Government Sues Biggest U.S. Banks Over Mortgage-Backed Investments

In a sweeping move that opens a new front on the housing crisis, the U.S. government on Friday sued 17 financial firms, including the largest U.S. banks, for selling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac billions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities that turned toxic when the housing market collapsed.

Among the 17 targeted by the lawsuits were Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JP Morgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs.

The lawsuits were filed Friday by the Federal Housing Finance Agency which oversees Fannie and Freddie, the two agencies that buy mortgages loans and mortgage securities issued by the lenders.

The total price tag for the securities bought by Fannie and Freddie affected by the lawsuits: $196 billion.

The government didn't provide a dollar amount of how much it seeks in damages. It said that it wants to have the purchases of the securities canceled, be compensated for lost principal and interest payments as well as attorney fees and costs. The lawsuits allege the financial firms broke federal and state laws with the sales.

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Home mortgage-backed securities were risky investments that collapsed after the real-estate bust and helped fuel the financial crisis in late 2008.

But with so much blame to go around for that crisis, why is the administration going after the banks?

"Remember why Willy Sutton used to hold up the banks? Because that's where the money was," said David John, a senior research fellow in retirement security and financial institutions at the Heritage Foundation.

"So what they're looking to do right now is to recover a certain amount of the losses," he told Fox News.

But John warned all the pressure on the banks could make lending even tighter, which would prolong the housing crisis and make the recovery a steeper climb.

"We are in perilous economic waters at this point," he said. "You're adding another level of insecurity to the banking sector -- that's just going to make people even more nervous."

In the lawsuits that were filed in federal or state court in New York and the federal court in Connecticut, the government said the securities were sold with registration statements and prospectuses that "contained materially false or misleading statements and omissions."

The Federal agency said the banks and mortgage lenders also falsely represented that the mortgage loans in the securities complied with underwriting guidelines and standards. They also included representations "that significantly overstated the ability of the borrower to repay their mortgage loans."

The 17 institutions are Ally Financial Inc., formerly known GMAC LLC, Bank of America Corp., Barclays Bank PLC, Citigroup Inc., Countrywide Financial Corp., Credit Suisse Holdings Inc., Deutsche Bank AG, First Horizon National Corp., General Electric Co., Goldman Sachs & Co., HSBC North America Holdings Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Merrill Lynch & Co. and its unit First Franklin Financial Corp., Morgan Stanley, Nomura Holding America Inc., The Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC, and Societe Generale.

Fox News Jim Angle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.