Opinion

Alison Frankel

California AG’s false claims case vs S&P: secret route to issuers?

Alison Frankel
Feb 11, 2013 23:26 UTC

If you’ve been keeping track of the Justice Department’s civil suits against banks accused of marketing deeply flawed mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, you know there are two laws at the heart of the feds’ cases: the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act and the False Claims Act. (Shout-outs to my Reuters colleagues Aruna Viswanatha and Nate Raymond, who noted Justice’s creative application of these two laws long before most reporters knew FIRREA from an unfortunate stomach complaint.) The FCA, which offers the prospect of triple damages, has provided the federal government with a particularly big stick to use against banks. As of last November, federal prosecutors had already cited the FCA in more than half a dozen civil fraud suits against such mortgage lenders as BofA, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and Flagstar, obtaining more than $1.6 billion in settlements, mostly based on alleged defrauding of a federal home insurance program.

The Justice Department, in other words, isn’t shy about asserting the FCA in mortgage cases, even when its interpretation of a “claim” stretches the classic whistle-blower definition of a government contract or request for payment under a government program. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, for instance, brought claims under both the FCA and FIRREA when he sued Bank of America in November for supposedly deceiving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac about deficient underwriting of mortgages peddled by Countrywide.

So it was notable that last week, when the Justice Department sued Standard & Poor’s for knowingly promulgating false ratings of deficient securities, it brought claims under only FIRREA, not the FCA. More than a dozen states that rode sidecar with Justice sued under state trade practices or unfair competition laws rather than under state versions of the federal False Claims Act. Only one state, California, also sued S&P for violating its state false claims law.

California’s false claims theory is that if it hadn’t been for S&P’s ratings, the state’s behemoth teachers and public employees pension funds would not have purchased mortgage-based securities that turned out to be dogs. Similar arguments about allegedly misleading ratings from all kinds of investors, including state pension funds, have mostly been squelched by the rating agencies’ First Amendment defenses. But California’s suit isn’t based on the ratings themselves, so it doesn’t matter whether they’re protected opinions. Instead, the AG’s new suit alleges that S&P knowingly provided misleading ratings to issuers for the purpose of influencing sales of high-rated securities to state pension funds.

That theory, of course, depends on a key question: Is the purchase price of a mortgage-backed note or a CDO a “claim” as defined by state and federal false claims laws? Andrew Schilling of BuckleySandler, who oversaw FCA cases against financial institutions as head of the civil division of the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office until 2012, told me that California’s suit marks “a novel and aggressive use of the False Claims Act,” since S&P is a step removed from the sale of the securities. His old office’s assertion of the federal FCA in the case it filed against BofA in November claims a more direct connection between the bank’s alleged conduct and the purchase of securities by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but BofA defense lawyer Brendan Sullivan of Williams & Connolly has already signaled plans to argue that the False Claims Act doesn’t apply.

Can we now admit it’s time to end issuer-pays credit rating model?

Alison Frankel
Feb 5, 2013 23:21 UTC

In July 2007, a recently hired analyst in Standard & Poor’s structured finance group exchanged a series of emails with an investment banking client who wanted to know how the new job was going. Things were just great, the analyst said sardonically, “aside from the fact that the MBS world is crashing, investors and media hate us and we’re all running around to save face … no complaints.” Part of the problem, the analyst said in a subsequent email, was that some people at S&P had been pushing to downgrade structured finance deals, “but the leadership was concerned of p*ssing off too many clients and jumping the gun ahead of Fitch and Moody’s.

I suspect that only an investment banker could find it in his or her heart to sympathize with a credit analyst in the summer of 2007, but this one suggested that some good might come from S&P’s internal conflict. “This might shake out a completely different way of doing biz in the industry,” the banker wrote. “I mean come on, we pay you to rate our deals and the better the rating the more money we make?!?! Whats up with that? How are you possibly supposed to be impartial????”

The email exchange, recounted deep in the Justice Department’s new civil complaint against S&P and its parent, McGraw-Hill, pretty well sums up the entire theory of the government’s case against the rating agency. S&P, according to the Justice Department, had a choice as the housing market began to collapse and subprime mortgages began to default. Rating agency analysts who monitored mortgage-backed securities knew the crash was coming and warned repeatedly that previous ratings of mortgage-backed instruments were no longer a reliable gauge. But rather than heed those warnings and toughen standards on mortgage-tied instruments, S&P continued to accept fees from banks in exchange for conferring its blessing on tens of billions of dollars of collateralized debt obligations. When truth collided with the client relationships that generated S&P’s revenue, in other words, money won out.

$8.7 bln ResCap MBS deal takes a beating in new objections

Alison Frankel
Feb 4, 2013 22:25 UTC

Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with investors in Countrywide mortgage-backed securities gets all the attention, most recently in a column Sunday by Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times, who cited new claims that echo old allegations of banks shortchanging MBS noteholders through modification of underlying investor-owned loans. Meanwhile, though, a similar global MBS deal between institutional investors and Residential Capital, the now bankrupt former mortgage lending arm of Ally Financial, has garnered much less outside attention, even though it permits MBS holders to assert an $8.7 billion claim in the bankruptcy, without opposition from ResCap. Friday was the deadline for objections in ResCap’s Chapter 11 to MBS investors’ $8.7 billion allowed claim. And the details that emerged in filings by ResCap bondholders, unsecured creditors and bond insurers that oppose the $8.7 billion deal add up to as compelling a story as the BofA saga, when it comes to assigning blame for and assessing victims of the mortgage crisis.

According to the new filings (especially those of the trustee for senior unsecured ResCap notes, the ad hoc committee of junior unsecured noteholders and the unsecured creditors committee), ResCap’s $8.7 billion allowed-claim settlement with MBS investors was engineered by Ally, which wanted to minimize its own liability to its mortgage unit. The filings point to emails and other evidence suggesting that Ally’s chief in-house litigation counsel, Timothy Devine, led negotiations with Kathy Patrick of Gibbs & Bruns, who represents the big institutional investor group that first notified ResCap of alleged breaches of its representations and warranties on underlying mortgages back in October 2011. (That group, like the BofA investor group, includes BlackRock and Pimco.)

The objectors claim that as ResCap approached Chapter 11, Ally executives estimated that Ally’s exposure to its ailing mortgage subsidiary could be as high as $2 billion. To minimize its own contribution to the ResCap estate, objectors assert, Ally supposedly agreed to back an unreasonably large estimate of ResCap’s put-back liability to MBS noteholders in exchange for support from MBS investors, who are ResCap’s primary creditors, for a $750 million settlement between Ally and ResCap. The supposed quid pro quo between Ally and the MBS investors group was a win for both of them but, objectors contend, only at the expense of monolines and ResCap’s other creditors. They argue that an $8.7 billion allowed claim for MBS investors would give holders of mortgage-backed notes an inflated share of the ResCap estate.

Suit reveals new details of Paulson’s role in Goldman Abacus CDO

Alison Frankel
Jan 31, 2013 23:26 UTC

Ever since Goldman Sachs agreed to pay $550 million to resolve claims by the Securities and Exchange Commission that it deceived investors in the Abacus collateralized debt obligation, there’s been a giant question mark hovering over the hedge fund Paulson & Co. Paulson worked with Goldman Sachs to select the CDO’s reference portfolio of mortgage-backed securities, then reaped the profits from a short position when the instrument failed. The implication was that Paulson picked securities that doomed Abacus, but the SEC never brought a case against the hedge fund. And when the bond insurer ACA Financial Guaranty, which was nominally the portfolio selection agent on the CDO, sued in 2011 to recover the $30 million it lost (plus punitive damages), it named only Goldman as a defendant.

But on Wednesday, New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick of Manhattan ruled from the bench that ACA can file an amended complaint – and this one names Paulson & Co and the Paulson Credit Opportunities fund as defendants. The 49-page suit, which was attached as an exhibit to ACA’s motion to file, adds layers of detail to what was previously known about Paulson’s involvement with the Abacus CDO, based on discovery not only from ACA’s suit but also from the SEC’s ongoing case against former Goldman vice president Fabrice Tourre. There aren’t huge surprises in the new evidence, but the disclosure of a side agreement between Goldman and Paulson and of a phone conversation in which Goldman assures ACA that Paulson has a long position appear to bolster ACA’s assertion that it was the dupe of a secret deal between the investment bank and the hedge fund.

“This is a very significant event,” said ACA counsel Marc Kasowitz of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. “It’s the first time Paulson has been fronted for having a share of the responsibility in Abacus.”

Who are Justice Department’s ‘outside experts’ on prosecuting banks?

Alison Frankel
Jan 30, 2013 23:56 UTC

Lanny Breuer made the formal announcement Wednesday that he is stepping down as head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, after a week that he surely won’t remember as his favorite in public service. Last Tuesday, PBS’s Frontline made Breuer seem insincere and evasive about Justice’s failure to prosecute bankers involved in mortgage securitization. Then yesterday, a pair of U.S. senators, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), sent a follow-up letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding information about the Justice Department’s settlements with big banks. In particular, the letter quoted comments by both Holder and Breuer about receiving advice from “experts” on the dire economic consequences of indicting financial institutions. Brown and Grassley asked the Justice Department to disclose the identity (and compensation) of all outside experts who opined on prosecuting banks with more than $1 billion in assets and to explain how it vetted the experts to ensure that they “provided unconflicted and unbiased advice to DOJ.”

Based on a speech Breuer gave to the New York City Bar Association last September, some of the experts who spoke with the Justice Department about what would happen if global corporations faced criminal charges were certainly not unbiased: They were economists brought in by targets to dissuade the department from indicting their clients. Let’s be clear: Listening to arguments from potential defendants is an entirely appropriate exercise of prosecutorial discretion; as Breuer said in his speech, responsible law enforcement demands that prosecutors consider the consequences of their actions. But with Grassley and Brown now pressing the Justice Department on who advised Holder and Breuer to protect jobs and markets by deferring prosecution of big banks, Justice critics could try to turn Breuer’s words against him and his office.

The senators’ letter cites Breuer’s remarks to Frontline, which helpfully posted a transcript of its interview with the assistant AG. “In any given case, I think I and prosecutors around the country, being responsible, should speak to regulators, should speak to experts, because if I bring a case against institution A, and as a result of bringing that case there’s some huge economic effect, it affects the economy,” Breuer told Frontline. “At the Department of Justice, we’re being aggressive, but we should in fact take into consideration what the experts tell us. That doesn’t mean we won’t go forward, but it has to be a factor.”

Truth and justice are elusive in Chevron Ecuador case

Alison Frankel
Jan 29, 2013 21:32 UTC

On Monday, Chevron filed a new motion for summary judgment in its fraud and racketeering case against the lawyers and expert witnesses who helped 47 Ecuadoreans from the Lago Agrio region of the rainforest obtain an $18 billion judgment against the oil company from an Ecuadorean court in 2011. The motion discloses what seems to be incredibly powerful evidence that the Ecuadorean judgment was illegitimate: A onetime presiding judge on the Ecuadorean case, Alberto Guerra, submitted a declaration asserting that he acted as the middleman in setting up a $500,000 bribe from plaintiffs’ lawyers to the Ecuadorean judge who entered the judgment against Chevron. Guerra claimed that the plaintiffs actually drafted the 2011 judgment and that he, as a behind-the-scenes ghostwriter, worked with plaintiffs’ lawyers to make it seem more like a court ruling. According to his declaration, filed before U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan of Manhattan, Guerra had previously received regular payments from the plaintiffs in the Chevron case to ghostwrite other rulings subsequently issued by the presiding judge. And, to boot, Guerra asserted that Chevron — unlike the plaintiffs — didn’t respond to his solicitation of bribes.

Chevron filed additional new evidence to back Guerra’s declaration, including draft versions of the 2011 judgment found on the former judge’s computer, mail and bank records showing his contacts with the plaintiffs and sworn statements by other witnesses supposedly involved in the bribery scheme. “Guerra’s testimony and corroborating evidence confirm what the extensive overlap between the (plaintiffs’) internal files and the judgment already prove: that the (plaintiffs) corrupted the Ecuadorean court and wrote the $18 billion judgment against Chevron,” wrote the oil company’s lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Guerra has some credibility issues, since, by his own admission, he was dismissed from the Ecuadorean court and has been in financial straits. His declaration disclosed a payment of $38,000 from Chevron to compensate him for his time and expenses, including the surrender of his computer, flash drives and cell phones. The Lago Agrio plaintiffs and their allies claimed that isn’t all the former judge received. In a statement, Ecuadorean plaintiffs’ lawyer Pablo Fajardo said that Guerra previously offered to sell his testimony to his clients but they refused to pay. “It always was obvious that Guerra wished to sell himself to the highest bidder, a fact which undermined his credibility and made him a profoundly unreliable witness,” Fajardo’s statement said. The Ecuadoreans also claim (without supporting evidence, from what I can tell) that Chevron is using Guerra’s testimony to cajole and intimidate other former judges in Ecuador.

Inside ‘unseemly’ lead counsel fight in Nexium antitrust class action

Alison Frankel
Jan 29, 2013 15:47 UTC

The Federal Judicial Center says that the preferred way to determine lead counsel in a complex multidistrict litigation is for plaintiffs’ lawyers to meet and reach a consensus on which firms should direct the case. But that’s not always the way things work out. Just ask Linda Nussbaum at Grant & Eisenhofer, who lost a bid last week to lead an antitrust class action by drug wholesalers accusing AstraZeneca and three generic drugmakers of conspiring to keep AZ’s blockbuster heartburn drug Nexium off of the market. Nussbaum accused three other big pharmaceutical antitrust players – Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, Garwin Gerstein & Fisher and Berger & Montague – of plotting to exclude her and then misrepresenting her stellar record. In the end, Nussbaum’s rivals won the battle for lead counsel, but not without also incurring the disgust of the judge overseeing the case.

In a Jan. 24 order appointing the Hagens group to lead the case, U.S. District Judge William Young of Boston meted out blame for the “unseemly squabble” among plaintiffs’ firms. “This squabble reflects most poorly on all counsel involved since it appears driven more by a desire to participate to a greater degree in a potential award of attorneys’ fees than by any nuanced professional judgment concerning how to assemble the strongest possible team of counsel,” he wrote. Young also said he planned to make sure that the cost of “this sad and unprofessional quarrel” is not passed along to the firms’ clients.

But even the strong words in Young’s order don’t convey how truly nasty the showdown between Nussbaum and Bruce Gerstein of Garwin Gerstein became, with these two leaders of the plaintiffs’ antitrust bar flinging accusations of borderline ethics back and forth for a month. Lead counsel jostling in mega-antitrust and product liability litigation is the rule, not the exception, as indicated by the briefs debating leadership of the Nexium indirect purchasers’ case, also before Judge Young. Plaintiffs’ lawyers, however, usually realize after a round or two of briefing that they’re better off reaching an agreement than parading dirty laundry before the court and the defendants; that’s what happened in the indirect purchasers’ wing of the Nexium case. This story is for anyone who doubts the wisdom of finding consensus.

Why U.S. is forgoing appeal of landmark 2nd Circuit off-label ruling

Alison Frankel
Jan 24, 2013 22:35 UTC

On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration announced that the government has decided not to seek review of a landmark 2012 ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in U.S. v. Caronia. As you probably recall, a split 2nd Circuit panel held in December that the First Amendment protects truthful speech about the off-label use of FDA-approved products, finding that the misbranding provisions of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act do not prohibit off-label marketing, as long as it’s not misleading. Wednesday’s announcement by the FDA means that in New York, Connecticut and Vermont, pharmaceutical and medical device makers can give physicians information about their products that they can’t discuss in other states without risking prosecution.

That disparity would have been a good reason for the government to seek en banc or U.S. Supreme Court review of the 2nd Circuit panel’s Caronia ruling, said Jeffrey Senger of Sidley Austin, a former deputy chief counsel of the FDA. Senger told me Thursday that the Justice Department, which litigates on behalf of the FDA, undoubtedly considered whether it had a responsibility to ask the entire 2nd Circuit or the Supreme Court to clarify what pharma companies can and cannot say about their products. (Former healthcare fraud prosecutor Michael Loucks, now at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, told me the same thing when the Caronia ruling came down last month. “There’s a downside to the pharmaceutical industry and to society if the Justice Department shies away from further review,” Loucks said. “It’s not helpful to drug or device companies to have a lack of clarity. It’s also not helpful to the Justice Department.”)

But there was also a downside for the government in pursuing the Caronia appeal — especially because the Supreme Court made it clear in a 2010 case called Sorrell v. IMS Health that pharma marketing is “a form of expression protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.” Sorrell involved a Vermont law restricting the sale of pharmacy prescription records, not off-label marketing. Nevertheless, the ruling is considered a good indicator of the justices’ likely view of the issues in Caronia. And losing at the Supreme Court would extend Caronia’s reasoning beyond the confines of the 2nd Circuit, which is just what the Justice Department doesn’t want. “I think the government had a very substantial risk of losing at the Supreme Court if they had appealed,” said Senger, who added that the decision to forgo an appeal did not surprise him.

Avandia case: the new normal for plaintiffs’ fees in mass torts?

Alison Frankel
Jan 23, 2013 22:20 UTC

Last week, the court-appointed mediator in the consolidated Avandia marketing and product liability litigation against GlaxoSmithKline informed U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe of Philadelphia that 58 plaintiffs’ firms in the case have agreed to an allocation plan for $143.75 million in common-fund fees. As mediator Bruce Merensteinof Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis described the process, nine law firms objected to the initial allocation plan proposed by a Rufe-appointed fee committee. After a dozen phone calls and 15 in-person sessions over the last few months, members of the fee committee adjusted their own take to bring the objectors on board. In the final allocation outlined in Merenstein’s report, the biggest share of the common fees, $22.6 million, will go to Reilly PoznerWagstaff & Cartmell is in line for $17.2 million; Andrus Hood & Wagstaff for $14.7 million; and Miller & Associates and Heard Robins Cloud & Black for more than $10 million. The Miller firm was an objector to the original allocation plan, but all of the other firms looking at eight-figure awards from the common fund were on the fee committee.

Keep in mind that the common-fund fees are on top of whatever contingency fees the plaintiffs’ firms will receive as a share of their clients’ settlements with GSK over the diabetes drug. Rufe ordered last October that all of the plaintiffs in thousands of settled (and later-settled) cases must pay 6.25 percent of their settlements into a common fund to compensate the lawyers who worked on behalf of all Avandia plaintiffs in the consolidated litigation. If you do the math, that reflects a total of $2.3 billion in Avandia settlements by GSK (Rufe doesn’t cite the total but based her order on an aggregated estimate calculated by a plaintiffs’ expert.)

So what, you may be wondering, is the total percentage of that $2.3 billion that will go to plaintiffs’ lawyers? We don’t know. And that’s why the Avandia litigation model, which GSK previously employed in the Paxil litigation, could be a boon to plaintiffs lawyers.

New suit: Financial straits led to ethics infractions by Hausfeld

Alison Frankel
Jan 22, 2013 23:45 UTC

Jon King, a California lawyer who was a founding partner at Michael Hausfeld’s eponymous antitrust shop but was fired from the firm last October, spares no accusations in the 78-page wrongful termination complaint he filed last week in federal court in the Northern District of California. The suit is a compendium of supposed misbehavior by Hausfeld and some of his partners, allegedly committed under the pressure of financial straits. I’m not sure how much fire underlies the clouds of smoke from King’s red-hot complaint, but Hausfeld has made enough enemies and is leading enough big cases — including a potentially gargantuan investor class action against the banks that allegedly manipulated Libor rates — that the suit is going to be the talk of the antitrust bar.

I want to say up front that I emailed Hausfeld, asking him to address some of the specific accusations in King’s complaint. I did not receive a reply from him, but a representative sent an email statement: “This is an employment grievance from a former partner of Hausfeld LLP,” it said. “The firm separated with Mr. King for good reason, and the allegations made by him are baseless. We abide by the highest ethical standards and will defend our reputation vigorously.”

So keep Hausfeld’s denial in mind as you consider King’s allegations that the firm took financial advantage of co-counsel in litigation over the unauthorized use of likenesses of college athletes in videogames; courted Asian electronics companies to be plaintiffs in one antitrust case even as the firm litigated against them in another action; tried to undermine client development efforts by co-counsel; and signed the name of a famous client — NFL Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea — to a letter he did not write or support. Individually the accusations may not amount to much, and there’s a lot in King’s kitchen-sink complaint that, quite frankly, seems intended to tar the reputation of some Hausfeld partners rather than to bolster King’s argument that he was fired for blowing the whistle on the firm’s unethical practices. But the complaint includes enough details about the founding and operation of Hausfeld LLP to be a fascinating inside look at the firm.

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