Around the Web: Outsourcing Foreclosure `Catastrophe'

You wouldn’t think the leader of the free world would be so willing to outsource a massive foreclosure scandal to state attorneys general, judges, regulators and the big banks that created the mess in the first place.

But that’s exactly what President Obama has done, standing aside while 50 state attorneys general launch investigations, while banks implement their own voluntary moratoriums, announcing they have halted some, but not all, foreclosure proceedings.

A growing number of politicians, civil rights and consumer groups and labor unions have called for a nationwide moratorium amid allegations that banks violated foreclosure laws by using sloppy, false or fraudulent paperwork to kick people out of their homes.

But President Obama doesn’t like the idea of a foreclosure moratorium, which he fears could put the kibosh on his fragile recovery.

Where is the administration’s effort at finding some other creative solution to the mess the big banks have created across the country? What we find instead are regulators that have been ignoring clear warning signs about the banks’ troubled foreclosure crisis.

The federal response so far has been limp at best: a Justice Department inquiry (short of an investigation) and a call by a federal regulator for the banks to voluntarily verify that their foreclosure paperwork is in order.

Recent press reports call into question whether the banks have even implemented the foreclosure moratoriums they promised. Meanwhile more banks, this time Wells-Fargo, acknowledge they have also violated the laws governing foreclosure by submitting unverified documents to take people’s homes. Isn’t there an election coming up where the Democrats are fighting to maintain control of Congress, with their entire agenda at stake? Isn’t there already one party that has expertly cornered the whole do-nothing stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach to unemployment and foreclosure? Doesn’t the president know how awful it looks to most people to have the bailed-out banks getting away with yet more hanky-panky?

You would think the president would want to appear more engaged in this issue that’s so close to the heart of our on-going economic troubles.

His treasury secretary fears “unintended consequences". Apparently the administration would prefer the banks continue to foreclose on people using phony documents. While Wall Street predicts a catastrophe if a moratorium is implemented. If the big bankers want to know who created a catastrophe that will cost them billions, they only need to look in the mirror.

Don't Foreclose on the Rule of Law

As the foreclosure process implodes in the U.S., the big banks and their defenders are scrambling to defend the mess they’ve created, dismissing serious legal issues as mere technicalities.

I covered courts as a reporter for years and I learned something about legal technicalities.

What I learned was that whenever some lawyer started dismissing some legal rule as a technicality, they were about to try to heave some of their adversary’s fundamental rights out the window.

In the foreclosure mess, those adversaries would be the banks’ former business partners, their borrowers, the people they loaned money to.

Now the big banks are trying to dismiss the rules that govern the foreclosure process as legal technicalities.

Take for example the Florida case in which a judge ruled earlier this year that a document that was supposed to show that U.S. Bank owned the mortgage in December 2007 wasn’t created until the following year. The document filed by the bank, the judge wrote in March, “did not exist at the time of the filing of this action…was subsequently created and…fraudulently backdated, in a purposeful, intentional effort to mislead.” She dismissed the bank’s case.

The bank’s lawyer blamed carelessness. He explained: “Judges get in a whirl about technicalities because the courts are overwhelmed....The merits of the cases are the same: people aren't paying their mortgages.”

One of the other things I learned was that judges tended to use very precise wording in their rulings. If the judge in the Florida case was feeling overwhelmed, she didn’t mention it. What she did say what that somebody had fraudulently created a document.

That’s not a technicality. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve been making your mortgage payment or not. Banks are not allowed to foreclose on a home using fraudulent documents. Period.

One of the aspects of the rule of law is that it applies the same to everybody: a bank isn’t allowed to submit fraudulent documents to a court any more than a pauper is. That’s not a technicality. That’s the rule of law.

In the most recent brouhaha, a number of big banks, Ally, PNC Financial, J.P. Morgan Chase and Co and Bank of America, have acknowledged that their officials didn’t actually read key foreclosure documents before submitting them in court. Some documents appeared to have been forged; others appeared to contain false information.

A number of state attorney generals across the country have threatened legal action against the banks. Faced with a firestorm, some banks have voluntarily halted foreclosures in 23 states: the ones where judges oversee foreclosures. Only Bank of America has halted foreclosures in all 50 states.

One of the first banks to acknowledge that its own paperwork hadn’t been properly reviewed was Ally Bank, formerly known as GMAC. The latest controversy wasn’t the first time GMAC’s legal work on foreclosures came under scrutiny.

In 2006, Bloomberg News reported, another Florida judge sanctioned the company, finding that it submitted false affidavits to the court in a foreclosure case. The judge ordered GMAC to submit an explanation, certify that its policies had changed and pay the opposing party’s legal costs of more than $8,000.

As a result, GMAC’s legal department issued a statement that told employees “not to sign verifications on court pleading documents unless you have independently reviewed and checked the facts.”

The new policy, the Journal reported, was distributed in June 2006; it also stated in italics and boldface that GMAC employees should sign documents only in the presence of a notary. GMAC told the court  that the policies were “being corrected.”

Three and a half years later, a GMAC employee said in a deposition that his team of 13 people signed about 10,000 documents a month without reading them.

Deborah Rhode, a Stanford Law professor, told Bloomberg, “It’s not ‘technical’ when people attest under oath to knowledge they don’t have, and it doesn’t matter that in fact there isn’t actual error or discrepancy,” Rhode said. “Any court would take this very seriously.”

What Would Pecora Do?

There have been lots of positive comparisons between Phil Angelides and Ferdinand Pecora, who led an earlier investigation of Wall Street excesses that led to the Great Depression.

Pecora was a no-holds barred former prosecutor who ran his hearings with meticulous preparation and theatrical flair, and his work galvanized public support for widespread reforms.

Some have been impressed by Angelides’ reputation as a reformer from his days as California treasurer, when he tried to use the power of the state’s investments for socially worthy causes and implemented some protections for shareholders. Angelides was widely praised after public hearings earlier this year for his understanding of high finance and his scolding of the head of Goldman-Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, comparing him to a used –car dealer.

I’ve been less impressed by Angelides, who doesn’t seem to have a grasp on the opportunity he has to marshal support for real financial reform. And he’s too cozy with a Democratic leadership that’s been soft on Wall Street in the wake of the financial meltdown.

I’m also suspicious of Angelides, the politician and former real estate developer who unsuccessfully ran for governor against Arnold Schwarzenegger, because of his close ties to the Democratic Party elite. In addition, I’m wary of the impact of Angelides' main job running a coalition promoting green technologies. That’s certainly a laudable goal, but Angelides and his Apollo Alliance aren’t going to get very far without lobbying the Obama administration and the Democrats, who would not be happy with a hard-hitting report.
Whatever drama Angelides manages to muster at any given moment, I’m concerned that his multiple roles and background will cause him to soft-pedal his investigation. Those concerns were only heightened after Angelides surfaced as part of a curious SEC report last week that cautions firms about “pay to play” in the state investment business.
According to the SEC, when Angelides was running for treasurer in 2002 he hit up a top J.P. Morgan official to co-chair a fundraising event. It wasn’t just an honorary position. The price tag for the co-chairmanship? $10,000.

According to the report, the official didn’t co-chair the event but donated $1,000 to Angelides” campaign personally ­– and helped raise $8,000 more. In asking other J.P. Morgan brass to contribute to Angelides, the official noted that that the state of California was an important client for the firm.

Just how important became clear in the next couple of years, when J.P Morgan received about $37 million in fees from the state on more than 50 bond offerings totaling $15.8 billion – overseen by Angelides as state treasurer.

In the SEC’s curious take on the matter, neither Angelides nor J.P. Morgan is accused of doing anything improper.  Angelides isn’t even mentioned by name. The agency merely uses its report to caution finance officials about not running afoul of SEC regulations.

OK, so the SEC doesn’t think Angelides did anything wrong soliciting funds from J.P. Morgan and then giving them the state's business. But the report serves as a bitter reminder that those who we’re counting on to get to the bottom of the financial meltdown are steeped in the toxic brew of cash and politics that has seeped into the core of our government.

I hope I’m proven wrong about Angelides; that his intimacy with this unseemly world has left him with a sense of sustained outrage and not empathy for it.  But it will take more than a few zingers to convince me. I mean, let’s be serious. Would Ferdinand Pecora have solicited money from J.P Morgan? Not much chance. After Pecora grilled the son of the legendary banker, J.P. Morgan, Jr. described the investigator as having “the manners of an assistant prosecuting attorney who is trying to convict a horse thief.”

It's Alive!

Wall Street has weighed in with powerful evidence that the United States Supreme Court was right when it concluded a few weeks ago that corporations are the same as human beings. Turns out, Wall Street has feelings, and they are hurt.

Wall Street is so “irked” at President Obama and the Democratic Party that it is rebuffing their requests for political money, according to the New York Times. “[I]t doesn’t feel good,” when Obama talks about Wall Street greed, complained a Morgan Stanley executive. “The expectation in Washington is that ‘We can kick you around, and you are still going to give us money,’” whined a major Wall Street executive. He warned: “‘We are not going to play that game anymore.’”

That’s just a bluff, of course, because Wall Street has been playing the Washington money game for decades – in fact, as we documented in our two hundred page report (PDF) last year, the nation’s economy is in the toilet now because between 1998 and 2008, Wall Street spent $5 billion on Washington, and Washington, without even a hint of partisanship, rolled over – deregulating the industry and encouraging the orgy of speculation that led to the crash.

The Supreme Court’s decision last month in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case guarantees that big business will always be happy by solidifying corporate control over the nation’s legislative process. Discarding one hundred years of previous decisions, the court held that, under the First Amendment, when corporations spend money in the political process, it’s the same as when people make speeches.

This is a travesty. The practical effect of the decision is to accord huge multinational corporations the power to nullify the First Amendment rights of individual Americans. While you and I are “free” to drag a soapbox on to a street corner and  proclaim to our heart’s content, credit card companies, hedge funds, insurance companies are now “free” to unleash tens of millions of dollars from their corporate treasuries in an attempt to fix the outcome of any political debate in their favor. Sometimes that will backfire, as it did when insurance companies spent $80 million trying to persuade voters to defeat Proposition 103, the insurance reform I wrote back in 1988.  Californians figured out who was on the their side, and who wasn’t. But in the vast majority of lower profile issues, in which elected officials are called upon to choose between the policy choice favored by a huge money donor and the one that’s better for constituents, the money talks.

That’s why, despite the near-collapse of our financial system at the hands of the Money Industry, their lobbyists have still been able to stymie just about every congressional proposal to prevent another crash: reform of derivatives and the student loan system, creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, and the recent proposal by the White House to ban banks from speculation.

The tyranny of the British monarchy led to the American Revolution. The Supreme Court’s decision substitutes a corporatocracy for the oppression of kings. So far, the tea parties that seem to be erupting spontaneously around the nation are directing their fire at the bailouts and other encroachments of government. They also need to keep an eye on the corporations that are arguably more powerful than the government already, or will soon be so thanks to the Supreme Court.

Urgent Challenges, Modest Responses

The good thing about President Obama’s state of the union speech is that he acknowledged the public’s anger over the financial crisis.

The bad thing is that he appears to reject it. “Look,” he said. “I’m not interested in punishing banks.”

As expected, the president put the rhetorical focus on jobs and the economy in his state of the union. But the actual proposals, a combination of tax cuts and subsidies were relatively modest. But the combination of his proposed freeze on most discretionary spending and continuing Republican opposition make the possibility of dramatic improvement in jobs and the economy unlikely. The speech didn’t contain the kind of dramatic response that 18 percent real unemployment and a continuing foreclosure crisis demand.

President Obama insisted he would veto any financial reform that wasn’t real. But he didn’t spell out what that might mean. Does that mean he’ll veto financial reform that doesn’t contain a Consumer Financial Protection Agency or meaningful derivatives regulation? The president didn’t say. He also didn’t pledge to fight for any specific reforms in Congress. The only specific he mentioned was his proposed bank fee to recoup costs of the bailouts.

President Obama blames his legislative frustrations on his own inability to fully explain his policies. But the president who has repeatedly promised no more business as usual remains afraid to tap into, and act on, the public’s honest passion for real change.

Sympathy For The Devil

After all the poor bankers have been through, they can’t even go to Chicago for their annual conference and enjoy their Roaring 20s cocktail party without having to contend with a bunch of protestors.

What do these protestors want, for Pete’s sake?
It wasn’t like the bankers were partying and playing golf the whole time. A hundred of the more than 1,500 in attendance took time off to help fix up a house they had foreclosed on.