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F.B.I. Struggles to Handle Financial Fraud Cases

October 19, 2008-F.B.I. Struggles to Handle Financial Fraud Cases
 By ERIC LICHTBLAU, DAVID JOHNSTON and RON NIXON


WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation is struggling to find enough agents and resources to investigate criminal wrongdoing tied to the country’s economic crisis, according to current and former bureau officials.
 
 The bureau slashed its criminal investigative work force to expand its national security role after the Sept. 11 attacks, shifting more than 1,800 agents, or nearly one-third of all agents in criminal programs, to terrorism and intelligence duties. Current and former officials say the cutbacks have left the bureau seriously exposed in investigating areas like white-collar crime, which has taken on urgent importance in recent weeks because of the nation’s economic woes.
 
 The pressure on the F.B.I. has recently increased with the disclosure of criminal investigations into some of the largest players in the financial collapse, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The F.B.I. is planning to double the number of agents working financial crimes by reassigning several hundred agents amid a mood of national alarm. But some people inside and out of the Justice Department wonder where the agents will come from and whether they will be enough.
 
 So depleted are the ranks of the F.B.I.’s white-collar investigators that executives in the private sector say they have had difficulty attracting the bureau’s attention in cases involving possible frauds of millions of dollars.
 
 Since 2004, F.B.I. officials have warned that mortgage fraud posed a looming threat, and the bureau has repeatedly asked the Bush administration for more money to replenish the ranks of agents handling nonterrorism investigations, according to records and interviews. But each year, the requests have been denied, with no new agents approved for financial crimes, as policy makers focused on counterterrorism.
 
 According to previously undisclosed internal F.B.I. data, the cutbacks have been particularly severe in staffing for investigations into white-collar crimes like mortgage fraud, with a loss of 625 agents, or 36 percent of its 2001 levels.
 
 Over all, the number of criminal cases that the F.B.I. has brought to federal prosecutors — including a wide range of crimes like drug trafficking and violent crime — dropped 26 percent in the last seven years, going from 11,029 cases to 8,187, Justice Department data showed.
 
 “Clearly, we have felt the effects of moving resources from criminal investigations to national security,” said John Miller, an assistant director at the F.B.I. “In white-collar crime, while we initiated fewer cases over all, we targeted the areas where we could have the biggest impact. We focused on multimillion-dollar corporate fraud, where we could make arrests but also recover money for the fraud victims.”
 
 But Justice Department data, which include cases from other agencies, like the Secret Service and Postal Service, illustrate the impact. Prosecutions of frauds against financial institutions dropped 48 percent from 2000 to 2007, insurance fraud cases plummeted 75 percent, and securities fraud cases dropped 17 percent.
 
 Statistics from a research group at Syracuse University, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, using somewhat different methodology and looking only at the F.B.I., show an even steeper decline of nearly 50 percent in overall white-collar crime prosecutions in the same period.
 
 In addition to the investigations into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the F.B.I. is carrying out investigations of American International Group and Lehman Brothers, and it has opened more than 1,500 other mortgage-related investigations. Some F.B.I. officials worry privately that the trillion-dollar federal bailout of the financial industry may itself become a problem because it contains inadequate controls to deter fraud.
 
 No one has suggested that a quicker response would have averted the mortgage meltdown, but some officials said a faster reaction might have deterred more of the early schemes that seized on loose federal lending regulations.