David Dayen: The CFPB Just Sued a Crooked Mortgage Servicer, but Indicted Itself

The lawsuit against Ocwen is welcome, but should have happened four years ago.

David Dayen: A Bank Even a Socialist Could Love

A Bank Even a Socialist Could Love

The fight for public banking is gaining ground in cities and states across the country.

BY David Dayen

“We have Tea Partiers and Occupiers in the same room liking public banking. What does that tell you?”

“Money is a utility that belongs to all of us,” says Walt McRee. McRee is a velvety-voiced former broadcaster now plotting an audacious challenge to the financial system. He’s leading a monthly conference call as chair of the Public Banking Institute (PBI), an educational and advocacy force formed seven years ago to break Wall Street’s stranglehold on state and municipal finance.

“This is one of the biggest eye-openers of my life,” says Rebecca Burke, a New Jersey activist on the call. “Once you see it, you can’t look back.”

This ragtag group—former teachers, small business owners, social workers— wants to charter state and local banks across the country. These banks would leverage tax revenue to make low-interest loans for local public works projects, small businesses, affordable housing and student loans, spurring economic growth while saving people—and the government—money.

At the heart of the public banking concept is a theory about the best way to put America’s abundance of wealth to use. Cities and states typically keep their cash reserves either in Wall Street banks or in low-risk investments. This money tends not to go very far. In California, for example, the Pooled Money Investment Account, an agglomeration of $69.5 billion in state and local revenues, has a modest monthly yield of around three-quarters of a percent.

When state or local governments fund large-scale projects not covered by taxes, they generally either borrow from the bond market at high interest rates or enter into a public-private partnership with investors, who often don’t have community needs at heart.

Wall Street banks have used shady financial instruments to extract billions from unsuspecting localities, helping devastate places like Jefferson County, Ala. Making the wrong bet with debt, like the Kentucky county that built a jail but couldn’t fill it with prisoners, can cripple communities.

Even under the best conditions, municipal bonds—an enormous, $3.8 trillion market—can cost taxpayers. According to Ellen Brown, the intellectual godmother of the public banking movement, debt-based financing often accounts for around half the total cost of an infrastructure project. For example, the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge cost $6.3 billion to build, but paying off the bonds will bring the price tag closer to $13 billion, according to a 2014 report from the California legislature.

Public banks reduce costs in two ways. First, they can offer lower interest rates and fees because they’re not for-profit businesses trying to maximize returns. Second, because the banks are publicly owned, any profit flows back to the city or state, virtually eliminating financing costs and providing governments with extra revenue at no cost to taxpayers.

“It enables local resources to be applied locally, instead of exporting them to Wall Street,” says Mike Krauss, a PBI member in Philadelphia. “It democratizes our money.”

Legislators, Brown says, commonly object that governments “don’t have the money to lend.” But this misunderstands how banks operate. “We’re not lending the revenues, just putting them in a bank.” That is, the deposits themselves—in this case tax revenues—are not what banks loan out. Instead, banks create new money by extending credit. Deposits simply balance a bank’s books. Public banks, then, expand the local money supply available for economic development. And while PBI has yet to successfully charter a bank, there’s an existing model in the unlikeliest of places: North Dakota.

During the Progressive Era, a political organization of prairie populists known as the Nonpartisan League took control of the state government. In 1919, they established the Bank of North Dakota. It has no branches, no ATMs, and one main depositor: the state, its sole owner. From that deposit base, BND makes loans for economic development, including a student loan program.

BND also partners with local private banks across the state on loans that would normally be too big for them to handle. These loans support infrastructure, agriculture and small businesses. Community banks have thrived in North Dakota as a result; there are more per capita than in any other state, and with higher lending totals. During the financial crisis, not a single North Dakota bank failed.

BND loans are far more affordable than those from private investors. BND’s Infrastructure Loan Fund, for example, finances projects at just two percent interest; municipal bonds can have rates roughly four times as high. And according to its 2015 annual report, the most recent available, BND had earned record profits for 12 straight years (reaching $130 million in 2015), during both the Great Recession and the state’s more recent downturn from the collapse in oil prices. A 2014 Wall Street Journal story described BND as more profitable than Goldman Sachs. Over the last decade, hundreds of millions of dollars in BND earnings have been transferred to the state (although the overall social impact is somewhat complicated by the bank’s role in sustaining the Bakken oil boom).

The long march through the legislatures

Brown founded the Public Banking Institute in 2010, after years of evangelizing in articles and books such as The Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth About Our Monetary System and How We Can Break Free. Since then, by Walt McRee’s estimate, around 50 affiliated groups have sprouted up in states, counties and cities from Arizona to New Jersey.

“I’ve been working against the system all my life,” says Susan Harman of Friends of the Public Bank of Oakland. “I think public banking is the most radical thing I’ve ever heard.” Harman, a former teacher and a onetime aide to New York City Mayor John Lindsay, helped get the Oakland City Council to pass a resolution last November directing the city to determine the scope and cost of a feasibility study for a public bank—a tiny yet promising first step.

A feasibility study completed by Santa Fe, N.M., in January 2016 found that a public bank could have a $24 million economic impact on the city in its first seven years. A resolution introduced last October would create a task force to help the city prepare to petition the state for a charter. “It’s the smallest municipality investigating public banking,” says Elaine Sullivan of Banking on New Mexico, who hopes the task force could complete its business plan by the end of the year. “We’re interrupting the status quo.”

In February 2016, the Philadelphia City Council unanimously voted to hold hearings discussing a public bank. Advocates are now working with the city treasurer to find funds to capitalize the bank.

PBI has faced a rougher path in state legislatures. In Washington, state Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D) has introduced a public banking bill for eight straight years. Despite numerous co-sponsors, the bill can’t get out of committee. Efforts in Arizona and Illinois have also gone nowhere. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed a feasibility study bill in 2011, arguing the state banking committees could conduct the study; they never did.

One overwhelming force opposes public banking: Wall Street, which warns that public banks put taxpayer dollars at risk. “The bankers have the public so frightened that [public banking] will destroy the economy,” says David Spring of the Washington Public Bank Coalition. “When I talk to legislators, some are opposed to it because ‘it’s for communists and socialists.’ Like there are a lot of socialists in North Dakota!”

In Vermont the financial industry fought a proposed study of public banking, says Gwen Hallsmith, an activist and former city employee of Montpelier. “We don’t have branches of Bank of America or Wells Fargo in Vermont, but they have lobbyists here.” So Hallsmith got the study done herself, through the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont. It found that a state bank would boost gross domestic product 0.64 percent and create 2,500 jobs.

The state eventually passed a “10 percent” program, using 10 percent of its cash reserves to fund local loans, mostly for energy investments like weatherizing homes. Meanwhile, Hallsmith helped push individual towns to pass resolutions in favor of a state bank— around 20 have now done so. Hallsmith says her advocacy came at the expense of her job; the mayor of Montpelier, in whose office she worked, is a bank lobbyist. Hallsmith now coordinates a citizen’s commission for a Bank of Vermont.

Because of state resistance, PBI has encouraged its supporters to go local. And several issues have emerged to assist. For instance, environmental and indigenous activists have demanded that cities move money from the 17 banks that finance the Dakota Access Pipeline. But therein lies another dilemma: Who else can take the money? Community banks and credit unions lack the capacity to manage a city’s entire funds, and larger banks are better equipped to deal with the legal hurdles involved in handling public money. So divesting from one Wall Street bank could just lead to investing in another.

A public bank could solve this problem, either by accepting cities’ deposits or by extending letters of credit to community banks to bolster their ability to take funds. Lawmakers in Seattle have floated a city- or state-owned bank as the best alternative for reinvestment, and Oakland council member Rebecca Kaplan has connected divestment and public banking as well.

Another opportunity arises with marijuana legalization initiatives. Because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, most private banks are wary of working with licensed pot shops, fearing legal repercussions. This means many of these shops subsist as all-cash businesses. “It’s seriously dangerous; people arrive in armored cars to City Hall to pay taxes with huge bags of money,” says Susan Harman. In Oakland and Santa Rosa, Calif., public banking advocates are partnering with cannabis sellers to offer public banks as an alternative, which would make the businesses safer while giving the banks another source of capital.

While Donald Trump hasn’t formally introduced a long-discussed infrastructure bill, his emphasis on fixing the nation’s crippling public works has also bolstered the case for public banking. Ellen Brown maintains the country could save a trillion dollars on infrastructure costs through public-bank financing. That’s preferable to Trump’s idea of giving tax breaks to public-private partnerships that want big returns.

From the Great Plains to Trenton

“All it’ll take is the first domino to fall,” says Shelley Browning, an activist from Santa Rosa. “Towns and cities will turn in this direction because there’s no other way to turn.” And PBI members think they’ve found an avatar in Phil Murphy, a Democrat and former Goldman Sachs executive leading the polls in New Jersey’s gubernatorial primary this year.

Murphy has made public banking a key part of his platform. “This money belongs to the people of New Jersey,” he said in an economic address last September. “It’s time to bring that money home, so it can build our future, not somebody else’s.”

Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Murphy, tells In These Times that Bank of America holds more than $1 billion in New Jersey deposits, but only made three small business loans in the entire state in 2015. Troubled state pensions could help capitalize a state-owned bank, and would earn more while paying lower fees.

Murphy’s primary opponent, John Wisniewski, chaired the Bernie Sanders campaign in the state, while Murphy raised money for Hillary Clinton. Some believe Murphy is simply using public banking to cover his Wall Street background—and on many issues, Wisniewski’s policy slate is more progressive. But Brown thinks Murphy’s past primed him to recognize public banking’s power: “It’s always the bankers who get it.”

The first new state-owned bank in a century, chartered in the shadow of Wall Street, could shift the landscape. What’s more, blue-state New Jersey and red-state North Dakota agreeing on the same solution would highlight public banking’s biggest asset: transpartisan populist support. “We have Tea Partiers and Occupiers in the same room liking public banking. What does that tell you?” asks PBI’s Mike Krauss.

“Regardless of declared conservative or progressive affiliations,” says state Sen. Hasegawa, “regular folk … almost unanimously grasp the concept.” He is working with Washington’s Tea Partybacked treasurer, Duane Davidson, to advance public banking. “I go to eastern Washington, … they get the whole issue about independence from Wall Street and corporate control.”

In fact, Krauss is himself a Republican. “The biggest thing going on in America, people decided we don’t have any control anymore,” he says. “Whether it’s Bernie’s people or Trump’s people, they’re articulating the same thing but differently. … They want control of their money—and it is their money.”

Award-winning Journalist David Dayen.

Author of “Chain of Title”.

David Dayen: How a Cruel Foreclosure drove a couple to the brink of Death

By David Dayen at Vice

A married couple resorted to self-harm after being physically and psychologically terrorized by Bank of America over their house—until a judge fined the bank $46 million.

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/how-a-cruel-foreclosure-drove-a-couple-to-the-brink-of-death

“Franz Kafka lives… he works at Bank of America.”

Judge Christopher Klein’s words kick off an incredible ruling in a federal bankruptcy court in California last week, condemning Bank of America for a long nightmare of a foreclosure against a couple named Erik and Renee Sundquist. Klein ordered BofA to pay a whopping $46 million in damages, with the bulk of the money going to consumer attorney organizations and public law schools, in hopes of ensuring these abuses never happen again—or at least making them less likely.

The ruling offers numerous lessons in the aftermath of a foreclosure crisis that destroyed millions of lives. First of all, the judge specifically cited top executives as responsible, not lower-level employees. Second, the sheer size of the fine—for just one foreclosure—is a commentary on the failure of America’s regulatory and law enforcement system to protect homeowners, despite the financial industry’s massive legal exposure.

Here are the horrific facts of the case: the Sundquists purchased a home in Lincoln, California, in 2008, but ran into financial trouble when Erik’s business faltered in the recession. Like so many others, the Sundquists were told by Bank of America’s mortgage servicing unit to deliberately miss three payments to qualify for a loan modification. Despite agonizing over ruining their perfect credit, they did so.

Inspectors contracted by the bank staked out the home, banged on the doors and tailed the family in cars, terrorizing them to keep tabs on the property.

Bank of America promptly lost or deemed inadequate roughly 20 different applications for a loan modification. At the same time, BofA pursued foreclosure, a dubious practice known as “dual-tracking.”

The Sundquists eventually filed bankruptcy in June 2010, triggering an automatic stay, whereby Bank of America couldn’t foreclose until after the case concluded. But BofA sold the house anyway at a trustee sale and ordered eviction. Inspectors contracted by the bank staked out the home, banged on the doors and tailed the family in cars, terrorizing them to keep tabs on the property.

The bank didn’t correct the violation for six months, by which time the Sundquists, spooked by the constant surveillance and belief they would be evicted, moved into a rental property. Bank of America finally rescinded the sale, but that put the Sundquists back on the house’s title, which is to say on the hook for mortgage payments and maintenance fees.

By the time the Sundquists got the keys back to the home in April 2011, they found all furnishings and appliances removed and the trees dead. The homeowner’s association charged them $20,000 for the substandard landscaping. Bank of America refused to take responsibility for the damages; in fact, they were still threatening to foreclose. Interest on the loan accrued at $35,000 a year this whole time, increasing the amount due.

The couple, both world-class athletes (Renee was an Olympic–level ice skater in Italy, Erik an NCAA champion soccer player) were physically and emotionally broken by the ordeal, what Judge Klein termed “a state of battle-fatigued demoralization.” Erik attempted suicide with pills. Renee suffered a stress-related heart attack and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She routinely cut herself with razors as an outlet for her pain. In a journal documenting six years of this nightmare, Renee Sundquist described constant stress. “All I do is cry,” she wrote.

The Sundquists won a case in state court against Bank of America in September 2013, but the violation of the stay, the heart of the wrongful foreclosure claim, had to be decided in federal bankruptcy court. There, the Sundquists found a judge who empathized with the abuse layered upon them.

In a 107-page opinion, Judge Klein found that BofA definitively violated the automatic stay and wrongfully foreclosed on the homeowners. “Throughout, the conduct of Bank of America has been intentional,” Judge Klein wrote.

By law, judges can impose actual and punitive damages in this type of case. Judge Klein ordered $1.074 million to the Sundquists in actual damages, for housing expenses, attorney fees, lost income, damaged property, medical bills, and emotional distress.

For punitive damages, Judge Klein stressed that the award had to be “sufficient to have a deterrent effect on Bank of America,” especially because of the role of top management and corporate culture in the case. The judge cited communications from the office of Bank of America’s CEO, both to the Sundquists and to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency currently under attack by the Trump administration. After the Sundquists petitioned CFPB about the case, Judge Klein wrote that BofA lied to the agency by denying that they ever foreclosed.

“The oppression of the Sundquists cannot be chalked off to rogue employees betraying an upstanding employer,” Judge Klein wrote. “This indicates that the engine is driven by direction from senior management.” He even added that the misconduct of the CEO’s office “strayed across the civil-criminal frontier.”

Continue story here.

David Dayen: How a Cruel Foreclosure Drove a Couple to the Brink of Death

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/how-a-cruel-foreclosure-drove-a-couple-to-the-brink-of-death

A married couple resorted to self-harm after being physically and psychologically terrorized by Bank of America over their house—until a judge fined the bank $46 million.

“Franz Kafka lives… he works at Bank of America.”

Judge Christopher Klein’s words kick off an incredible ruling in a federal bankruptcy court in California last week, condemning Bank of America for a long nightmare of a foreclosure against a couple named Erik and Renee Sundquist. Klein ordered BofA to pay a whopping $46 million in damages, with the bulk of the money going to consumer attorney organizations and public law schools, in hopes of ensuring these abuses never happen again—or at least making them less likely.

The ruling offers numerous lessons in the aftermath of a foreclosure crisis that destroyed millions of lives. First of all, the judge specifically cited top executives as responsible, not lower-level employees. Second, the sheer size of the fine—for just one foreclosure—is a commentary on the failure of America’s regulatory and law enforcement system to protect homeowners, despite the financial industry’s massive legal exposure.

Here are the horrific facts of the case: the Sundquists purchased a home in Lincoln, California, in 2008, but ran into financial trouble when Erik’s business faltered in the recession. Like so many others, the Sundquists were told by Bank of America’s mortgage servicing unit to deliberately miss three payments to qualify for a loan modification. Despite agonizing over ruining their perfect credit, they did so.

Inspectors contracted by the bank staked out the home, banged on the doors and tailed the family in cars, terrorizing them to keep tabs on the property.

Bank of America promptly lost or deemed inadequate roughly 20 different applications for a loan modification. At the same time, BofA pursued foreclosure, a dubious practice known as “dual-tracking.”

The Sundquists eventually filed bankruptcy in June 2010, triggering an automatic stay, whereby Bank of America couldn’t foreclose until after the case concluded. But BofA sold the house anyway at a trustee sale and ordered eviction. Inspectors contracted by the bank staked out the home, banged on the doors and tailed the family in cars, terrorizing them to keep tabs on the property.

The bank didn’t correct the violation for six months, by which time the Sundquists, spooked by the constant surveillance and belief they would be evicted, moved into a rental property. Bank of America finally rescinded the sale, but that put the Sundquists back on the house’s title, which is to say on the hook for mortgage payments and maintenance fees.

By the time the Sundquists got the keys back to the home in April 2011, they found all furnishings and appliances removed and the trees dead. The homeowner’s association charged them $20,000 for the substandard landscaping. Bank of America refused to take responsibility for the damages; in fact, they were still threatening to foreclose. Interest on the loan accrued at $35,000 a year this whole time, increasing the amount due.

The couple, both world-class athletes (Renee was an Olympic–level ice skater in Italy, Erik an NCAA champion soccer player) were physically and emotionally broken by the ordeal, what Judge Klein termed “a state of battle-fatigued demoralization.” Erik attempted suicide with pills. Renee suffered a stress-related heart attack and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She routinely cut herself with razors as an outlet for her pain. In a journal documenting six years of this nightmare, Renee Sundquist described constant stress. “All I do is cry,” she wrote.

The Sundquists won a case in state court against Bank of America in September 2013, but the violation of the stay, the heart of the wrongful foreclosure claim, had to be decided in federal bankruptcy court. There, the Sundquists found a judge who empathized with the abuse layered upon them.

In a 107-page opinion, Judge Klein found that BofA definitively violated the automatic stay and wrongfully foreclosed on the homeowners. “Throughout, the conduct of Bank of America has been intentional,” Judge Klein wrote.

By law, judges can impose actual and punitive damages in this type of case. Judge Klein ordered $1.074 million to the Sundquists in actual damages, for housing expenses, attorney fees, lost income, damaged property, medical bills, and emotional distress.

For punitive damages, Judge Klein stressed that the award had to be “sufficient to have a deterrent effect on Bank of America,” especially because of the role of top management and corporate culture in the case. The judge cited communications from the office of Bank of America’s CEO, both to the Sundquists and to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the watchdog agency currently under attack by the Trump administration. After the Sundquists petitioned CFPB about the case, Judge Klein wrote that BofA lied to the agency by denying that they ever foreclosed.

“The oppression of the Sundquists cannot be chalked off to rogue employees betraying an upstanding employer,” Judge Klein wrote. “This indicates that the engine is driven by direction from senior management.” He even added that the misconduct of the CEO’s office “strayed across the civil-criminal frontier.”

This unusual candor hints at executive culpability for foreclosure fraud. “The judge signaled something very important here, which every regulator knows,” said Eric Mains, a former FDIC official who left the agency to fight his own foreclosure case. “This kind of corrupt culture can only be maintained with knowing approval from the top executives.”

After a long discussion of how to best punish BofA, Judge Klein decided to award $45 million in punitive damages, but to give them to entities that fight financial abuse, including the National Consumer Law Center, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, and five public law schools in the University of California system (UC-Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, and Hastings Law School). Klein added that the Sundquists would be protected from having to pay their mortgage until BofA pays up the $46 million.

“Certainly this opinion is a shot across the bow for the bank mortgage servicing operations,” said Alan White, a law professor at City University of New York.

In a statement, Bank of America stressed that the Sundquist loan dated back to 2010: “The processes in place at the time were subsequently modified; regrettably our performance in this particular case was unsatisfactory.” The statement from BofA added, “We believe some of the court’s rulings are unprecedented and unsupported, and we plan to appeal.”

But if one bank is ordered to pay $46 million for just one foreclosure, it begs the question of whether the federal government settled on the cheap in its more systemic investigations of America’s largest financial companies after the 2008 crash. “The governmental regulatory system has failed to protect the Sundquists,” Judge Klein wrote, and that goes double for the millions of homeowners who suffered similar fates, yet didn’t contest their cases or find a judge willing to act on their behalf.

The Obama administration responded to the foreclosure crisis by effectively letting banks off the hook with a series of settlements. Government officials have repeatedly touted these actions, even as subsequent scrutiny revealed the headline numbers to be grossly inflated or at least misleading. But if the going rate for mega-bank legal exposure is $46 million per egregious foreclosure, it’s safe to say the feds dropped the ball in a big way. And the judge’s hints of criminal culpability for top executives, not low-level paper-pushers, clarifies the enduring shame of law enforcement for failing to indict a single major executive for financial crisis-related crimes.

“This is not just an indictment of one big bank, but all of them that continue with this kind of illegal conduct with impunity and no measurable governmental oversight to stop them,” Mains said.

Follow David Dayen on Twitter.

David Dayen at The Intercept: Mnuchin Lied About His Bank’s History of Robo-Signing Foreclosure Documents

By David Dayen

https://theintercept.com/staff/davidd/

Treasury secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin lied in his written responses to the Senate Finance Committee, claiming that “OneWest Bank did not ‘robo-sign’ documents,” when ample evidence proves that they did.

Mnuchin ran OneWest Bank from 2009 to 2015 in a manner so ruthless to mortgage holders that he has been dubbed the “Foreclosure King” by his critics.

The robo-signing scandal involved mortgage companies having their employees falsely sign hundreds of affidavits per week attesting that they had reviewed and verified all the business records associated with a foreclosure — when in fact they never read through the material and just blindly signed off. Those records, in many cases, were prepared improperly, but the foreclosures went ahead anyway because of the fraudulent affidavits.

Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin listens while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. Mnuchin built his reputation and his fortune as a savvy Wall Street investor but critics charge that he profited from thousands of home foreclosures as the chief of a sub-prime mortgage lender during the housing collapse. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Mnuchin on the Hill

Scott Applewhite/AP

“Did OneWest ‘robo-sign’ documents relating to foreclosures and evictions?” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., asked Mnuchin as a “question for the record”.Mnuchin replied that “OneWest Bank did not ‘robo-sign’ documents, 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 even that review – which was not really so “independent,” since the banks hand-picked and paid for their own reviewers – found that nearly 6 percent of the OneWest foreclosures examined were not conducted properly.

And what sparked that review was a 2011 consent order issued by the federal Office of Thrift Supervision, which definitively stated that OneWest filed affidavits in state and federal courts “in which the affiant represented that the assertions in the affidavit were made based on personal knowledge or based on a review by the affiant of the relevant books and records, when, in many cases, they were not.”

 

This is the very definition of robo-signing. OneWest signed and agreed to the consent order, though it never admitted or denied the activity

However, in a Florida foreclosure case, a OneWest employee plainly admitted to robo-signing. On July 9, 2009 – four months after OneWest took over operations from IndyMac, with Mnuchin as CEO – Erica Johnson-Seck, a vice president with OneWest, gave a deposition in which she admitted to being one of eight employees who signed approximately 750 foreclosure-related documents per week.

“How long do you spend executing each document?” Johnson-Seck was asked. “I have changed my signature considerably,” Johnson-Seck replied. “It’s just an E now. So not more than 30 seconds.”

Johnson-Seck also admitted to not reading the affidavits before signing them, not knowing who inputted the information on the documents, and not being aware of how the records were generated. And she acknowledged not signing in the presence of a notary. This resulted in false affidavits being submitted in court cases that attempted to take borrowers’ homes away.

New York Supreme Court Judge Arthur Schack used the information provided by Johnson-Seck to invalidate OneWest foreclosure cases. He also dismissed a separate foreclosure where Johnson-Seck both assigned a mortgage to Deutsche Bank and executed an affidavit on behalf of Deutsche Bank in the same case.

OneWest continued filing sketchy documents for years, even after Johnson-Seck revealed the robo-signing scheme. According to a Reuters investigation in 2011, OneWest issued “foreclosure documents of questionable validity,” including filing mortgage assignments that establish ownership of the loan months after the foreclosure action, meaning OneWest (by their own evidence) didn’t own the loan at the time they decided to foreclose on the property.

Tara Bradshaw, a spokeswoman for Mnuchin during the transition, said she no longer works on the matter and referred all questions to the Treasury Department. The Treasury Department press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Mnuchin’s definitive – though false — statement about robo-signing stands in contrast to some of his other responses to questions for the record. Those he just ducked.

Responding to Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who asked how many Nevada homes were in OneWest Bank’s portfolio and how many Nevadans suffered foreclosure at the hands of OneWest, Mnuchin replied, “Because I am no longer employed by or affiliated with CIT Group, I do not have access to this information.” CIT purchased OneWest in 2015, and Mnuchin left the bank’s board in December.

That was the eighth time that Heller has asked these questions of Mnuchin, according to Senate testimony.

Mnuchin used the same excuse to decline to give information about nationwide foreclosures or federal investigations into OneWest to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Similarly, when Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked Mnuchin if he believes that his former employer Goldman Sachs “acted responsibly and ethically when it bet against the same securities it was selling to its customers,” Mnuchin declined to answer, saying “I left Goldman Sachs nearly fifteen years ago” and was not in a position to comment.

Mnuchin was forced to respond to The Intercept’s publication of a leaked memo alleging that OneWest committed numerous violations of California’s foreclosure processes, including routine backdating of documents to speed up foreclosures. Sen. Casey asked about that, but Mnuchin insisted that “OneWest did not engage in ‘backdating.’” He explained that the bank assumed control of foreclosures initiated under IndyMac, its predecessor, and had a power of attorney to “step into those actions effective as of the date they were initiated.”

But that’s not what the investigators in the California Attorney General’s office alleged in their memo. They claimed that the substitutions of trustee documents in OneWest’s name were not created on the effective date written on the document. They argued that was done deliberately to cover up the lack of a substitution of trustee earlier in the foreclosure process.

David Dayen

David Dayen is a contributor to The Intercept, and also writes for Salon, the Fiscal Times, the New Republic, and more. His first book, Chain of Title, about three ordinary Americans who uncover Wall Street’s foreclosure fraud, will be released in May 2016.

David Dayen via The Intercept: Treasury Pick Steve Mnuchin Denies It, But Victims Describe His Bank as a Foreclosure Machine

https://theintercept.com/2017/01/19/treasury-pick-steve-mnuchin-denies-it-but-victims-describe-his-bank-as-a-foreclosure-machine/

Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin kicked off his confirmation hearing Thursday with a defiant opening statement, mostly defending his record as CEO of OneWest Bank. He cast himself as a tireless savior for homeowners after scooping up failed lender IndyMac. “It has been said that I ran a ‘foreclosure machine,’” he said. “I ran a loan modification machine.”

But in stark contrast to his fuzzy statistics about attempted loan modifications, the victims of OneWest’s foreclosure practices have been real and ubiquitous.

A TV advertising campaign that’s been running in Nevada, Arizona, and Iowa features Lisa Fraser, a widow who says OneWest “lied to us and took our home” of 25 years, right after her husband’s funeral.

And on Wednesday, four women appeared at a congressional forum organized by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, relaying their stories of abuse at the hands of OneWest. Democrats had hoped to present the homeowners as witnesses at Mnuchin’s confirmation hearing, but were denied by Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch.

The women’s stories share a remarkable symmetry to those of nearly a dozen OneWest homeowners reviewed by The Intercept over the past several days. They paint a picture of a bank that did more to trap customers than to help them through their mortgage troubles.

Mnuchin complained to senators that he has “been maligned as taking advantage of others’ hardships in order to earn a buck. Nothing could be further than the truth.”

Treasury Secretary-designate Stephen Mnuchin arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, to testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. Mnuchin built his reputation and his fortune as a savvy Wall Street investor but critics charge that he profited from thousands of home foreclosures as the chief of a sub-prime mortgage lender during the housing collapse. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Treasury Secretary-designate Stephen Mnuchin arrives on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, to testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

But the evidence to support that conclusion is considerable.

Heather McCreary of Sparks, Nevada, one of the four individuals in Washington to testify on Wednesday, was laid off from her job as a home health care provider in 2009. She and her family sought a modification from OneWest as they recovered from the lost wages. OneWest did modify the loan, one of the “over 100,000” such modifications Mnuchin touted in his hearing. But after six months of making modified payments, the bank denied McCreary’s personal check, claiming that the payment had to be made by cashier’s check. “I looked at the paperwork, and couldn’t find that on there,” McCreary said. “The Legal Aid person working with us couldn’t find it.”

OneWest told McCreary to re-apply for the modification twice, then cut off all communications and refused to accept payments. “A few months later we had a foreclosure notice taped to the window, with two weeks to get out,” she said. The bank was pursuing foreclosure while negotiating a modification — a practice known as dual tracking that is now illegal.

Tara Inden, an actress from Hollywood, California, couldn’t get a loan modification from OneWest after multiple attempts. Even after finding a co-tenant willing to pay off her amount due, OneWest refused the money and pursued foreclosure. Inden has fended off four different foreclosure attempts, including one instance when she returned home to find a locksmith breaking in to change the locks. “I took a picture of the work order, it said OneWest Bank on it,” Inden said. “I called the police, they said what do you want us to do, that’s the bank.”

Inden remains in the home today. OneWest gave her $13,000 as part of the Independent Foreclosure Review, a process initiated by federal regulators forcing OneWest and other banks to double-check their foreclosure cases for errors. Inden received no explanation for why she received the money, but sees it as a tacit admission that OneWest violated the law in her case.

Tim Davis of Northern Virginia had a mysterious $14,479 charge added to his loan’s escrow balance on multiple occasions, even after a U.S. Bankruptcy Court ordered it removed. “I don’t think that Mr. Mnuchin should be put in a position of government power without further scrutiny,” Davis said in an email.

Donald Hackett of Las Vegas claimed in legal filings that OneWest illegally foreclosed on them without being the true owner of his loan. He ended up losing the case, and the home. “They had to cheat to beat me,” Hackett alleged. “They came in like union busters to try to bust everybody up and scare you, make you afraid.”

While Hackett was unsuccessful, Mnuchin’s bank has been accused by investigators at the California attorney general’s office of “widespread misconduct” in foreclosure operations, with over a thousand violations of state statutes. The state attorney general, now-Sen. Kamala Harris, decided not to prosecute OneWest for the violations.

Teena Colebrook, an office manager from Hawthorne, California, came to prominence as a Trump supporter disgusted by the Mnuchin selection. She lost her home to OneWest in April 2015, after a yearslong battle that began with the loss of renters who shared the property. Colebrook was informed that the only way she could receive help from OneWest was if she fell 90 days behind on her mortgage payments. This was not true: qualifying for the government’s Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, did not require delinquency, only a risk of default.

“They won’t tell you in writing and they’ll claim they never said that,” Colebrook said. She found robo-signed documents in her file, had insurance policies force-placed onto her loan unnecessarily, and kept getting conflicting statements about how much she actually owed. Late fees piled up, like outsized certified mailing costs of $2,000, all appended to her loan. She eventually ran out of appeals. “They wanted my property, wouldn’t accept any tender offers,” Colebrook said. “They stole my equity. That’s why I’m so angry. If [Mnuchin] can’t get one person’s figures right, how can he be in charge of the Treasury?”

Colebrook put together a complaint group on the Internet to share stories with other sufferers of OneWest. She found multiple people who said they were told to miss payments and then shoved into foreclosure. Others said they were put through year-long trial modifications (under HAMP they were only supposed to be three months long) and then denied a permanent modification, with an immediate demand for the difference between the trial payment and original payment, which could stretch into thousands of dollars. Others lost homes held by their families for decades.

These stories are familiar to those who experienced the aftermath of the financial crisis. OneWest was neither special nor unique in its urgency to foreclose and unwillingness to extend help to the broad mass of struggling borrowers. But Mnuchin’s nomination has put the spotlight back on a forgotten scandal of deception.

Wednesday’s unofficial hearing was the first in Congress in several years featuring homeowners. In the hearing room, Heather McCreary sat next to Colleen Ison-Hodroff, an 84-year-old widow from Minneapolis asked by OneWest to pay off the full balance due on her residence a few days after her husband’s funeral. Ison-Hodroff said OneWest could kick her out of her home of 54 years at any time. “Allowing an 84 year-old woman to be foreclosed on is not the American way,” McCreary said.

When OneWest foreclosure victims heard that Mnuchin was chosen to lead the Treasury Department, they were shocked. “When he was nominated, it was like the floor crashed underneath me,” said McCreary. “It brought back everything. His name was on my paperwork.”

Other victims offered similar remarks. “For someone who will be tasked with making sure that the economy is doing all it can for people like me, even when it seems the system is rigged against them, Steve Mnuchin is not that person,” said forum participant Cristina Clifford, who lost her condo in Whittier, California, after also being told by OneWest to fall behind on payments.

“I think the first thing is he belongs in a prison,” said Tara Inden.

The Mnuchin nomination can only be derailed through Republican opposition, which is relatively unlikely. But it has set off a new wave of activism nationwide.

Activists have been camped out at Goldman Sachs’s New York City headquarters since Tuesday, targeting Mnuchin’s former employer of 17 years. In an echo of a protest to save her home in 2011, OneWest customer Rose Mary Gudiel of La Puente, California, led a march in the rain to Mnuchin’s Bel-Air mansion on Wednesday night, placing furniture on his driveway before police dispersed roughly 60 activists. (Mnuchin famously scrubbed his address off the internet after the 2011 protest, saying his family was subjected to “public ire at the banking industry.” But the same organizers found his house again.)

“I put it in the middle of a resurgence of housing justice activism,” said Amy Schur of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. “Hard-hit communities are organizing across the country like they haven’t in years. Sometimes we might have kept eyes on the powers that be locally, but with the likes of Trump and this cabinet, we have to take this fight nationally as well.”

[David Dayen is live-tweeting the hearing here.]

Top photo: Protesters hold a sign during a demonstration outside of a Goldman Sachs office on Jan. 18, 2017, in Los Angeles. More than two dozen activists and foreclosure victims staged a demonstration outside of a Goldman Sachs office to denounce Steve Mnuchin, President-elect Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary nominee.

Contact the author:

David Dayendavid.dayen@gmail.com@ddayen

 

‘They Are Both Profiteers’: Meet The Two Most Repellent Reptiles to Slither into Trump’s Swamp

‘They Are Both Profiteers’: Meet The Two Most Repellent Reptiles to Slither into Trump’s Swamp

Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross will bleed the country dry.

Photo Credit: Screengrab/Democracy Now!

We look at two of Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks: Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary and Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary. Mnuchin has deep ties on Wall Street, including working as a partner for Goldman Sachs, and his hedge fund played a role in the housing crisis after it scooped up the failing California bank IndyMac in 2008. Trump’s commerce secretary pick, Wilbur Ross, is a billionaire private equity investor who specializes in flipping bankrupt companies for profit, often buying the U.S. companies at low prices and then selling them to overseas investors. He and his companies have sometimes shipped jobs and factories overseas—practices Donald Trump has railed against. We are joined by David Dayen, whose recent article for The Nation is “Wilbur Ross and Steve Mnuchin—Profiteers of the Great Foreclosure Machine—Go to Washington.”

https://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2016/12/2/bankers_behind_great_foreclosure_machine_join

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to look in more detail at two of Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks: Steven Mnuchin for treasury secretary and Wilbur Ross for commerce secretary. Mnuchin has deep ties to Wall Street, including working as a partner for Goldman Sachs, where his father also worked. Mnuchin’s hedge fund also played a role in the housing crisis after it scooped up the failing California bank IndyMac in 2008. Under Mnuchin’s ownership, IndyMac foreclosed on 36,000 families, particularly elderly residents trapped in reverse mortgages. Mnuchin was accused of running a foreclosure machine. People protested outside his home. The bank, which was renamed OneWest, was also accused of racially discriminatory lending practices. In 2015, Mnuchin sold the bank for $3.4 billion, $1.8 billion more than he bought it for.

Trump’s commerce secretary pick, Wilbur Ross, is a billionaire private equity investor. Ross specializes in flipping bankrupt companies for profit, often buying the U.S. companies at low prices, then selling them to overseas investors. He and his companies have sometimes shipped jobs and factories overseas, practices Donald Trump has railed against. He, too, had a role in the foreclosure crisis. In 2007, Wilbur Ross bought the second-largest servicer of subprime loans in America, a company called American Home Mortgage Servicing.

To talk more about Mnuchin and Ross, we’re joined by David Dayen, author of the award-winning book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud. His most recent piece for The Nation, “Wilbur Ross and Steve Mnuchin—Profiteers of the Great Foreclosure Machine—Go to Washington.”

So, talk about the significance of this, David. Talk about who Mnuchin and Ross are.

DAVID DAYEN: Right, so they are both—I call them profiteers because they, like most banks and mortgage servicing companies, just profited from the lack of attention to the foreclosure crisis at the federal level. Mnuchin foreclosed on 36,000 people—in California alone. He foreclosed on much more through OneWest Bank, where he was CEO. And Wilbur Ross, through American Home Mortgage Servicing, which eventually became a company called Ocwen, also did so, and they did so illegally. These were fraudulent foreclosures, where fake documents were used to prop up those foreclosures. There are depositions with individuals from OneWest Bank saying that they spent 30 seconds looking at foreclosure files before signing affidavits that said that they knew everything in that file and reviewed all the business practices. There were forged documents routinely from Wilbur Ross’s American Home Mortgage Servicing. They were done by a third-party company known as DocX, where the CEO of that company actually is in prison right now, went to prison for five years for forging millions of mortgage assignments to be used as evidence in court cases all over the country. So, these were very normal practices, but it’s very ironic that the Obama administration kind of lost track and didn’t pay attention to this crisis that was going on. And now, after Trump’s election, he brings in two people who profited almost the most from that to help run his Cabinet.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean to be head of treasury and commerce? How does that relate to what their history is around the issue of foreclosure?

DAVID DAYEN: Well, certainly, the Treasury Department is a regulatory position now. Steven Mnuchin will be the head of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which is a superregulator that monitors systemic risk, where there was a lot of systemic risk from the financial crisis and the foreclosure crisis, and he can kind of shut it down. Steven Mnuchin has said that he will seek to privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, where nine out of 10 mortgages are owned or guaranteed right now. That’s going to be a huge windfall for the hedge funds that bought Fannie and Freddie stock at a low point, at a dollar a share. If that’s spun out and privatized, it would be $30 to $40 a share.

Incidentally, one of the biggest benefactors of that would be John Paulson, who was a business partner to Steven Mnuchin in the OneWest deal. So, you know, through deregulation, through just the lack of attention to these matters, Steven Mnuchin is going to have a lot of control. Wilbur Ross, maybe less so at the Commerce Department, but still you’re talking about Donald Trump’s closest advisers, and it’s very likely they’re going to take their eyes off the ball with respect to the practices of the mortgage industry.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Dayen, I want to thank you for being with us, author of the award-winning book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud. We will link to your piece in The Nation.

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