NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The Justice Department announced a $335 million settlement with Bank of America Wednesday over discriminatory lending practice at Countrywide Financial.
Attorney General Eric Holder said a federal probe found discrimination against at least 200,000 qualified African American and Latino borrowers from 2004 to 2008, during the height of the housing market boom. He said that minority borrowers who qualified for prime loans were steered into higher-interest-rate subprime loans.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for Justice's civil rights division, said most of the victims of the discrimination were not aware that they were improperly steered to the riskier mortgages.
"They were thrilled to have gotten the loan and to have realized the American dream," Perez said. "They had no idea they could have and should have gotten a better deal. This is discrimination with a smile."
He said the discriminatory practices went to the heart of the problem with subprime mortgages and the financial market meltdown they helped set in motion. These borrowers paid on average tens of thousands of dollars more in interest and were subject to pre-payment penalties.
He said while the discriminatory loans happened across the country, about 30% of the victims were in California, where Countrywide was based. About two-thirds of the victims were Latino.
"Countrywide's actions contributed to the housing crisis, hurt entire communities, and denied families access to the American dream," Perez said.
He said that money from the settlement will go to borrowers who were identified by the probe. Details about how they will be compensated are not yet available.
Bank of America purchased leading mortgage lender Countrywide in 2008 for $4 billion, in a deal that made the bank the nation's No. 1 home loan lender at the time. The deal closed in July ahead of the meltdown in financial markets that fall.
Bank of America issued a statement saying the discriminatory practices took place at Countrywide before it was purchased by Bank of America.
"Bank of America's practices are not at issue," said spokesman Dan Frahm. "We are committed to fair and equal treatment of all our customers. We discontinued Countrywide products and practices that were not in keeping with our commitment."
National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino civil rights group, praised Bank of America for putting a halt to Countrywide's discriminatory practices after it took over the company.
But NCLR said that Countrywide was not the only one taking advantage of minority borrowers during the housing boom.
"Without a doubt, Countrywide and other predatory lenders share a great deal of the blame for the financial meltdown and the ensuing foreclosure crisis," said Janis Bowdler, director of the wealth-building policy project at NCLR.
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