Was Countrywide’s “Puffery” Criminal?

Floyd Norris in the NYT points out something worth watching: a lawsuit against Countrywide Financial that’s been allowed to go forward by a federal judge in California.

The Countrywide complaint, she wrote, presents “the extraordinary case where a company’s essential operations are so at odds with the company’s public statements that many statements that would not be actionable in the vast majority of cases” can form the basis of a complaint.

“For example,” she wrote, “descriptions such as ‘high quality’ are generally not actionable; they are vague and subjective puffery not capable of being material as a matter of law.”

But in this case, she said, the complaint claims “Countrywide’s practices so departed from its public statements that even ‘high quality’ became materially false and misleading; and that to apply the puffery rule to such allegations would deny that ‘high quality’ has any meaning.”

Norris connects this case to the rising public anger (I say you ain’t seen nothin’ yet) over the crisis and says it could provide a template for prosecuting others in the financial industry if that anger boils over:

The executives may not have understood how badly they were hurting their banks, but perhaps it can be proved they knew, or should have known, that claims of disciplined and high-quality lending practices were woefully wrong.

That seems indisputable.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.