I wrote yesterday that nothing seemed to be changing in the foreclosure crisis. Regulators were still trying to enforce the law with inadequate information (perhaps deliberately), and the banks were still abusing their customers. But late yesterday we got word of federal audits from HUD showing violations by the top five banks of the False Claims Act:
A set of confidential federal audits accuse the nation’s five largest mortgage companies of defrauding taxpayers in their handling of foreclosures on homes purchased with government-backed loans, four officials briefed on the findings told The Huffington Post.
The five separate investigations were conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general and examined Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial, the sources said.
The audits accuse the five major lenders of violating the False Claims Act, a Civil War-era law crafted as a weapon against firms that swindle the government. The audits were completed between February and March, the sources said. The internal watchdog office at HUD referred its findings to the Department of Justice, which must now decide whether to file charges [...]
The resulting reports read like veritable indictments of major lenders, the sources said. State officials are now wielding the documents as leverage in their ongoing talks with mortgage companies aimed at forcing the firms to agree to pay fines to resolve allegations of routine violations in their handling of foreclosures.
Well, yes, that’s how you do a negotiation: you amass evidence as leverage against the opposition.
A few things jump out. One, this is a similar charge, from the same HUD IG findings, that the Justice Department used on Deutsche Bank in a $1 billion lawsuit, saying they lied to acquire insurance reimbursements for FHA loans that went into foreclosure. That was probably a warning shot to the big banks as well as a case in its own right. Second, this is the reason HUD has been so involved in the state AG negotiations. This amounts to swindling their department out of money. Third, this shows what a useless cover-up that federal foreclosure task force turned out to be. Over the same time period, the HUD Inspector General, a relative backwater compared to the mix of regulators working on the task force, found multiple violations of law. Fourth, the False Claims Act is not necessarily the only law I would think to use to describe the banks’ abuses in the foreclosure crisis. But sometimes you have to use what you can. And essentially, this tracks a familiar crime. What the HUD IG found was that the documents they used to file for reimbursement were faulty.
Two of the firms, including Bank of America, refused to cooperate with the investigations, according to the sources. The audit on Bank of America finds that the company — the nation’s largest handler of home loans — failed to correct faulty foreclosure practices even after imposing a moratorium that lifted last October. Back then, the bank said it was resuming foreclosures, having satisfied itself that prior problems had been solved.
According to the sources, the Wells Fargo investigation concludes that senior managers at the firm, the fourth-largest American bank by assets, broke civil laws. HUD’s inspector general interviewed a pair of South Carolina public notaries who improperly signed off on foreclosure filings for Wells, the sources said.
The article makes the case that this will help the state AGs reach a resolution with the banks over their conduct. But that settlement appears to be on the wane, as another AG just started freelancing, requesting documents over another point of exposure for the banks:
The New York attorney general has requested information and documents in recent weeks from three major Wall Street banks about their mortgage securities operations during the credit boom, indicating the existence of a new investigation into practices that contributed to billions in mortgage losses.
Officials in Eric T. Schneiderman’s, office have also requested meetings with representatives from Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, according to people briefed on the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly. The inquiry appears to be quite broad, with the attorney general’s requests for information covering many aspects of the banks’ loan pooling operations. They bundled thousands of home loans into securities that were then sold to investors such as pension funds, mutual funds and insurance companies.
It is unclear which parts of the byzantine securitization process Mr. Schneiderman is focusing on. His spokesman said the attorney general would not comment on the investigation, which is in its early stages.
Unclear which part of the securitization process Schneiderman wants to probe, but certainly he doesn’t feel constrained by any ongoing settlement with the banks to trim his sails and follow any release of claims. And as Shahien Nasiripour says in his story, a number of state AGs have followed suit:
The state of Illinois has begun examining potentially-fraudulent court filings, looking at the role played by a unit of Lender Processing Services. Nevada and Arizona already launched lawsuits against Bank of America. California is keen on launching its own suits, people familiar with the matter say. Delaware sent Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems Inc., which runs an electronic registry of mortgages, a subpoena demanding answers to 75 questions. And New York’s top law enforcer, Eric Schneiderman, wants to conduct a complete investigation into all facets of mortgage banking, from fraudulent lending to defective securitization practices to faulty foreclosure documents and illegal home seizures.
We’re moving in the right direction with these investigations of fraud and abuse. Let’s keep it that way. If government can’t fix the housing crisis, at least they can enforce the law.