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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