U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission building in Washington. (Photo: New York Law Journal) September 4, 2014. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

Moody’s Investors Service Inc., one of the nation’s largest credit ratings agencies, agreed to pay a total of $16.25 million in penalties to settle charges involving internal control failures and failing to clearly define and consistently apply credit rating symbols, according to an announcement from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This marks the first time the SEC has filed an enforcement action involving rating symbol deficiencies.

Moody’s agreed to pay $15 million to settle charges of internal controls failures involving models it used in rating U.S. residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and will retain an independent consultant to assess and improve its internal controls. Moody’s separately agreed to pay $1.25 million and to review its policies, procedures and internal controls regarding rating symbols. Moody’s did not admit or deny the SEC’s charges.

“Rating agencies play a critical role in our capital markets and need to have effective controls over their rating processes,” said Antonia Chion, associate director of the SEC’s division of enforcement, in a statement. “As our order notes, the SEC put Moody’s on notice about its internal controls obligations yet it did not develop an effective process to ensure the accuracy of the models it relied upon when rating residential mortgage-backed securities.”

According to the SEC’s order in the internal controls proceeding, Moody’s failed to establish and document an effective internal control structure as to models that Moody’s had outsourced from a corporate affiliate and used in rating RMBS from 2010 through 2013.

Moreover, the SEC said that Moody’s failed to maintain and enforce existing internal controls that should have been applied to the models.

Ultimately, Moody’s corrected more than 650 RMBS ratings with a notional value exceeding $49 billion, due, in part, to errors in the models. Also, in 54 instances, Moody’s failed to document its rationale for issuing final RMBS ratings that deviated materially from model-implied ratings, the SEC said.

According to the SEC’s order relating to rating symbols, Moody’s failed to clearly define the meaning of ratings symbols assigned to 26 ratings of securities known as “combo notes” with a total notional value of about $2 billion.

Combo notes are a type of re-securitization of collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), which are structured finance vehicles backed by portfolios of corporate loans

Moody’s also failed to assign ratings to “combo notes” in a manner that was consistent with other types of securities that used the same rating symbols, according to the SEC.

The ratings agency didn’t respond to a request for comment.

While this is the SEC’s first time enforcing the Universal Ratings Symbol requirement, the regulator will continue to pursue failures that render rating symbols “unclear or inconsistent,” according to Reid Muoio, deputy chief of the enforcement division’s complex financial instruments unit.

“Investors expect and the law requires that symbols used by rating agencies be clearly defined and consistently applied,” Muoio said in a statement.