The Justice Department made a long-overdue disclosure late Friday: Last year when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder boasted about the successes that a high-profile task force racked up pursuing mortgage fraud, the numbers he trumpeted were grossly overstated.
We're not talking small differences here. Originally the Justice Department said 530 people were charged criminally as part of a year-long initiative by the multi-agency Mortgage Fraud Working Group. It now says the actual figure was 107 -- or 80 percent less. Holder originally said the defendants had victimized more than 73,000 American homeowners. That number was revised to 17,185, while estimates of homeowner losses associated with the frauds dropped to $95 million from $1 billion.
The government restated the statistics because it got caught red-handed by a couple of nosy reporters. Last October, two days after Holder first publicized the numbers, Phil Mattingly and Tom Schoenberg of Bloomberg News broke the story that some of the cases included in the Justice Department's tally occurred before the initiative began in October 2011. At least one was filed more than two years before President Barack Obama took office.
After their initial story, I asked a Justice Department spokeswoman, Adora Andy, several times over the course of a month for a list of the people charged and their case details so I could look them up myself. She promised repeatedly to provide one, until she finally stopped responding to my requests.
Her e-mails to me were priceless. On Oct. 19, Andy said: “We’ll have a list to you -- it will take some time to pull it together.” On Oct. 26, she said: “You will get a list,” explaining that “this is a labor-intensive process.” On Nov. 5, she said: “It looks like we should have the list to you by the end of the week if not sooner.” On Nov. 13: “Hold tight. Finalizing things on this end. Should have something to you tonight.” Again, no list. “I assure you I’m working as hard as I can to get this to you along with the lead agency on this matter, FBI,” she said later that same day. “It’s just very laborious with so much going on and so little staff.”
My column about the Justice Department's refusal to come clean ran a few days later last fall. And it seems obvious now why I wasn't given the list. The government would have been handing me the proof that the numbers it was touting were wrong.
I recognize that the attorney general doesn't like it when he and his department are made the subjects of congressional hearings, but alas, congressional hearings need to be held yet again. And however much Eric Holder may resent having to explain why the Justice Department inflated statistics regarding the work of its mortgage fraud task force, Congress should not relent until a full explanation is given.
Oh, and incidentally, perhaps it is high time that President Obama ask Eric Holder to go spend more time with his family.