Updated 4:46 p.m.
Over the last year, federal authorities charged more than 500 defendants for alleged mortgage-related fraud crimes against tens of thousands of homeowners across the country. Federal officials today dubbed the enforcement effort the "Distressed Homeowner Initiative."
Touting the law enforcement action today at a press conference at the U.S. Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said he didn't recall any public announcement of the initiative a year ago. Still, he said law enforcement authorities have been working on it for a year as part of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. DOJ officials called program the "first-ever nationwide effort to target fraud schemes that prey upon suffering homeowners."
The absence of fanfare at the start of a nationwide law enforcement action fueled speculation among reporters today that the press conference touting statistics qualified more as a campaign-related event for President Barack Obama than the disclosure of a timely development in the ongoing fight against financial fraud. Holder and other officials rejected the premise.
"The notion that this is a campaign event—I mean, there's a logical break," Holder said, responding to a reporter's question. "This thing started with the fiscal year last year and ends with fiscal year September 30. We're now reporting on what happened over the past fiscal year. That's what this was about." Holder's prepared speech is here.
Kevin Perkins, the FBI associate deputy director, was among the speakers at the press conference. Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, and Shaun Donovan, the secretary of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, also delivered prepared remarks today at the event at Main Justice. (More here on three suits the FTC announced today over allegations of fraudsters taking on struggling homeowners.)
Perkins noted that search warrants were executed today in spots around the country. He didn't immediately know how many arrests were made in recent days. Victim losses were estimated at more than $1 billion.
"It's something that we've worked on for a number of months," Perkins said. "It's certainly not classified information."
Perkins touted FBI wiretaps and undercover work as part of the enforcement action. "We want the people that perpetrate these crimes to know that when they're out there dealing with individuals, they may be actually dealing with law enforcement," he said. "I have no problem with them knowing that."
In prepared remarks, Holder said the Distressed Homeowner Initiative "represents an historic, government-wide commitment to eradicating mortgage fraud and related offenses."
Holder addressed other topics today, including the ongoing investigation of the attack in September in Libya that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
"I will also express a cautionary note to those who are legitimately looking at the circumstances under which the attack occurred to not do anything that might compromise our investigative efforts," Holder said. He didn't specify to whom that caution was directed, however.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, and fellow conservatives have criticized Obama over his administration's response to the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last month.
Critics have blasted Obama over whether there was sufficient security at the consulate and over statements officials made in the immediate aftermath of the attack.