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Wells Fargo faces new fines for mortgage ripoffs

May 8, 2012: 11:19 AM ET

Big bank says it may have as much as $1 billion in future legal costs.

FORTUNE -- Wells Fargo (WFC) isn't done paying for the mess it made in the mortgage market.

The Department of Justice appears to be close to bringing charges against Wells Fargo for violations of fair lending laws by its mortgage division in the run up to the housing bust. On Tuesday, Wells in a financial filing said the DOJ has told the bank that it has enough evidence to impose fines and bring civil charges. Once again, though, it appears no one will be headed to jail.

It's not clear what exact practice the DOJ is focusing in on. But in July, Wells Fargo paid $85 million to the Federal Reserve, the largest ever consumer protection fine in the central bank's history, to settle charges that it routinely put people in subprime loans that they either couldn't afford or didn't qualify for. The Fed said that the bank regularly pushed borrowers into high-cost subprime loans even when many of those customers would have qualified for traditional lower cost loans. The Fed also said that loan officers at Wells Fargo Financial, a subprime lending division of the bank that has since been shut down, would often falsify loan documents by inflating the incomes of borrowers to make it appear that the person would be able to afford a loan that they normally would not be able to qualify for. As is normally the practice, Wells settled the Fed's charges without admitting or denying it broke the law.

Wells Fargo didn't disclose how much it could be forced to pay the DOJ. But it did say that as of the end of the first quarter, the bank's potential legal future liability from unusual events was $1 billion. But that amount could cover a number of legal actions against the bank, not just the DOJ potential case. The Securities and Exchange Commission also appears to be close to charging the bank with violating securities law for hiding from investors that it knew the loans in the mortgage bonds it packaged and sold off to investors were riskier than the bank let on.

Wells says it plans to fight the potential DOJ charges. "We believe such claims should not be brought and continue seeking to demonstrate to the Department of Justice our compliance with fair lending laws," the bank wrote in its financial filing.

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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