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S&P says US government's lawsuit is 'retaliation'

S&P says US government's lawsuit is 'retaliation'

September 3rd, 2013 by SARAH SKIDMORE SELL, AP Business Writer in News

Standard & Poor's says the U.S. government sued the rating agency as "retaliation" for its downgrade of the country's credit rating.

The Department of Justice filed civil charges against the rating agency in February, claiming that S&P refused to warn investors that the housing market was collapsing because it would be bad for business. It also says S&P knowingly inflated ratings of risky mortgage investments that helped trigger an economic crisis. And that S&P gave high marks to the investments because it wanted to earn more business from the banks that issued them.

The government is seeking $5 billion in penalties.

S&P, a unit of McGraw Hill Cos., has repeatedly denied the claims.

The rating agency said in a court filing Tuesday that its opinions were independent and based on a good-faith assessment of the performance of residential mortgages during a tumultuous time in the market.

It also said that, like nearly everyone else at the time, S&P did not anticipate the scope or impact of the collapse of the housing market on the economy as a whole.

S&P says that it is being sued in retaliation for a downgrade of the United States' top-tier credit rating in 2011.

The rating agency downgraded the U.S. government's long-term credit rating one notch to "AA+" following a standoff in Congress over whether to raise America's borrowing limit. The agency was concerned that the country's leaders weren't addressing the federal debt burden.

It was a historic move that sent the stock market plunging and rattled consumer and business confidence. Previously, the U.S. government had always received a "AAA" rating, reserved for the most credit-worthy borrowers.

S&P said in court documents that it was exercising its right to free speech with the downgrade and that its concerns echoed those of other rating agencies.

"Only S&P Ratings downgraded the United States and only S&P Ratings has been sued by the United States," it said in the court filing.

A representative for the Justice Department did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

S&P wants the lawsuit dismissed with prejudice, meaning that it cannot be brought again.

Standard & Poor's Ratings Services reaffirmed the country's "AA+" rating in June and upgraded its outlook to "Stable" from "Negative" on some easing of Washington's political gridlock, a recovering U.S. economy and stronger government finances.

The improved outlook means it's less likely to downgrade the U.S. debt in the near future.

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AP Business Writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report from Washington D.C.