California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, has staked out the high ground in promising to hold bankers accountable and protect borrowers in the continuing foreclosure crisis.
So far she’s formed a mortgage fraud task force and walked away from the weak settlement with the banks over mortgage servicing fraud that the Obama administration and the majority of state attorney generals have been trying to foist on the public.
Then earlier this week she told the executive who oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federally bailed out quasi-public agencies, he should quit if he won’t consider principal reduction as a tool to help underwater homeowners.
Here’s hoping that Harris can build on the foundation she’s laid.
She has a real opportunity to set herself apart from other Democratic Party politicians, from the president to the congressional leadership and others who have opted for strong PR rather than real enforcement.
But she has her challenges ahead of her.
An ambitious politician who chaired the president’s campaign in California in 2008, Harris will have to go against the political grain if she really wants to hold bankers accountable and fight for homeowners.
Prosecuting bankers is never easy. Her agency, the state attorney general’s office, has had a woeful record on consumer protection. It’s been a long time since John Van de Kamp, when he was attorney general, launched his aggressive antitrust campaign.
As we know, bankers have been lubricating the political system to protect themselves against the consequences of the excesses. They spare no expense in hiring legal talent and defend themselves with a self-righteous fury. The legal system has had an unfortunate tendency to show great deference when the lords of the universe show up.
But as William Black, the former bank regulator turned law professor, has pointed out, it can be done. Bankers can be held accountable. It was done after the savings and loan debacle in the 1980s.
If prosecutors have the tenacity, the resources and the chops, they can go after bankers like they do gang members. First you go after the less powerful, more vulnerable players, squeezing them to gain information, and find documents to gradually build cases against the higher-ups.
Harris will be at a disadvantage without federal help – when prosecutors decide to take out a gang, they form a multiagency task forces, using all the agencies of federal, state and local officials.
We’ve seen just how disinterested the feds are in going after bankers. Local prosecutors around the country haven’t shown much stomach for the job either.
But if she is pursues her task in a determined and savvy way she will find wide and enthusiastic support among a crucial group that have become disenchanted with other politicians – the 99 percent.
If you’re in the Los Angeles and you want to hear more about this from William Black himself, he’s scheduled to participate in a stellar panel at Occupy LA at City Hall moderated by Truthdig’s Robert Scheer. Black, a law professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City, will be joined by Michael Hudson, Joel Rogers, a professor of law, political science and economics at the University of Wisconsin, and via live stream, Michael Hudson, a financial analyst who also teaches economics at UM-KC.