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ATLANTA -- Wells Fargo & Co. has agreed to pay $108 million to the federal government to settle allegations from two Atlanta-area whistleblowers that the bank charged fraudulent fees on veterans' home refinancing loans.

The settlement award, disclosed by an Atlanta firm representing the whistleblowers, is the largest so far to result from the 11-year-old lawsuit. Two former metropolitan Atlanta mortgage brokers sued eight banks or mortgage lenders on behalf of the government. The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Atlanta.

"We're glad it's over, at least as to Wells Fargo," said one of the two whistleblowers, Victor Bibby. The second is Brian Donnelly.

In 2012, SunTrust Banks, JPMorgan Chase, Countrywide Home Loans and three other major lenders agreed to pay $162 million to settle similar allegations by the whistleblowers.

Another lawsuit is pending against a St. Petersburg, Fla., lender, Mortgage Investors Corp. In 2013, the lender laid off hundreds of employees and stopped making new home loans, blaming tougher regulations under the federal Dodd-Frank Act.

A Wells Fargo spokesman said the bank changed its methods for handling veterans' refinancing loans several years ago to fix the alleged problems and that the company settled the lawsuit to "put the matter behind us."

The San Francisco-based bank, which is the Atlanta area's second-largest bank in terms of total deposits, has been bruised lately in a number of legal skirmishes over its practices.

Last year, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other agencies alleged that the bank's employees broke the law by opening more than 2 million credit card, checking and savings accounts without customers' knowledge, in order to meet sales quotas and win bonuses.

Last month, Wells Fargo said it would refund customers after admitting that about 570,000 borrowers may have been wrongly pushed into auto insurance policies that they didn't need.

In the Atlanta whistleblower case, which affected home-owning veterans across the nation, Bibby and Donnelly alleged that Wells Fargo illegally collected lawyers' fees and closing costs from borrowers who refinanced their mortgages, even though such charges were barred under the Department of Veterans Affairs' refinancing program.

The bank hid the fees by mislabeling them, according to Atlanta law firm Butler Wooten & Peak, one of three firms that represented the whistleblowers.

The law firm said taxpayers also lost money because of the alleged fraud. Under the VA's loan guarantee program, the agency paid Wells Fargo a portion of any loans on which the borrowers defaulted, even though the fraudulent fees would have negated the government loan guarantees, the law firm said.

On Friday, Wells Fargo spokesman Crystal Drake said, "Today, we are settling this longstanding lawsuit, which did not seek any refunds for individual veterans, in order to put the matter behind us, and to focus on restoring trust in Wells Fargo."

She said the bank had previously made compensation available to affected veterans.

"More than six years ago," she said, "when questions about fees on certain [Veterans Affairs] refinance loans were raised, we resolved those concerns by improving our internal controls to ensure that veteran customers only pay appropriate fees on refinances."

Under the federal whistleblowers law, known as the Federal False Claims Act, people with knowledge of wrongdoing by a company can sue on behalf of the government and collect up to 30 percent of any resulting settlement or jury award.

"Ultimately the government decided not to participate" in the lawsuit, Butler Wooten said in a news release.

Jim Butler, with Butler Wooten, said the whistleblowers' share of the $270 million in total settlements with the seven lenders is still being negotiated with the federal Justice Department.

Business on 08/08/2017

Print Headline: Wells Fargo to pay $108M in suit over vets' home loans

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