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Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute

December 19th, 2011 11:00 AM

Treat foreclosure as a crime scene

Crossposted from Politico

Bubbling under the surface of politics is the foreclosure crisis — where the power of big finance is brushing up against the rule of law. The party leaders seem to have decided it is essentially a giant — but unavoidable — tragedy. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said foreclosures have to clear for the housing market to reset. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has spent only about $2 billion of the $75 billion authorized for the Home Affordable Modification Program.

But the foreclosure crisis is not only a few million personal tragedies. It is a few million crime scenes.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley recently filed the first broad civil suit against five major banks and the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems for foreclosure fraud. Her suit alleges that mortgage servicers routinely backdated and falsified documents to expedite foreclosures. In many cases, they foreclosed on loans they did not even own.

This is one of a series of suits that state officials are bringing against leading financial institutions. Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto last month indicted two employees of the foreclosure specialist Lender Processing Services, which works with the big banks, on 606 felony and misdemeanor counts of fraud.

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden is also suing MERS — as I recently wrote in POLITICO — for unfair and deceptive practices. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman successfully intervened to stop a whitewash settlement of Countrywide’s ostensible fraud in packaging and selling mortgage-backed securities it knew to be poisoned.

These attorneys general have changed the legal environment around the mortgage and foreclosure mess — refocusing the core issue on justice. They are reframing the problem as a crime scene.

What is behind these suits? Simple: Crime by mortgage servicers and their contractors. And this is more than just the crime of these foreclosures themselves — it’s the residual tail end of a housing bubble based on fraud. The reason these bank servicers must now routinely employ notaries using false documentation is because they never established a clear chain of the property title upfront.

The attitude during the go-go days of the housing bubble was “here today, gone tomorrow,” as Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean make clear in their book “All the Devils Are Here.” This was a refinement of the financial deal makers’ code, “IBG-YBG,” meaning “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone,” described by Jonathan Knee in “The Accidental Investment Banker.”

In this environment, why bother getting your paperwork in order when the goal is to put someone into a predatory loan, reap fees and disappear tomorrow?

Now that these homes are in foreclosure, however, the lack of paperwork is a serious problem. And, since no one has yet been held accountable for the fraud perpetrated during the housing bubble, the business model of financial institutions is often still predatory.

This fraud is now coming back to haunt our courts — for example, in the falsified foreclosure paperwork required to cover up the corner-cutting of the subprime lenders and the banks that funded them.

The banks themselves have confessed to breaking the law. The Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing early this year when JPMorgan was found to be illegally foreclosing on 18 U.S. military families — a violation of the Servicemember Civil Relief Act.

This law bans foreclosing on active duty troops. Knowingly violating the ban carries up to one year in prison for each count. JPMorgan apologized for its violations, because for banks, being sorry when caught is what really counts. The families were compensated by JPMorgan financially, but no one at the bank got jail time or had to plead guilty.

Bank regulators have now found that up to 5,000 military families may have been foreclosed on illegally, as The Financial Times reported last month. Yet the Justice Department settled with Bank of America for alleged violations of the service member act. BofA, like JPMorgan, doesn’t have to admit to wrongdoing — but it says it is very sorry anyway.

“The SCRA is not some obscure legal technicality,” said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), who wrote the law, “that might just have escaped the attention of mortgage servicers. Those servicers are all affiliates of the biggest banks. … Servicing mortgages is all they do, and they really don’t have that many laws to keep up with. They have got to have known what the law required and consciously decided that they could just ignore it, the same way they apparently decided it was OK to file false affidavits in legal proceedings.”

President Barack Obama has argued, as recently as last Sunday on “60 Minutes,” that what happened on Wall Street wasn’t criminal. “Some of the most damaging behavior on Wall Street,” the president told Steve Kroft, “in some cases, some of the least ethical behavior on Wall Street, wasn’t illegal. That’s exactly why we had to change the laws.”

Obama is wrong. Fraud was illegal before the crisis; it’s illegal now. The Servicemember Civil Relief Act was signed in 2003. So it was already on the books. During the savings and loan crisis, the George H.W. Bush administration sent about 3,000 white-collar criminals to jail. This administration has yet to send one.

And it is for lack of trying. Attorney General Eric Holder and his network of U.S. attorneys haven’t brought one criminal suit on illegal military foreclosures or foreclosure fraud. There have been enough books and investigations revealing rampant criminality in the housing bubble and now in foreclosure crisis. Yet Holder’s DOJ is still settling with banks to let them off the hook for illegal foreclosures on active duty troops.

The administration is now attempting to quash state-level officials by fiercely lobbying for a 50-state settlement to paper over the foreclosure fraud scandal. Obama may talk about his fealty to the “99 percent,” but his administration is engaged in an aggressive coverup of bank crimes.

The administration’s response to Coakley’s suit is perhaps the most revealing, for the Massachusetts case against the banks was particularly sweeping.

The banks’ press release response has largely been “we’re disappointed” boilerplate, and only the taxpayer-owned lender Ally Financial (formerly GMAC) pushed back hard. The company declared that it plans to cease all mortgage lending in Massachusetts.

Coakley’s response was simply that this is proof that Ally is not interested in following the laws regarding rules of evidence. In other words: good riddance.

After this dispute, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Coakley called for congressional hearings into Ally’s behavior.

Ally’s action is an attempt at what is known as a capital strike — a threat by financial interests that they will cease financing critical social activities unless their legal demands are met.

Gretchen Morgensen and Josh Rosner detail a similar case in “Reckless Endangerment,” their history of the housing bubble. In 2003, before the bubble, Georgia lawmakers noticed that mortgage lending was riddled with fraud and predation. So the Legislature passed a law clamping down on fraud with a state consumer protection law.

The response was devastating — Standard & Poor’s declared it would no longer rate mortgage-backed securities with loans originated in Georgia. The agency made enormous profits by rating subprime mortgages, so a predatory lending law may well have proved a threat to this profit stream. The state quickly reversed the law for fear that there would be no more housing finance in the state.

Other states and localities took notice — and we saw what happened next.

The housing bubble, in other words, was not just due to tragic herding behavior. It also involved the financial sector’s aggressive responses to democratic attempts to rein in creditor abuses. Now Ally, a bank 74 percent owned by taxpayers and controlled by the administration, is continuing this abusive trend.

Turning our markets into playpens for predatory behavior didn’t happen overnight, and it will not be fixed overnight. But until we have public servants strongly focused on justice for all, we can expect the crime spree to go on. After all, what we’re all learning is that, at least for large banks, crime pays.

Matt Stoller worked on the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and Federal Reserve transparency issues as a staffer for Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.). He is now a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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