Private Litigants Still Doing the Heavy Lifting that Government Should be Doing
PRESIDENT OBAMA told the nation last week that he was convening a task force to investigate the abusive practices in the mortgage industry that led to our economic woes. Both lending and the practice of bundling loans into securities will come under scrutiny, he said, adding: “This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.”
Some greeted this new task force — its unwieldy name is the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group — with skepticism. It is an election year, after all, and many might wonder if this is just a public-relations response to the outrage against the institutions and executives that almost wrecked the economy.
If this task force nailed some big names, and soon, it would help to allay deep suspicions that the authorities have given powerful people and institutions a pass during this awful episode.
Such bars typically last five years, but some are permanent. The S.E.C.’s settlement with Angelo Mozilo, 73, former head of Countrywide Financial, barred him from acting as a director or officer of a public company for the rest of his life.
Some cases on the list are still being litigated. Those that have been settled have generated $1.97 billion in penalties, disgorgement and other monetary relief, according to the S.E.C. Harmed investors have received $355 million of that.
Drilling into the details, though, indicates that little of this money was paid by individuals. The payments came from companies, or more precisely, their shareholders.
Talk about making the wrong people pay.
Only one of the cases seems to involve a clawback of executive compensation. It’s the 2009 case against three former top executives of New Century Financial, a quintessential Wild West lender. Together, the three paid $1.5 million when settling charges of making false and misleading statements about the company’s soundness as it imploded.
If this is justice, it’s certainly not rough. Brad Morrice, the company’s former chief executive, returned just $542,000 to regulators; he took home at least $2.9 million in incentive pay in the two years before New Century collapsed.
It seems obvious that until executives are forced to dig deep into their own pockets to pay penalties in these matters, they will be tempted to take as many risks as possible to generate fat paychecks. Then they will move on to the next opportunity.
The S.E.C. is clearly proud of its financial crisis cases. But comparing its tally with the mountainous evidence produced in private lawsuits shows how much more work there is to be done.
Consider the most recent complaint filed by the Assured Guaranty Corporation, an insurer of mortgage securities, against Bear Stearns, the defunct brokerage firm; EMC, Bear’s mortgage origination and servicing unit; and JPMorgan Chase, which bought Bear in March 2008.
Filed in November, the complaint shows what kinds of revealing material can be dug up by determined investigators.
The complaint contends that Bear Stearns knew it was stuffing its mortgage-backed securities with crummy loans. It cites an e-mail written by a former EMC analyst in the unit that dealt with these instruments. “I have been toying with the idea of writing a book about our experiences,” the analyst wrote. “Think of all of the crap that went on and how nobody outside of the company would believe us … the fact that data was constantly changing and we sold loans without the data being correct — wouldn’t investors who bought the MBS’s want to know that?”
Indeed they would.
Discovery in the case also identifies top executives who oversaw the mortgage machine that felled Bear Stearns. Thomas F. Marano, senior managing director and designated principal of the mortgage- and asset-backed securities department, was “well aware of the amount of risk that was being taken on in terms of acquiring assets and … the activities with respect to securitization,” the complaint said, citing a Bear Stearns executive’s deposition.
The complaint also contends that John Mongelluzzo, the Bear Stearns vice president for due diligence, misled investigators for the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission when he described the extensive vetting the company did when it bundled mortgages.
Mr. Mongelluzzo told the commission that Bear Steams tested “all of the due diligence firms and their contract underwriters, and if they couldn’t pass the underwriting test, they weren’t permitted to work on our transactions,” the complaint said. He also told the investigators that the company “instituted a process where we went out and audited the individual diligence firms to see what their processes were and what they were doing internally as well.”
But in a subsequent deposition, Mr. Mongelluzzo conceded that Bear had not started to test its underwriters until February 2007, well after the mortgage market had begun crumbling, and that it didn’t begin its audit program of due diligence vendors until April 2007.
Mr. Marano is now chairman and chief executive of Residential Capital, the mortgage unit of Ally Financial. Mr. Mongelluzzo is an executive there as well. Both declined to comment.
It is to be expected that investigators for private law firms will turn up loads of ammunition to help them in their court battles. But in the past, law enforcement was similarly aggressive in its own pursuits.
Now, the balance seems to have shifted, with private litigants doing more legal heavy lifting than those who serve the public.
Perhaps the new working group will right this imbalance. But its members don’t have a lot of time, with the election coming. Private litigants have drawn a pretty clear road map for the places that this new group might go. Its leaders should welcome the assistance, given that the clock is ticking.
Filed under: bubble, CDO, CORRUPTION, currency, Eviction, foreclosure, GTC | Honor, Investor, Mortgage, securities fraud Tagged: | bankruptcy, borrower, countrywide, disclosure, foreclosure, foreclosure defense, foreclosure offense, foreclosures, fraud, LOAN MODIFICATION, modification, quiet title, rescission, RESPA, securitization, TILA audit, trustee, WEISBAND