Nightly News   |  February 05, 2013

DOJ sues Standard & Poor’s

The Justice Department is suing the world’s largest credit agency, S&P, claiming that the company gave its highest rating to financial packages made up of mortgages even though the company knew the investments were risky.  NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>>> on the domestic front, ever since the housing crisis that started the feltdown of the u.s. economy , a lot of americans have been waiting to see who would be held accountable. who would pay a price for what was done to our economy? today, the justice department announced it's going after one player, the huge credit rating agency s&p. it's a big case that could result in a big fine, but some are also wondering if revenge isn't a motive here, because the s&p, after all, lowered the u.s. credit rating after the fiscal cliff debacle. our report on all of it tonight from our justice correspondent, pete williams .

>> for $16,000 --

>> reporter: the justice department and a dozen states today accused the world's largest credit rating agency , standard & poor 's, or s&p, of endorsing investments that it knew were shaky, playing a direct role in the housing collapse.

>> s&p was a trigger for the destruction of our economy. while big banks and lenders built mortgage-backed funds it was s&p's faulty ratings that detonated them.

>> reporter: the lawsuits claim that for at least three years s&p gave its highest rating, aaa to financial packages issued by banks and made up of mortgages, even though the company knew the investments were risky. s&p did it, the government claims, to please the very banks that were paying it to rate their investments.

>> we have evidence that s&p not only knew this is what the banks were doing, s&p helped them to do it.

>> reporter: the company says its ratings were honest calls, based on assessments of the housing market at the time, similar to what the man who was then treasury secretary was saying.

>> the ratings at issue here were virtually identical with those of not only other rating agencies , but with the views expressed by secretary paulsen.

>> reporter: two years ago, s&p downgraded the u.s. credit rating , a blow to the recovery.

>> if we're going to be downgraded by s&p --

>> reporter: attorney general eric holder says that had nothing to do with today's move.

>> they are not in any way connected.

>> reporter: but a legal expert says that issue hangs over this case.

>> obviously the doj will have to explain, assuming that this even gets to a jury, why it is pursuing s&p and not the other credit rating agencies .

>> reporter: the justice department is not charging s&p with a crime, but could seek a huge fine, up to $5 billion. pete williams , nbc news, washington.