorneys general who have launched their own inquiry.
Mr. Donovan said the government has found no evidence that the system used to handle foreclosures is flawed, even though some banks may not have followed proper procedures.
A federal law enforcement official told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the FBI is trying to determine whether the financial industry broke criminal laws in the mortgage foreclosure crisis.
The law enforcement official said the question is whether some in the industry were acting with criminal intent or were merely overwhelmed after the housing market's collapse. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is just getting under way.
In a related inquiry, Mr. Donovan said the Federal Housing Administration has found disparities in how five major lenders have responded to distressed homeowners. He said the FHA reached that conclusion after a four-month review. He declined to name the lenders.
The government has authority to fine lenders that fail to comply with guidelines of the FHA, which guarantees some home loans.
Some lawmakers have called for a national halt to foreclosures. The Obama administration opposes such a move. It says doing so could hurt the housing market by making it harder for buyers of foreclosed homes to complete their transactions.
In an interview earlier this week, Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said he also didn't support a nationwide foreclosure freeze.
"It never seemed to me that the great majority of these foreclosures were going to be invalid," he said.
Mr. Frank said, though, that lawmakers should work next year to enact tighter regulations over the industry.