* Successor to be hired in coming weeks
* Questions raised about task force effectiveness
By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON, July 15 (Reuters) - The head of President Barack Obama’s task force to better combat fraud in the wake of the financial meltdown, Robb Adkins, is stepping down from his position on Friday, the Justice Department said.
Adkins, 40, leaves as executive director of the Financial Fraud Task Force after about 17 months in the job. He will join a private firm in California where he was a federal prosecutor before taking the task force position, the agency said.
The task force was set up in late 2009 by Obama in a bid to focus more on mortgage and financial fraud that emanated from the housing market implosion, drawing on resources from various federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expanded the group’s mandate earlier this year to include examining possible fraud as a result of speculation in the oil and gas markets as fuel prices soared.
“He has helped in the administration’s efforts to launch the largest coalition of federal, state and local enforcement and regulatory authorities ever brought to bear to combat a wide range of fraud,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a statement.
“We will continue to focus our efforts on this important work,” Cole said. A replacement is expected to be hired in the coming weeks, according to Justice Department spokeswoman Alisa Finelli.
Adkins said in a statement he and his family wanted to return home to California.
His departure comes as the administration faces criticism from some lawmakers concerned that there have been few major cases that have penetrated the executive suites of the largest financial institutions in the wake of the financial meltdown.
One of the biggest cases so far was a $3 billion fraud case involving the privately held mortgage firm Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Corp. The chairman of the firm, Lee Farkas, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after being convicted on 14 counts of conspiracy, wire, securities and bank fraud.
Earlier this year, federal prosecutors dropped a probe of former Countrywide Financial Chief Executive Angelo Mozilo after determining his actions in the mortgage morass did not amount to criminal wrongdoing.
Elizabeth Warren, who is setting up the administration’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said on Thursday that “there’s a real question about whether there’s been adequate investigation” into financial institutions’ actions.
The task force’s annual report said that with the help of its work, prosecutors had more than doubled the number of mortgage fraud cases charged during fiscal 2010, going to 656 from 267 during the prior year.
The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee last month also questioned what the task force had accomplished or whether it was merely window-dressing for the White House.
“All too often here in Washington, task forces and commissions are created to make people think that they’re doing more than they actually are,” Charles Grassley said at a June 30 hearing about the task force. “I’m concerned that the task force may in fact be too broad in its missions.”
Adkins responded to Grassley by acknowledging the group’s breadth but also said that was a strength.
“One of the great success stories of the task force has been bringing together some of these other entities that previously had not been as coordinated or brought into the fight in mortgage fraud,” he told Grassley. (Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Matthew Lewis)