Weekly Audit: Will Obama Save Homeowners From Wall Street’s Latest Fraud Scheme?

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

A massive foreclosure fraud scandal is rocking the U.S. mortgage market. Wall Street banks and their lawyers are fabricating documents, forging signatures and lying to judges—all to exploit troubled borrowers with enormous, illegal fees, and in some cases, improperly foreclose on borrowers who haven’t missed any payments.

The fraud is so widespread that it could put some big banks out of business and even spark another financial collapse. Fortunately, things haven’t fallen apart just yet. With strong leadership from President Barack Obama and Congress, the government can help keep troubled borrowers in their homes and prevent another meltdown.

One fraud begets another

As Danny Schecter emphasizes in an interview with GRITtv’s Laura Flanders, this mess is just one element of a broader, criminal fraud at the heart of the foreclosure fiasco and resulting financial crisis. Banks pushed fraudulent loans onto borrowers during the housing bubble because the loans could be packaged into mortgage-backed securitizations and pawned off on hedge funds and other banks. Banks made a lot of money from this process, until the mortgages went bad and the fraud-packed securities plummeted in value.

Document drama

At the heart of any mortgage is a document called “The Note”, which lays out the terms of the mortgage and the kinds of fees that banks can levy against borrowers if they fall behind on their payments. Owning the note also gives banks the right to foreclose when a borrower stops paying.

The trouble is, in an effort to cut costs and boost bonuses, banks haven’t kept actually kept track of the note—in fact, they’ve actively destroyed the document so they don’t have to deal with filing it. Now that mortgages are going bad, banks are taking advantage of the documentation vacuum they created to levy massive, illegal fees on borrowers both before and during the foreclosure process. They do this by manufacturing fake documents, forging signatures, and getting bogus signatures from notaries to approve sham documents.

This is all terribly unfair to borrowers. In some cases, illegal fees push borrowers over the edge into foreclosure, while in others, borrowers get saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in illegal fees after getting kicked out of their home. The situation is a national disgrace.

Failure to produce

But the situation also creates legal liabilities that can push banks into failure. If banks can’t pony up the note, they don’t have the right to foreclose—not without some serious, expensive legal maneuvering. And what’s more, if the banks who created these shoddy securities can’t supply notes, investors who bought the securities can force losses back on the banks that created them. Given that there are $2.6 trillion in mortgage-backed securities out there, banks are very worried that losses and lawsuits stemming from shoddy documentation could spark another round of major financial turmoil.

The sheer lack of documentation makes it very difficult for investors to decipher which banks are exposed to loads of red ink, and which banks are not. That’s a recipe for financial panic.

Silencing employees

The banks know they’re in serious trouble. That’s why, as Andy Kroll notes for Mother Jones, mortgage servicers like GMAC are trying to silence employees who can testify about the extent of these frauds. GMAC employee Jeffrey Stephan confessed to robo-signing 10,000 foreclosure documents every month without actually examining them. His acknowledgment sparked the current public scrutiny of foreclosure fraud, which has expanded to banks including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Kroll was one of the first to report on these fraudulent foreclosure mills and their illegal fees, and his coverage of the issue is essential reading for anybody following the unfolding crisis. Kroll also highlights the wave of new investigations and inquiries being launched by attorneys general in eight states, a phenomenon that is likely to expand as the crisis widens.

As Annie Lowrey details for The Washington Independent, one of those states is Ohio, where Attorney General Richard Cordray is suing GMAC, seeking $25,000 in damages for every fraudulent document the company has filed. In Ohio alone, there have been 190,000 foreclosures over the past two years.  Cordray hasn’t won his suit, and not every foreclosure will include fraud, but that’s a potential loss of over $7 billion to GMAC from foreclosures in Ohio alone over the past two years. And that doesn’t include what would be much higher losses to banks who packaged the mortgage securities, who are forced to repurchase them by burned investors.

Banks are doing their best to minimize the appearance of scandal, but the scope of potential losses from outright fraud is quite clearly a threat to the viability of the financial system. It’s easy to imagine a disaster scenario in which the government has no choice but to take major action to prevent the economy from imploding (yes, it can actually get worse).

Obama needs to pick up the slack

So far, President Obama is sending mixed signals about his intentions. As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Obama vetoed a bill that would have made it harder for borrowers to show that banks were engaging in fraud during the foreclosure process. That was on Friday—but by Sunday, top Obama adviser David Axelrod was telling the press that the administration was not ready to support a foreclosure moratorium, dismissing the fraud crisis as a set of “mistakes” with lender “paperwork.”

As I note for AlterNet, Axelrod’s comments are a complete mischaracterization of what’s going on in the foreclosure process, and of what can be done. The housing market is a mess because banks have been systematically committing fraud. We cannot rely on such fraudsters to fix the mess– some kind of government action is going to be necessary. Whatever the solution, the administration cannot stand with big Wall Street banks against the borrowers and investors that are being defrauded. Any solution must take the interest of troubled borrowers as paramount. We’ve already tried saving the banks without saving homeowners, and as the unfolding foreclosure fraud crisis illustrates, it didn’t work.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Will Obama Save Homeowners From Wall Street’s Latest Fraud Scheme?

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

A massive foreclosure fraud scandal is rocking the U.S. mortgage market. Wall Street banks and their lawyers are fabricating documents, forging signatures and lying to judges—all to exploit troubled borrowers with enormous, illegal fees, and in some cases, improperly foreclose on borrowers who haven’t missed any payments.

The fraud is so widespread that it could put some big banks out of business and even spark another financial collapse. Fortunately, things haven’t fallen apart just yet. With strong leadership from President Barack Obama and Congress, the government can help keep troubled borrowers in their homes and prevent another meltdown.

One fraud begets another

As Danny Schecter emphasizes in an interview with GRITtv’s Laura Flanders, this mess is just one element of a broader, criminal fraud at the heart of the foreclosure fiasco and resulting financial crisis. Banks pushed fraudulent loans onto borrowers during the housing bubble because the loans could be packaged into mortgage-backed securitizations and pawned off on hedge funds and other banks. Banks made a lot of money from this process, until the mortgages went bad and the fraud-packed securities plummeted in value.

Document drama

At the heart of any mortgage is a document called “The Note”, which lays out the terms of the mortgage and the kinds of fees that banks can levy against borrowers if they fall behind on their payments. Owning the note also gives banks the right to foreclose when a borrower stops paying.

The trouble is, in an effort to cut costs and boost bonuses, banks haven’t kept actually kept track of the note—in fact, they’ve actively destroyed the document so they don’t have to deal with filing it. Now that mortgages are going bad, banks are taking advantage of the documentation vacuum they created to levy massive, illegal fees on borrowers both before and during the foreclosure process. They do this by manufacturing fake documents, forging signatures, and getting bogus signatures from notaries to approve sham documents.

This is all terribly unfair to borrowers. In some cases, illegal fees push borrowers over the edge into foreclosure, while in others, borrowers get saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in illegal fees after getting kicked out of their home. The situation is a national disgrace.

Failure to produce

But the situation also creates legal liabilities that can push banks into failure. If banks can’t pony up the note, they don’t have the right to foreclose—not without some serious, expensive legal maneuvering. And what’s more, if the banks who created these shoddy securities can’t supply notes, investors who bought the securities can force losses back on the banks that created them. Given that there are $2.6 trillion in mortgage-backed securities out there, banks are very worried that losses and lawsuits stemming from shoddy documentation could spark another round of major financial turmoil.

The sheer lack of documentation makes it very difficult for investors to decipher which banks are exposed to loads of red ink, and which banks are not. That’s a recipe for financial panic.

Silencing employees

The banks know they’re in serious trouble. That’s why, as Andy Kroll notes for Mother Jones, mortgage servicers like GMAC are trying to silence employees who can testify about the extent of these frauds. GMAC employee Jeffrey Stephan confessed to robo-signing 10,000 foreclosure documents every month without actually examining them. His acknowledgment sparked the current public scrutiny of foreclosure fraud, which has expanded to banks including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Kroll was one of the first to report on these fraudulent foreclosure mills and their illegal fees, and his coverage of the issue is essential reading for anybody following the unfolding crisis. Kroll also highlights the wave of new investigations and inquiries being launched by attorneys general in eight states, a phenomenon that is likely to expand as the crisis widens.

As Annie Lowrey details for The Washington Independent, one of those states is Ohio, where Attorney General Richard Cordray is suing GMAC, seeking $25,000 in damages for every fraudulent document the company has filed. In Ohio alone, there have been 190,000 foreclosures over the past two years.  Cordray hasn’t won his suit, and not every foreclosure will include fraud, but that’s a potential loss of over $7 billion to GMAC from foreclosures in Ohio alone over the past two years. And that doesn’t include what would be much higher losses to banks who packaged the mortgage securities, who are forced to repurchase them by burned investors.

Banks are doing their best to minimize the appearance of scandal, but the scope of potential losses from outright fraud is quite clearly a threat to the viability of the financial system. It’s easy to imagine a disaster scenario in which the government has no choice but to take major action to prevent the economy from imploding (yes, it can actually get worse).

Obama needs to pick up the slack

So far, President Obama is sending mixed signals about his intentions. As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Obama vetoed a bill that would have made it harder for borrowers to show that banks were engaging in fraud during the foreclosure process. That was on Friday—but by Sunday, top Obama adviser David Axelrod was telling the press that the administration was not ready to support a foreclosure moratorium, dismissing the fraud crisis as a set of “mistakes” with lender “paperwork.”

As I note for AlterNet, Axelrod’s comments are a complete mischaracterization of what’s going on in the foreclosure process, and of what can be done. The housing market is a mess because banks have been systematically committing fraud. We cannot rely on such fraudsters to fix the mess– some kind of government action is going to be necessary. Whatever the solution, the administration cannot stand with big Wall Street banks against the borrowers and investors that are being defrauded. Any solution must take the interest of troubled borrowers as paramount. We’ve already tried saving the banks without saving homeowners, and as the unfolding foreclosure fraud crisis illustrates, it didn’t work.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Will Obama Save Homeowners From Wall Street’s Latest Fraud Scheme?

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

A massive foreclosure fraud scandal is rocking the U.S. mortgage market. Wall Street banks and their lawyers are fabricating documents, forging signatures and lying to judges—all to exploit troubled borrowers with enormous, illegal fees, and in some cases, improperly foreclose on borrowers who haven’t missed any payments.

The fraud is so widespread that it could put some big banks out of business and even spark another financial collapse. Fortunately, things haven’t fallen apart just yet. With strong leadership from President Barack Obama and Congress, the government can help keep troubled borrowers in their homes and prevent another meltdown.

One fraud begets another

As Danny Schecter emphasizes in an interview with GRITtv’s Laura Flanders, this mess is just one element of a broader, criminal fraud at the heart of the foreclosure fiasco and resulting financial crisis. Banks pushed fraudulent loans onto borrowers during the housing bubble because the loans could be packaged into mortgage-backed securitizations and pawned off on hedge funds and other banks. Banks made a lot of money from this process, until the mortgages went bad and the fraud-packed securities plummeted in value.

Document drama

At the heart of any mortgage is a document called “The Note”, which lays out the terms of the mortgage and the kinds of fees that banks can levy against borrowers if they fall behind on their payments. Owning the note also gives banks the right to foreclose when a borrower stops paying.

The trouble is, in an effort to cut costs and boost bonuses, banks haven’t kept actually kept track of the note—in fact, they’ve actively destroyed the document so they don’t have to deal with filing it. Now that mortgages are going bad, banks are taking advantage of the documentation vacuum they created to levy massive, illegal fees on borrowers both before and during the foreclosure process. They do this by manufacturing fake documents, forging signatures, and getting bogus signatures from notaries to approve sham documents.

This is all terribly unfair to borrowers. In some cases, illegal fees push borrowers over the edge into foreclosure, while in others, borrowers get saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in illegal fees after getting kicked out of their home. The situation is a national disgrace.

Failure to produce

But the situation also creates legal liabilities that can push banks into failure. If banks can’t pony up the note, they don’t have the right to foreclose—not without some serious, expensive legal maneuvering. And what’s more, if the banks who created these shoddy securities can’t supply notes, investors who bought the securities can force losses back on the banks that created them. Given that there are $2.6 trillion in mortgage-backed securities out there, banks are very worried that losses and lawsuits stemming from shoddy documentation could spark another round of major financial turmoil.

The sheer lack of documentation makes it very difficult for investors to decipher which banks are exposed to loads of red ink, and which banks are not. That’s a recipe for financial panic.

Silencing employees

The banks know they’re in serious trouble. That’s why, as Andy Kroll notes for Mother Jones, mortgage servicers like GMAC are trying to silence employees who can testify about the extent of these frauds. GMAC employee Jeffrey Stephan confessed to robo-signing 10,000 foreclosure documents every month without actually examining them. His acknowledgment sparked the current public scrutiny of foreclosure fraud, which has expanded to banks including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Kroll was one of the first to report on these fraudulent foreclosure mills and their illegal fees, and his coverage of the issue is essential reading for anybody following the unfolding crisis. Kroll also highlights the wave of new investigations and inquiries being launched by attorneys general in eight states, a phenomenon that is likely to expand as the crisis widens.

As Annie Lowrey details for The Washington Independent, one of those states is Ohio, where Attorney General Richard Cordray is suing GMAC, seeking $25,000 in damages for every fraudulent document the company has filed. In Ohio alone, there have been 190,000 foreclosures over the past two years.  Cordray hasn’t won his suit, and not every foreclosure will include fraud, but that’s a potential loss of over $7 billion to GMAC from foreclosures in Ohio alone over the past two years. And that doesn’t include what would be much higher losses to banks who packaged the mortgage securities, who are forced to repurchase them by burned investors.

Banks are doing their best to minimize the appearance of scandal, but the scope of potential losses from outright fraud is quite clearly a threat to the viability of the financial system. It’s easy to imagine a disaster scenario in which the government has no choice but to take major action to prevent the economy from imploding (yes, it can actually get worse).

Obama needs to pick up the slack

So far, President Obama is sending mixed signals about his intentions. As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Obama vetoed a bill that would have made it harder for borrowers to show that banks were engaging in fraud during the foreclosure process. That was on Friday—but by Sunday, top Obama adviser David Axelrod was telling the press that the administration was not ready to support a foreclosure moratorium, dismissing the fraud crisis as a set of “mistakes” with lender “paperwork.”

As I note for AlterNet, Axelrod’s comments are a complete mischaracterization of what’s going on in the foreclosure process, and of what can be done. The housing market is a mess because banks have been systematically committing fraud. We cannot rely on such fraudsters to fix the mess– some kind of government action is going to be necessary. Whatever the solution, the administration cannot stand with big Wall Street banks against the borrowers and investors that are being defrauded. Any solution must take the interest of troubled borrowers as paramount. We’ve already tried saving the banks without saving homeowners, and as the unfolding foreclosure fraud crisis illustrates, it didn’t work.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Foreclosure Mills, Social Security and the Fed’s Failures

by Amanda Anderson, Media Consortium blogger

Editor’s Note: Zach Carter is out this week, but we’ve compiled a rundown of the biggest economy-related stories, including the rise of foreclosure mills and why social security isn’t in jeopardy. Zach will be back next Tuesday, so stay tuned!

Who needs ethics when you’ve got foreclosure mills?

Want to make money quickly, but don’t want ethics to get in the way? Big banks are outsourcing their foreclosure duties to fraudulent law firms, known as foreclosure mills, and getting away with it. Zach Carter explains the latest get rich quick scheme for AlterNet. Foreclosure mills are ethically questionable law firms that process legal documents for foreclosures. They tend to have an emphasis on quantity, not quality. Carter writes:

Big banks are not outsourcing their foreclosure processing to shady law firms with a history of breaking the law for a quick buck. These foreclosure scammers forge documents, backdate signatures, slap families with thousands of dollars in illegal fees and even foreclosure on borrowers who haven’t missed a payment.

Andy Kroll chronicles the evolution of foreclosure mills for Mother Jones. Kroll also exposes a notorious Floridian law firm founded by David J. Stern that is using every trick in the book—including backdating documents and illegally charging clients massive fees—to profit from the foreclosure crisis:

While rushing foreclosures isn’t illegal, Stern’s fledgling firm was promptly accused of something that is: gouging people who are trying to get out of default. In October 1998, Tallahassee attorney Claude Walker filed a class-action lawsuit involving tens of thousands of claimants, alleging that Stern had piled excessive fees on families fighting to keep their homes. (Walker, who visited Stern’s offices in 1999 to collect depositions, described the place as “a big warehouse” where hordes of attorneys holed up in tiny, crowded offices “like hamsters in a cage.”)

Don’t blame Social Security for the deficit

Fact: Social Security benefits will be able to be paid, in full, through 2037.

Fact: 75% of Social Security benefits will be able to be paid thought 2084.

Fact: There is a huge surplus in Social Security trust fund- $2.5 trillion. So why the big push to trim the program? In an interview with The American Prospect, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) explains his proposed legislation that will actually expand benefits:

Ninety-five percent of the people in our country [already] pay Social Security tax on 100 percent of their income. The bill provides both contribution and benefit fairness: Even as people are going to be paying in more, they’re going to receive more benefits. Doing that, by the way, will also ensure the solvency of Social Security, which is terribly important.

The Fed’s failure and the AIG Bailout: A brief history

In The Nation, William Greider explains how the Federal Reserve Board gambled with American taxpayers’ money by not considering alternatives to the AIG bailout. Grieder highlights a report from the Congressional Oversight Panel, which “provides alarming insights that should be fodder for the larger debate many citizens long to hear—why Washington rushed to forgive the very interests that produced this mess, while innocent others were made to suffer the consequences.”

In short, the Fed acted “under the business-as-usual expectations of the private financial system, while skipping lightly over the public consequences.”

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

'R'Oil Indignation

WANDERINGS, with Walter Brasch

for release: after June 11, 2010

brasch@bloomu.edu

 

'R'Oil Indignation

 

by Walter Brasch

 

            The British are upset with the United States. That's not too unusual. There was this revolution thing a couple of centuries ago.

            But America's Number 1 ally is upset that Americans are blaming BP for that nasty little oil spill in the Gulf. You know, the one where as much as 1.7 million gallons of crude oil a day has given us new species of no-flight pelicans and black-skinned dolphins.

            The Brits' FaceBook pages, blogs, radio comments, and letters to newspapers are full of nasty comments about how America is over-reacting, how Americans are unjustly blaming Britain, and all that is holy about corporate incompetence. Boris Johnson, the conservative mayor of London, told BBC Radio he worried about "anti-British rhetoric . . . that seems to be permeating from America." Ian Cowie, London Daily Telegram feature columnist, bluntly wrote, "Much of the rhetoric from other American politicians is plainly jingoistic claptrap with a beady eye on their own chances in the U.S. midterm elections." He is partially accurate; many American politicians, more than a few of whom were in the bed of the oil companies throughout their political careers, may be grandstanding. But, there is truly justifiable outrage by all Americans and all politicians.

            In response to President Obama's tough accusations and threats to BP, the Daily Telegram headlined its story, "Obama's Boot on the Throat of British Pensioners," a reference to a reality that BP stock dividends provide a huge source of pension revenue. BP expects to pay a $14.7 billion quarterly dividend, about a 9 percent return, or roughly nine times what the average American earns in a savings account. Attorney General Eric Holder is planning to force BP to suspend dividends and is also contemplating criminal charges, something that will interfere with a delightful afternoon tea. A 40 percent decline in BP stock is attributed not so much to the disaster that BP caused but to President Obama's tough stance.

            The British also upset that some people, including President Obama, are calling the world's fourth largest corporation, and the largest one in the United Kingdom, British Petroleum, its former name, and not BP, its legal pseudo-anonymous name. So far, no one's calling it the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, its first name—or the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, its second name. And hardly anyone remembers that Dwight Eisenhower, in the first year of his presidency in 1953, authorized a CIA bloody coup to retake the company that had become nationalized by the Iranians after World War II.

            That economic value includes sales of about $239 billion last year, including $2.3 billion from the Pentagon, and employment of 80,000 persons, most of whom know how to find, drill, and sell oil, but apparently have no clue of how to stop oil disasters.

            The Brits do believe that most—they hardly ever say all—of the disaster is BP's fault.  BP did try to save money by not installing adequate oil rig protections, and didn't have a solid disaster plan. But, in fairness, some of the disaster is distinctively America's fault. The Department of the Interior had become too cozy with the oil industry. During the first decade of the 21st century, dozens of Interior and oil company officials traded jobs, as if they were trading baseball cards. The U.S., unlike many nations, especially those in the North Atlantic, also didn't require better disaster plans.

            British Prime Minister David Cameron, while saying he was "frustrated" by the oil spill and its effects, also stated that "It is in everyone's interest that BP continues to be a financially strong and stable company." George Osborne, England's Chancellor of the Exchequer, reminds Americans of the "economic value BP brings to the people in Britain and America."

            Peel away some of their own rhetoric and anger at America, and you get something familiar to Americans: BP is just too big to fail. You know, too big like those large mega-corporations that the Bush–Cheney administration threw billions of bailout dollars to in order to keep them from failing—and then watched as they failed and took hundreds of thousands Americans with them.

            But not getting much benefit are the Gulf Coast's fishing industry and shrimping industries. They're apparently not too big to fail. Perhaps that's because the income of a ship's captain, the deckhands, or just about anyone involved in the industry is only a tiny fraction of the $6 million that the BP CEO made last year.

            Also not apparently too big to fail is the environmental campaigns to save the animals and plants of the Gulf coast. Thousands of unpaid volunteers have come to the Coast to help wash and rehabilitate the pelicans and other marine life, to try to help humanity by helping preserve our oceans, beaches, and wildlife.

            More than 50 passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, tell us we must be good stewards of the land and all its life.

            We aren't doing a very good job.

 

            [Assisting on this story was Rosemary R. Brasch. Dr. Brasch's latest book is a humorous and sarcastic look at American media, Sex and the Single Beer Can, (3rd ed.), available through amazon.com and other companies.]

 

 

 

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