Steve Mnuchin, former chairman and chief executive officer of OneWest Bank, known for its aggressive foreclosure practices, flatly denied in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee that OneWest used “robo-signing” on mortgage documents.
But records show the bank utilized the questionable practice in Ohio.
“The guy is just lying. There’s no other way to say it,” said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.
The revelation comes with the committee’s vote on whether to confirm Mnuchin’s nomination, currently scheduled for Monday night.
Barney Keller of Jamestown Associates, who represents Mnuchin, was asked to comment for this story but did not respond before deadline. Jamestown Associates is a Washington political consulting and advertising firm that represented Trump in his campaign.
“Robo-signing” is the informal term for when a mortgage company employee signs hundreds of foreclosures, swearing they have scrutinized the documents as required by law when in fact they have not.
“OneWest Bank did not ‘robo-sign’ documents,” Mnuchin wrote in response to questions from individual senators, “and as the only bank to successfully complete the Independent Foreclosure Review required by federal banking regulators to investigate allegations of ‘robo-signing,’ I am proud of our institution’s extremely low error rate.”
But a Dispatch analysis of nearly four dozen foreclosure cases filed by OneWest in Franklin County in 2010 alone shows that the company frequently used robo-signers. The vast majority of the Columbus-area cases were signed by 11 different people in Travis County, Texas. Those employees called themselves vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, managers and assistant secretaries. In three local cases, a judge dismissed OneWest foreclosure proceedings specifically based on inaccurate robo-signings.
The Dispatch found more than 1,900 OneWest foreclosures in the state’s six largest counties from 2009 to 2015.
Carla Duncan, a social worker from Cleveland Heights, was snared by OneWest’s robo-signing machinery.
On her way out of town for a short trip in 2010, Duncan stopped by her home to get her mail and found a note from a field inspector for her mortgage company saying that her house was vacant and was going to be boarded up.
“It wasn’t vacant. I was living there,” Duncan said. “There were curtains on the windows. The radio was playing and the dog was there.”
What Duncan didn’t know at the time was that OneWest had begun foreclosure proceedings on her three-bedroom home even though she was up-to-date on her payments. OneWest refused to accept a loan modification approved by a previous lender that had been purchased by OneWest, and it wanted to substantially increase Duncan’s interest rate and monthly payment and add late fees. The company also put a lock box on a separate rental property she owned in Cleveland.
After hiring former Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, waging a five-year court battle and filing personal bankruptcy, Duncan was finally able to get the foreclosures dismissed and keep her home and rental property. She said the experience was devastating.
“It’s almost like being raped, like being emotionally violated,” Duncan said. “It got to the point that I was afraid to open my own door.”
Court records show that Duncan’s mortgage was robo-signed by Erica Johnson-Seck, vice president of OneWest’s department of bankruptcy and foreclosures. From her office in Austin, Texas, Johnson-Seck robo-signed an average of 750 foreclosure documents a week, according to a sworn deposition she gave in a Florida case in July 2009.
Under oath, Johnson-Seck acknowledged that she did not read the documents she was signing, taking only about 30 seconds to sign her name. To speed up the process, Johnson-Seck said she shortened her first name on her signature to just an “E.” She said in the deposition that OneWest’s practice was to review just 10 percent of the foreclosure documents for accuracy.
Dann, who now specializes in representing clients who have problems with banks and other lenders after he was forced to resign as attorney general nearly 10 years ago, said Mnuchin’s businesses were a “major offender” in problem mortgages. Dann said Mnuchin’s firms were known for dual tracking (pursuing foreclosures simultaneously as they allegedly worked with homeowners), fabricating documents and other tactics “that caused unbelievable devastation in people’s lives.”
In 2010, federal laws were changed, enabling borrowers victimized by lenders to sue them. Dann said he worries that Mnuchin, as treasury secretary, would quietly work to repeal reforms, collectively known as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
That appears to be the case.
“It has been over six years since the passage of Dodd-Frank and it seems like an appropriate time to review all of the regulations from Dodd-Frank to understand their impact on the market, investors, small businesses and economic growth,” Mnuchin said in a written answer to the Senate.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, grilled Mnuchin at his recent hearing and in follow-up written questions.
“Mnuchin profited off of kicking people out of their homes and then gave false testimony about his bank’s abusive practices,” Brown told The Dispatch. “He cannot be trusted to make decisions about policies as personal to working Ohioans as their taxes and retirement.”
Faith, the homelessness coalition director, said foreclosure practices by Mnuchin’s companies and others like them “created havoc.”
“People were bamboozled into signing these mortgages,” Faith said. “We watched this train wreck happen. It’s been devastating, not only to the people who got caught in this kind of scheme, but also to people who happened to live in the neighborhood. … It’s scary that he’s going to be treasury secretary.”
The Dispatch analysis showed thousands of Ohio homeowners – including 245 in Franklin County – found themselves in OneWest’s crosshairs when they defaulted on their loans, the majority of them with high interest rates. Many mortgages had terms that housing and financial experts view as predatory: prepayment penalties, interest-only loans and no-money-down loans.
In addition to OneWest, which was born in 2009 from the collapse of subprime mortgage giant IndyMac, Mnuchin’s banking group also acquired Financial Freedom, a subsidiary of Lehman Brothers that went bankrupt because of its toxic mortgage portfolio. The firm specialized in loans to senior citizens cashing in on their homes’ equity.
Mnuchin was labeled by critics at the time as the “Foreclosure King.”
Of the nearly four dozen foreclosure cases filed by OneWest in Franklin County in 2010 that were analyzed by The Dispatch, a quarter were filed within three years of the homeowner taking out the loan, typically a red flag that there was a problem with the mortgage terms and/or vetting the borrowers.
Thirteen of the borrowers had double-digit interest rates, ranging from 10 percent to 17.31 percent, largely because of adjustable-rate mortgage terms.
In the cases in which the houses were sold at an auction, two-thirds ended up in the hands of the federal government, which had backed those loans. Collectively, more than $4 million was due on those loans.
Only seven borrowers were able to get a loan modification, even though former President Barack Obama’s administration had been pushing since 2009 for lenders to help Americans keep their homes by lowering interest rates and, in some cases, the principal balance.
Mnuchin does have supporters, including the American Bankers Association, which sent a letter to the Senate committee saying Mnuchin’s “public statements as well as his career in finance bring us optimism with regard to the outlook for public policies focused on growth and prosperity.”
Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, released a statement supporting Mnuchin’s nomination, in part because of his stated intention to roll back some of the Dodd-Frank legislation: “Mr. Mnuchin has made it clear that reforming the Dodd-Frank Act will be his ‘number one priority on the regulatory side’ once he becomes secretary of the treasury.”