TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. Department of Justice announced a record settlement with Bank of America on Thursday that will provide $1 billion in relief for about 17,000 Floridians affected by the mortgage crisis.
But it's unclear who specifically will qualify or if the money ultimately will help those hurt most by the reckless conduct of Bank of America and the companies it bought, Countrywide Financial Corp. and Merrill Lynch.
Florida is sharing in what is overall the largest government settlement with a single company in U.S. history. The total $16.65 billion mortgage deal includes a $9.65 billion cash penalty and $7 billion in relief to homeowners and blighted areas ravaged by abandoned homes.
"This historic resolution goes far beyond the 'cost of doing business,' " U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a prepared statement. "This is appropriate given the size and scope of the issue."
The $9.65 billion cash penalty will be paid to settle the multitude of federal and state civil claims. Six states that assisted in the Department of Justice case will also collect: $300 million for California, $45 million for Delaware, $200 million for Illinois, $23 million for Kentucky, $75 million for Maryland and $300 million for New York.
Florida was not party to the settlement. Unlike other states, Florida's state pension fund was not compromised by the mortgage crisis, said Jenn Meale, spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
"We did not intervene directly in the investigation because our due diligence with the Florida pension fund showed that our fund was not harmed by the particular mortgage-backed securities at issue, unlike the other states' pensions," Meale said in an email.
Florida's $1 billion comes out of the remaining $7 billion, distributed nationwide. But it will be weeks until it's known which Floridians and which blighted areas will be eligible for aid out of the estimated $1 billion, according to Bondi's office, which has had discussions with Bank of America and the Department of Justice.
Nor will distressed homeowners be receiving checks in the mail. Relief will come in forms that include reductions to the principle portion of their mortgage and other loan modifications aimed at reducing the number of homeowners who are underwater (owing more than what their house is worth) on their mortgages, according to the Department of Justice. Assistance also will come in the form of new loans for borrowers deemed "credit worthy," donations to communities to demolish buildings in blighted areas and financing for affordable rental housing.
As part of the settlement, Bank of America acknowledged that it sold billions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities without telling investors just how risky they were. It also admitted it misled Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration about the quality of the loans.
In a statement made Thursday morning, Bank of America said the claims relate primarily to misconduct by Countrywide and Merrill Lynch before they were bought.
"We believe this settlement, which resolves significant remaining mortgage-related exposures, is in the best interests of our shareholders, and allows us to continue to focus on the future," said Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan.
The settlement is expected to reduce the company's pretax earnings in the third quarter by $5.3 billion, or 43 cents a share after tax. It doesn't cover potential criminal claims.
It's the latest settlement with a bank blamed for reckless mortgage lending announced by President Barack Obama's administration, which has been dogged by criticism that it hasn't held Wall Street accountable for the financial crisis. Last month, Citigroup reached a $7 billion settlement based on its role in the 2008 crash. In October, JPMorgan Chase reached a $13 billion settlement over the bank's mortgage practices.
Thursday's announcement marks the second time that Bank of America has reached a settlement with the Department of Justice. In 2012, it was among the nation's five largest banks that agreed to pay $25 billion in penalties over their conduct in the mortgage business. Bondi's office helped negotiate that deal, which resulted in Florida receiving about $9.2 billion in relief for about 120,000 homeowners.
But much of that went toward short sales or second-mortgage forgiveness, relief that doesn't help keep struggling borrowers in their homes, reports show. Nearly $3.5 billion, more than a third of what Florida received in the 2012 settlement, went toward clearing away second-loan debt.
Although Thursday's announcement and the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement tout large penalties, some experts say consumers don't get much benefit.
"It's all accounting tricks," said Matt Weidner, a St. Petersburg consumer-protection attorney who handles foreclosures. "Rather than provide real relief to consumers, these settlements provide tax relief to the banks."
While banks get to claim a tax deduction, the consumers who receive loan forgiveness get hit later with a tax penalty, Weidner said. Thursday's settlement addresses part of this in providing $490 million in tax relief to consumers facing that penalty.
But the banks are making out in deals that don't come close to making the consumer whole, Weidner said.
"There is nothing we should be cheering about because these agreements are so small for the damage they caused," he said.
Contact Michael VanSickler at email@example.com. Follow @mikevansickler