FBI Uses Triage to Shift From Terror to Madoff, Subprime Probes

FBI Uses Triage to Shift From Terror to Madoff, Subprime Probes

By Patricia Hurtado


Dec. 22 (Bloomberg) -- The FBI has engaged in “triage,” taking agents off terror and other crimes to respond to a cascade of financial frauds such as the alleged Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, the head of the bureau’s New York criminal division said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation was forced to reallocate its manpower in New York to deal with recent frauds involving subprime mortgages, auction-rate securities and Madoff, who prosecutors said confessed this month to bilking investors out of $50 billion, FBI official David Cardona said in an interview.

“We have to work those cases which we think pose the greatest threat,” he said. “In this case, it’s a threat to the financial system and Wall Street.”

Special Agent Rachel Rojas, who once worked on tracing terrorist financing and al-Qaeda, now oversees 15 agents investigating mortgage fraud, said Cardona, a career agent with 23 years at the bureau. He declined to say how many other agents he has reassigned from anti-terror work to financial crimes.

Rojas heads one of two such mortgage-fraud squads that work with federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and Manhattan and other federal agencies, Cardona said. The U.S. Justice Department has created more than 40 mortgage-fraud task forces around the country this year.

Some of the FBI’s anti-terror experience has come in handy in investigating financial crime, Cardona said. Agents who were looking at bank-provided “suspicious activity reports” or SARS to track financing of terrorism are now doing so to spot mortgage or other financial fraud, he said.

Cardona’s office still handles multimillion dollar crimes, while referring smaller cases to state prosecutors or New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Cardona said.

Big Case Skipped

Some big cases are left to others. The FBI didn’t get involved in the investigation of Marc Dreier, a New York lawyer charged Dec. 8 with defrauding hedge funds out of more than $100 million. The Dreier case is being handled by investigators in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan.

“We don’t chase every case,” he said. “We don’t have the resources.”

To save agents time, the New York office has established Web sites and telephone hotlines for anonymous e-mail complaints and tips about mortgage fraud and the Madoff case, Cardona said.

Since he arrived from Miami in May, 2007, Cardona, 52, has overseen 400 agents who handle criminal cases. The New York office covers New York City, Long Island, Westchester and the five counties north of New York City. In addition to the main office, located just north of Wall Street, Cardona oversees five smaller satellite bureaus in Queens, White Plains, Long Island, John F. Kennedy International Airport and Goshen, New York.

Working With Others

Under Cardona, the FBI’s New York office has also forged new relationships with regulators and other federal agencies as a means of stretching manpower, he said. His agents are working with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration on mortgage fraud, he said.

“There is tons of stuff out there,” he said. “But we don’t have the resources to chase every collapsed hedge fund or collapsed financial institution.”

According to FBI statistics, the bureau’s budget in fiscal year 2008 was about $6.8 billion. There is no allocation for greater funding in the 2009 budget, he said.

“Realistically, in the era of limited resources, the FBI in New York will strive to use the necessary resources to address the criminal activities we feel are the most important,” he said.

Higher Standard

Criminal conduct involves a higher standard of proof to secure a conviction than the civil allegations the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission files, so it’s harder for the FBI to make cases, Cardona said. He cites the bank failure at Washington Mutual -- the largest in U.S. history -- as an example of obstacles the FBI faces in proving criminal wrongdoing.

“You can scratch your head and say, ‘Was there criminality that happened there?’” he said. “How can that collapse? Was that mismanagement? My standard is higher than that. I have to show criminal intent.”

The fall in the stock market this year didn’t create the recent surge in financial crimes, Cardona said.

“Mortgage fraud was perpetrated in good times, but no one saw it,” Cardona said. “In bad times, as we are in now, you see the manifestation of the crime problem. It was there, but like the tide going out, you just didn’t see until the margin calls started coming in.”

Madoff, Bear Stearns

The workload of Cardona’s agents this week ran the gamut from an indictment in gangland slayings to working with the SEC to Bernard Madoff’s alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme. Cardona declined to discuss any details about Madoff, who is under house arrest as the FBI investigates his confession.

Under Cardona, the office had some recent high-profile white-collar prosecutions this year: in June the FBI teamed up with the SEC and prosecutors in the office of Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Benton Campbell to bring indictments against two former Bear Stearns Cos. hedge fund managers in the first prosecution stemming from a U.S. government probe of last year’s mortgage market collapse.

In September, the same group brought indictments in a second case, against two former Credit Suisse traders accused of fraudulently selling corporate clients more than $1 billion of auction-rate securities linked to subprime mortgages. The defendants in both cases have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to be tried next year.

While counter-terrorism remains a top priority for the office since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cardona said he’s also cognizant of the threat white-collar fraud poses to the U.S. economy.

“In New York, No. 1, that is terror but also my area of responsibility is any crime that undermines the confidence in our financial-services industry.” He said. “To me that’s another top threat.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Patricia Hurtado in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn at pathurtado@bloomberg.net.