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FBI probing bailout firms


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FBI probing bailout firms

Investigators start search for fraud at Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers and AIG, sources say.


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI is investigating Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers and AIG - and their executives - as part of a broad look into possible mortgage fraud, sources with knowledge of the investigation told CNN Tuesday.


The sources would not speak on the record because the investigation is ongoing.


FBI spokesman Special Agent Richard Kelko had no comment on that information, but said that 26 firms were currently under investigation as part of the bureau's mortgage fraud inquiry.


Earlier this month, FBI director Robert Mueller told Congress that 1,400 individual real estate lenders, brokers and appraisers were now under investigation in addition to two dozen corporations.


"The FBI currently has 26 pending corporate fraud investigations involving subprime lenders," Kelko said. "As we have seen, this number can fluctuate over time, however we do not discuss which companies may or may not be the subject of an investigation."


Previously, CNN has reported that Countrywide is part of the investigation.


The sources said the probes of Fannie (FNM, Fortune 500), Freddie (FRE, Fortune 500), Lehman (LEHMQ) and AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) are believed to be in the early stages. One source said the government would be "remiss" if it didn't look into what happened at these companies because of the financial problems they are involved in and the actions of individuals running them.


The United States is in the midst of a spiraling economic crisis fueled largely by the housing market. Earlier this decade, mortgage lenders relaxed restrictions on obtaining mortgages as home prices soared about 85 percent from 1996 through 2006 in inflation-adjusted dollars, creating a bubble. Then the bubble popped, and lenders - as well as mortgagees - took the hit.


Last week, mortgage insurer AIG narrowly avoided bankruptcy when the federal government took 80 percent of its equity in exchange for an $85 billion loan from the Federal Reserve while Lehman filed the largest bankruptcy in American history. Earlier this month, the government took over mortgage giants Fannie and Freddie.


Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) bought Countrywide in July. Other bank failures and takeovers have led to the Bush administration's current proposal to spend $700 billion to shore up the financial markets. The proposal is under consideration by Congress, where lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have balked at the proposal's lack of oversight provisions, among other issues.


As the mortgage industry began to unravel, the FBI, with assistance from the IRS, launched a broad investigation into mortgage fraud. In June, its Mortgage Fraud Task Force arrested more than 400 mortgage brokers, lenders, appraisers and other industry insiders who, the it said, were responsible for more than $1 billion in losses.


Last month, a Mortgage Asset Research Institute (MARI) study found that the number of fraudulent loans issued during the first three months of 2008 skyrocketed 42 percent compared with the same period in 2007.

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