In its most significant enforcement action yet related to the subprime meltdown, on June 4, 2009, the SEC filed a civil securities fraud complaint (here) in the Central District of California against Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp., as well as the company’s former COO and CFO. The complaint alleges that the defendants mislead investors by misrepresenting the company’s loan origination standards and practices and by hiding the company’s deteriorating financial condition. The complaint also contains allegations of improper inside trading against Mozilo for initiating Rule 10b5-1 trading plans to sell shares while he was aware of material nonpublic information about the company’s deteriorating loan practices.
As discussed in its June 4, 2009 press release (here), the SEC’s complaint charges that from 2004 through 2007, Countrywide engaged in "an unprecedented expansion of its underwriting guidelines and was writing riskier and riskier loans, which these senior executives were warned might curtail the company’s ability to sell them" to investment bankers and other mortgage buyers.
The complaint alleges that while the company was issuing reassuring statements to investors, Mozilo "internally issued a series of increasingly dire assessments of the various Countrywide loan products and the risks to Countrywide in continuing to offer or hold these loans."
One of the more interesting aspects of the SEC’s press release about the suit is the accompanying document (here) in which the SEC summarizes email messages from Mozilo in which he delivered some of his "increasingly dire assessments." Among other things, an email attributed to Mozilo is quoted as saying that "we are flying blind on how these loans will perform in a stressed environment." Another email is also quoted as saying, with respect to the company’s subprime 80/20 loans, that "in all my years in the business I have never seen a more toxic prduct [sic]."
In other emails, Mozilo refers to the company’s 100% subprime second mortgages as "poison" and says that the 100% loan-to-value subprime mortgage is "the most dangerous product in existence and there can be nothing more toxic."
All of these statements attributed to Mozilo allegedly were made before Mozilo established several Rule 10b5-1 trading plans during the period October through December 2006. In December 2006 and February 2007, as the company’s share price was rising to record highs, he adjusted several previously established plans to allow him to sell even more shares. Pursuant to these plans and during the period November 2006 through August 2007, Mozilo exercised over 51 million stock options and sold the underlying shares for total proceeds of over $139 million.
Among other things, the complaint alleges that Mozilo approved his October 2006 trading plan one day after sending the email quoted above about "flying blind" on how the loans would perform. The complaint also alleges that five days before executing his December 2006 trading plan he circulated a memorandum to all managing directors and to the company’s board of directors noting a number of substantial concerns about the company’s subprime loan origination processes and noting that Countrywide expected its 2006 subprime loans to be the worst performing on record.
While many of these same kinds of allegations also appear in the pending Countrywide securities class action litigation (about which refer here), the SEC’s allegations nonetheless represent a significant development. SEC officials have been saying for over two years (as noted here, for example) that the agency would be cracking down on alleged Rule 10b5-1 trading plan abuses. Indeed, as discussed here, in an October 8, 2007 letter (here) to then-SEC Chairman Christopher Cox, North Carolina Treasurer Richard Moore had specifically asked the SEC to examine Mozilo’s stock trading pursuant to his Rule 10b5-1 plans.
With the SEC’s public commitment to cracking down on Rule 10b5-1 abuses and with the bull’s-eye drawn so specifically on Mozilo’s trading, it may have simply been a matter of time before some version of this complaint was filed. (Indeed, Alison Frankel’s June 4, 2009 American Lawyer article about the SEC’s complaint, which can be found here, is entitled "SEC (Finally) Charges Former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo.") The SEC’s action nevertheless is a significant development, if for no other reason than the prominence of the company and of Angelo Mozilo and because of the nature and specifics of the allegations.
The more interesting question is the extent to which the SEC will be targeting other officials, whether for Rule 10b5-1 plan abuses or for disclosures relating to subprime loans and other lending practices. Given the continuing current public need to assign blame for the current crisis, the prospect for further enforcement activity in these areas seems likely.
Indeed, according to a June 4, 2009 Washington Post article (here), new SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro has specifically said that as part of her plan to try to rebuild the SEC’s tarnished reputation, she intends to step up enforcement efforts and to push cases related to the financial crisis. As a result, the Countrywide complaint may be only the first in a series of SEC enforcement actions designed to assign blame for the meltdown while also demonstrating that the SEC is "tough" again.
The World Was So Much Nicer Before Aggrieved Homeowners Had Access to Counseling Services: Mozilo’s email practices got him in hot water even while he was still CEO of the company. In May 2008, Mozilo drew media attention (refer for example here) when he accidentally hit the "Reply" button rather than "Forward" after calling a homeowner’s plea for help "disgusting."
The borrower’s email had come from Daniel Bailey, a homeowner who was trying to stay in his home of 16 years. Bailey signed an adjustable rate mortgage and was told at the time that he could refinance after one year, before the payments became unaffordable. In drafting his note, Bailey had relied on suggested language from an Internet website that provided coaching services for troubled borrowers.
The email response Mozilo inadvertently sent Bailey said "Most of these letters now have the same wording. Obviously they are being counseled by some other person or by the Internet. Disgusting."
Mozilo seems to have had a deep commitment to ensuring that he would later look like a cartoon villain. I mean, here’s a guy who had just made a cool $140 million, yet when one of the suckers stuck with one of the loans that Mozilo himself described as "toxic" has the audacity to ask for relief, all Mozilo can think about is how "disgusting" it is that all of the losers stuck with these loans have the same grievances.