Turning the Tide Toward Borrowers

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Editor’s Comment:

Nocera and several other responsible journalists have finally reached the point of taking a larger perspective than the narrow myths perpetuated by Wall Street. Wall Street would have us believe that they took bad risks and “made mistakes” causing the financial collapse. His point is the Justice Department has taken after “the smallest of smallest” and he believes that those prosecutions are in lieu of the prosecutions that ought to occur against those who are responsible for setting up a criminal enterprise with the appearance of a conventional business structure.

The problem is easy to describe and difficult to solve.  It is simply true that prosecutions of “small fry” are easier because they don’t have the resources or knowledge necessary to properly defend themselves.  It is equally true that the successful prosecution can be used for public relations purposes to show that a regulating agency or law enforcement is doing its job.

On the other hand prosecution of Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein would provoke a vigorous defense conducted by dozens of lawyers whose purpose would be to merely poke holes in the prosecutions case rather than proving their clients innocence.  In order to prosecute such people and those close to them, it would be necessary for the regulating agencies and law enforcement to acquire specialized knowledge so that they would know what to investigate and arrive at conclusions as to which violations to prosecute based upon their likelihood of success. 

The solution is obvious.  Since there is no likelihood that most regulatory agencies and most law enforcement agencies would ever be able to mount such a challenge to the Titans of Wall Street, and the political risk of losing such a case would be devastating, they simply must maintain the status quo, which is to say that they should continue the policy of going after “small fry”.  On the other hand if they really want to represent the citizens of their country or their state (or their county), they could appoint a special prosecutor whose payment would be relatively minimal in terms of getting the case started and largely dependent upon the actual payment of fines, penalties, interests, and restitution.  There are at present at least a dozen law firms in the country (including our very own GarfieldFirm.com) who could perform this service under the direction of the Attorney General or county attorney or both.

The only thing that the state would need to provide is space and facilities and perhaps some minimal capital.  To put this in perspective, I made an approach to the appropriate people in government in the state of Arizona in 2008 in that proposal it was my naïvely idealistic presumption that the state would be more than happy to collect taxes, fees, fines, penalties interest etc that were due from out of state residence residing on Wall Street in the state of New York.  Based upon existing AZ law I projected a 10 billion dollar recovery.  Their finance department looked over my analysis and decided I was wrong.  They projected a recovery of 3 billion dollars which as it turns out is exactly the amount of the budget deficit of the state. 

At this point it is fair to say that the risk reward ratio of prosecuting the Titans of Wall Street has reached a point where it is irresistible if it is performed by a special prosecutor who has no ambitions for public office.  In the process, the state would recover not only the taxes, fees, fines, penalties and interest, but the homeowners would be virtually guaranteed some form of restitution based upon the wrongful foreclosures and the trading of their loans and securities whose value was derived from their loans. 

It is well understood and known that we are only halfway through a contest of enormous consequence.  Without appropriate restraints on banking and financial service companies most of the liberties and rights set forth in the founding documents of our country will become meaningless.   Until now the investment banks have been able to control the narrative.  But the facts about their misdeeds and malfeasance are starting to drown out the gigantic Wall Street machine.  I’m not saying that the tide has already turned.  But with the help of readers like you who become proactive and write letters to their attorney generals, county attorneys, and the regulatory agencies demanding such action, the tide will turn earlier rather than later. 

The Mortgage Fraud Fraud

By JOE NOCERA

I got an e-mail the other day from Richard Engle telling me that his son Charlie would be getting out of prison this month. I was happy to hear it.

Charlie’s ordeal isn’t over yet, of course. When he leaves prison on June 20, Charlie, 49, will move temporarily to a halfway house, after which he will be on probation for another five years. And unless he can get the verdict overturned, he will have to spend the rest of his life with a felony on his record.

Perhaps you remember Charlie Engle. I wrote about him not long after he entered a minimum-security facility in Beaver, W.Va., 16 months ago. He’s the poor guy who went to jail for lying on a liar loan during the housing bubble.

There were two things about Charlie’s prosecution that really bothered me. First, he’d clearly been targeted by an agent of the Internal Revenue Service who seemed offended that Charlie was an ultramarathoner without a steady day job. The I.R.S. conducted “Dumpster dives” into his garbage and put a wire on a female undercover agent hoping to find some dirt on him. Unable to unearth any wrongdoing on his tax returns, the I.R.S. discovered he had taken out several subprime mortgages that didn’t require income verification. His income on one of them was wildly inflated. They don’t call them liar loans for nothing.

Charlie has always insisted that he never filled out the loan document — his mortgage broker did it, and he was actually a victim of mortgage fraud. (The broker later pleaded guilty to another mortgage fraud.) Indeed, according to a recent court filing by Charlie’s lawyer, the government failed to turn over exculpatory evidence that could have helped Charlie prove his innocence. For whatever inexplicable reason, prosecutors really wanted to nail Charlie Engle. And they did.

Second, though, it seemed incredible to me that with all the fraud that took place during the housing bubble, the Justice Department was focusing not on the banks that had issued the fraudulent loans, but rather on those who had taken out the loans, which invariably went sour when housing prices fell.

As I would later learn, Charlie Engle was no aberration. The current meme — argued most recently by Charles Ferguson, in his new book “Predator Nation” — is that not a single top executive at any of the firms that nearly brought down the financial system has spent so much as a day in jail. And that is true enough.

But what is also true, and which is every bit as corrosive to our belief in the rule of law, is that the Justice Department has instead taken after the smallest of small fry — and then trumpeted those prosecutions as proof of how tough it is on mortgage fraud. It is a shameful way for the government to act.

“These people thought they were pursuing the American dream,” says Mark Pennington, a lawyer in Des Moines who regularly defends home buyers being prosecuted by the local United States attorney. “Right here in Des Moines,” he said, “there was a big subprime outfit, Wells Fargo Financial. No one there has been prosecuted. They are only going after people who lost their homes after the bubble burst. It’s a scandal.”

The Justice Department has had a tough run recently. Last week, Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general — who was recently given a role by President Obama to investigate the mortgage-backed securities issued during the bubble — complained publicly that he wasn’t getting the resources he needed from the Justice Department. And, of course, on Thursday, a federal judge declared a mistrial on five charges of campaign finance fraud and conspiracy in the trial of the former presidential candidate John Edwards.

In the Edwards case, the Justice Department spent tens of millions of dollars, and trotted out novel legal theories, to prosecute a man who was essentially trying to keep people from discovering that he had had a mistress and an out-of-wedlock child. Salacious though it was, the case has zero public import. Yet this same Justice Department isn’t willing to use similar resources — and perhaps even trot out some novel legal theories — to go after the pervasive corporate wrongdoing that gave us the financial crisis and the Great Recession. (I should note that the Justice Department claims that it “will not hesitate” to prosecute any “institution where there is evidence of a crime.”)

Think back to the last time the federal government went after corporate crooks. It was after the Internet bubble. Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay of Enron were prosecuted and found guilty. Bernard Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, went to jail. Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco was prosecuted and given a lengthy prison sentence. Now recall which Justice Department prosecuted those men.

Amazing, isn’t it? George W. Bush has turned out to be tougher on corporate crooks than Barack Obama.

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Death Penalty for LPS?

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By Barry Ritholz

Think back to the giant fraud that was Enron. It was enabled — indeed, it was only possible — by the criminal behavior of their “Big Five” accounting firm, Arthur Andersen. This massive fraud perpetrated on the investing public was only possible due to the cooperation and active participation of their accountant, who were found guilty of “obstructing justice when it destroyed Enron Corp. documents while on notice of a federal investigation” charges. For this sin relating to their handling of Enron’s audits, Arthur Anderson was forced to “decertify,” voluntarily surrendering their license to be Certified Public Accountants in the United States. By voluntary, we mean they had no other choice.

Hence, for their complicity in the Enron scandal, Arthur Anderson was taken out back like Old Yeller and put down. Their senior officers and accountants scattered to the other major firms with their clients in tow. Even their consulting firm, Accenture, luckily lost the name Arthur Andersen Consulting in 2000, removed all visible signs of affiliation.

Once Andersen was de-certified from Accountancy,  AA was no more.

Today, we have what appears to be a parallel fraud: The processing of foreclosure documents by legal services giant Lender Processing Services. Thanks to the diligent worh of Attorneys General in states such as Nevada, New York, Delaware, California (but not Florida), we are starting to learn the extent of what took place under the auspices of LPS:

•  former L.P.S. employee who worked in “attorney management,” overseeing firms that performed legal work for foreclosures, told Nevada investigators that L.P.S. required him to resolve issues raised by the firms at a rate of 30 foreclosure files every hour (2 minutes per)

• Former workers described their work as “surrogate signers.” Their job was to forge signatures on documents.

• Other employees were hired through temp agencies, paid $11 an hour and told that her job was “to sign somebody else’s signature on documents,” the lawsuit said. Investigators were informed she signed roughly 2,000 documents a day for months — well over 100,000 foreclosure docs.

• Notarization was similarly dishonest, with workers notarizing documents (as a Notary) that they had fraudulently signed as a surrogate.

• Borrowers were confronted with documents containing “false assertions about which entity was authorized to foreclose, and false assertions about whether the consumer was delinquent on a loan payment.”

I have a question for Bank of America and Citi: Why haven’t you thrown these LPS weasels under the bus? What dirt they have on you preventing a simple j’accuse! ? What the hurry to settle before an investigation?

The end game for this is fairly obvious: Find the f—–s who authorized this, prosecute and convict them, and throw their sorry asses in jail. If the orders came from high enough up the food chain, why not pursue a similar Arthur Anderson penalty. Wat this broad corporate policy, or the work of a rogue banker? There is the answer to the death penalty question. After all, if a legal services firm is committing fraud, what bank or law firm can ever work with them? Depending upon the outcome of these AG investigations, a corporate death penalty could very well be the appropriate remedy.

This is going to get very interesting this year . . .

 

It’s Not Just Enron

Enron is just one of a long series of scams starting back in the 1960’s with changes in the rules that prompted Abromoff to Write Unaccountable Accounting. The essence of the scam is simple: put the risk on some unsuspecting schmuck and take all the money. It is the middlemen — the accounting firms, the law firms, the rating agencies, the investment bankers, and yes, the banks that clean up. They never take the loss. It is the small investor and the fund manager desperate to show short-term performance that support the scam. There are several segments of the economy that are empty shells — business plans composed of smoke and mirrors. Whether it is Boston Market which gave the money to the franchisors to pay for the franchise, or Enron or WorldCom who posted huge profits in tight margin industries, or the late spate of derivative securities many of which by their very name imply high sophistication to mask their low-down fraudulent nature.Some Chinese workers get paid a total of ten bucks to make a stick of furniture. The Chinese company that employs them gets 50 bucks. The Chinese manufacturer, sells the furniture to a jobber for $75. The jobber sells the piece to an American Distributor for $100. The Distributor sells the piece to a retail furniture outlet for $150. The retail store sells the piece to a customer for $800 with no money down and no payments until 2012. The customer signs — and here is where the real fun begins — his signed document is sold by the retailer to XYZ factoring, Inc. for $425. The factoring company sells the debt to an investment banker for $500. The investment banker packages an income fund and sells it through retail brokerage to Joe Schmuck (investor) on the street for $600, as a derivative security (collateralized debt obligation, which sounds very safe), with a return of 12%. The truth is no money exchanged hands until Joe Schmuck ponied up the $600. Then it is sent down the line and everyone gets paid. But the companies are allowed under current accounting rules to report the “sale”, the income from the sale and later the write-down when some of the paper goes bad — and they do this without the first dollar put up by either the consumer who “purchased” the furniture or the investor who will purchase the CDO security. And then these “middleware” companies report higher earnings and more people buy their securities and on it goes. The frenzy continues and prices increase because nobody dares to get out, and people fool themselves into thinking they are rich from this paper trail — until it collapses, which is exactly what is about to happen in our boom and bust economy.Joe Schmuck is the one who actually bought the furniture and doesn’t even know it much less use it. Nobody cares whether the customer who received the furniture ever pays because they are not at risk (Joe Schmuck has all the risk), and nobody cares if Joe Schmuck loses all his money a couple of years later when the pyramid collapses, because he bought pursuant to an incomprehensible prospectus that is mind-numbing even to experienced securities attorneys. The disclosures are all in there, couched in language that probably nobody understands including the author who plagiarized it from another prospectus which itself was created from cutting and pasting the work of others who cared all about form and nothing about substance. Whether it is “mortgage-backed securities” or anything else if you create free money people are going to chase it and take it. Lots of people made a lot of money on this scheme and variations of it. They are all based on hiding risk, and skirting the intent of disclosure requirements. They all produce ridiculous sums of revenue and income for middlemen in exchange for merely showing up. None of the middlemen provide value added. That is the weakness of our economy and the culture behind it is what is pulling down our quality of goods and services, our expectations and even our hopes and dreams.The reason why costs have gone down and prices have gone up is not just that the companies we see and know are making more money, which they are, but because, we have institutionalized it into a feeding frenzy that invited more middlemen in to share in the bounty. The more people in the chain, the more complex it appears and the thus the more legitimate it appears (or at least, there is considerable doubt arising from the confusing array of transactions, that anyone can prove that anyone did anything wrong).The net result is that consumers and investors get screwed. Consumers are lured by “free stuff” (like houses) and investors are lured by too good to be true returns. Nobody else puts up any money. And if the Consumer actually pays part or all of the price of the furniture, then there is even more money to split up with transaction, handling and customers service fees attached. It all comes down to a simple code of marketing in the investment banking world. If you are selling, make it complicated — then you can call it whatever you want and price it anyway you sell it. If you are buying make it simple and pay only when you understand what you are paying for.  

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