Are Working Groups Working?

Standing in two rows, on marked positions and before dozens of reporters, ten federal and state law enforcement and administration officials announced the Friday morning arrival of the Residential Mortgage Backed Securities Working Group.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the group will “streamline and strengthen current and future efforts to identify, investigate, and prosecute instances of wrongdoing in the packaging, selling, and valuing of residential mortgage-backed securities.”

Holder also said the Department of Justice issued civil subpoenas to 11 financial institutions regarding mortgage-backed securities, warning that “you can expect more to follow."

Given officials’ current efforts, some reporters questioned why the administration was announcing such a group three years after the financial crisis. Holder said “over the past three years, we have been aggressively investigating the causes of the financial crisis.”  Robert Khuzami, the director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said there is a “long history of successful collaboration with our law enforcement colleagues.”

Along with existing agency coordination and investigations, the administration has already created the Mortgage Fraud Working Group. Asked why another working group is necessary to investigate criminal activity years after the mortgage market collapsed, Holder responded that “this effort we are talking about not only involves new agents, resources that I've talked about, new attorneys from the federal government, but we're also bringing in people from the state. It's a very significant thing that we will have the ability to tap resources from the state level as well as the federal level.”

Holder said the government will soon dedicate to the group 45 attorneys, investigators, analysts and support staff from the Department of Justice and 10 FBI agents and analysts.

Both the Residential Mortgage Backed Securities Working Group and the Mortgage Fraud Working operate under the jurisdiction of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, created in 2009, to “combat fraud.”

In June, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he was concerned the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force is “nothing more than a press release collection agency utilized by the Justice Department to collect examples of investigations and prosecutions that would otherwise have been brought.”

An administration report said the task force has produced tangible results.  Its latest annual report, for 2010, cites the Mortgage Fraud Working Group as spearheading an operation that brought convictions and sentences to more than 1,500 criminal defendants.  It said its actions produced 400 civil fraud defendants, while recovering more than $200 million in civil penalties.

However, the results of a working group designed to monitor oil and gas markets for illegal activity are far more difficult to quantify.

A recent search for the “Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group” on the task force’s website produced only three results.  The site search returned no enforcement actions; only releases announcing the creation of the task force.

Launched in April 2011, the gas prices group involves “representatives from the Department of Justice, the National Association of Attorneys General, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as the Departments of Agriculture and Energy,” according to the press release.

FOX Business requested an update of the group’s work from the eight agencies involved: two never returned calls, one questioned whether they were even part of the task force, one referred to the Department of Energy, and Energy and one other department said to ask Justice.

A Justice Department official responded by saying, "The Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group members share information, best practices and work together to protect Americans from any fraud or manipulation in the oil and gasoline markets. The working group members will continue to monitor the situation, meet as necessary and, as always, if we find any evidence of criminal behavior or other misconduct we will respond immediately."

"As you know, the FTC launched an investigation in June 2011 into whether there was any antitrust violation or market manipulation by refiners, oil producers, transporters, marketers, physical or financial traders, or others. That investigation is harnessing the resources of the Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group," the official added.