A remarkable report from an Inspector General in Florida not only clears the state Attorney General’s office for the firings of two foreclosure fraud investigators, it accuses bloggers and advocates of dictating and controlling investigations, sometimes for nakedly personal reasons.
The story, which most clearly resembles the US Attorney scandal of the Bush era, requires quite a bit of backup.
June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards were career lawyers in the South Florida office of the Attorney General, economic crimes division. Back during the dark days of 2010, Clarkson and Edwards were the most aggressive law enforcement officials, from the top down, in identifying and investigating the web of foreclosure fraud, particularly the stew that emerged in Florida, with bogus documents, forgeries, go-go foreclosure mills valuing speed over accuracy, and document processing companies providing menus for law firms to finish off the theft of homes from borrowers.
Much of the information Clarkson and Edwards got into the public sphere motivated the investigations and lawsuits we see today. At the end of 2010, Clarkson and Edwards prepared a Power Point Presentation, called Unfair, Deceptive and Unconscionable Acts in Foreclosure Cases. That Power Point, bringing together all the types of document fraud seen in Florida foreclosure courts, had a profound impact. I described it at the time as “a full pictorial history of the past decade in the mortgage industry, complete with actual shots of improper mortgage assignments. They show the same name of a bank officer being written four different ways, clearly forged. They show stamps from notarizations that expired before they were used to certify foreclosure documents.”
The report sent shock waves through the industry and the law enforcement community. As Clarkson said on the “Citizen Warriors” radio show last night, “we had people from New York and DC coming down asking us what was going on in their banks! And it stopped foreclosures for a couple months.”
Importantly, the Power Point was created at the direction of the old regime, under a Republican AG, Bill McCollum. Clarkson and Edwards said they were asked to create the Power Point, which was park of a presentation to county clerks in Florida. In the meantime, they generated the depositions of certain foreclosure mills that led to nationwide reviews of these law firms. Their work helped educate law enforcement officials around the country about the extent of the crimes.
But McCollum left the AGs office in January, replaced by a different Republican, Pam Bondi. At the same time, the longtime director of the economic crimes division left, and Richard Lawson, a former defense attorney for white collar criminals – mainly bank officials – came in. As Lawson acknowledges in his statement to the IG report (more on that in a minute), he received complaints from the lawyers of several of the defendants in Clarkson and Edwards’ cases, in particular Lender Processing Services (LPS), which was part of a multistate investigation at the time.
Lawson immediately went to work criticizing Clarkson and Edwards’ conduct, disputing their claims, savaging the work of their office, and micromanaging their investigations (but only the foreclosure fraud investigations, not their other work). By May they were out, fired by Lawson and Bondi. They were given 90 minutes to pack up their things and leave the office, and lost access to all their files and emails.
This looked suspiciously like a politically motivated firing. Advocates for homeowners, along with the group Progress Florida and a couple Democratic lawmakers, urged an investigation. Two days before state Rep. Darren Soto and state Sen. Eleanor Sobel asked the Justice Department to investigate, Bondi personally requested an investigation, outsourcing it to the inspector general for the state’s Chief Financial Officer, Jeff Atwater, a Republican former member of the state legislature. That report came out late Friday, and it completely exonerated the AG’s office for the Clarkson and Edwards firing. “During the course of the inquiry there was no specific allegation of wrongdoing made by any person, and no discovery of evidence of wrongdoing on the part of anyone involved in the matter,” the report concludes.
But the report did more than that. It repeatedly referred to two advocates, Foreclosure Hamlet blogger Lisa Epstein and fraud attorney Lynn Syzmoniak, claiming that they helped run investigations out of Clarkson and Edwards’ offices, had personal relationships with the investigators, and received leaks of documents that they used to raise awareness in the media. Lawson relates in the report that Epstein was dictating the investigation and “might be lying to Clarkson.” In this excerpt, the IG report even intimates that Epstein, a foreclosure fraud victim, was using the investigations for personal gain:
Lawson referenced a July 12, 2010, email Clarkson sent to Epstein explaining how she hoped to soon finish the lawsuit she was drafting against FDLG; adding yet, in April of 2011, little work had been done on the case. Lawson also pointed out Clarkson was discussing the drafting with a third party who was a blogger and being foreclosed on by FDLG. He opined, “is there any, any consciousness whatsoever that this is simply gonna be taken and used to extort a better result out of her own foreclosure case?”
Contrary to the report, Epstein and Szymoniak maintained on the “Citizen Warriors” radio show that they had no relationship with Clarkson and Edwards, that they were merely sources who passed along information from public court documents, and who had nothing but professional dealings. As a further irony, despite being mentioned in the report over and over, Epstein and Szymoniak were never interviewed by the IG. Epstein requested an investigation by the Governor’s Inspector General into the Clarkson and Edwards firings, and now she was targeted as part of the Bondi-directed IG report.
“This is the most chilling report for any citizen whistleblower,” Epstein said last night. “This tells any whistleblower who uncovers crimes that the leaders in your state will trash you and malign your character if you speak up.” Szymoniak added, “If I’m going to be named 26 times in a report, I should be interviewed.”
Edwards and Clarkson were interviewed for the IG report, but there was never any follow-up. “June and I worked as hard as we could for Florida consumers,” Edwards said last night. “Despite our limited time I feel we made a difference. We accomplished a lot.” Edwards and Clarkson maintain that after their firings in May, the Florida AG’s office has basically shut down investigations into foreclosure fraud. “The AG’s office said they put 20 people on this. Not one subpoena has come out since we left, and no investigations that we’re aware of.”
The IG report downplays many of the investigations Edwards and Clarkson oversaw, despite the fact that current investigations (like Nevada AG Masto’s lawsuit against LPS, for example) make the same claims, and court rulings back them up. It faulted them for sloppy files; Edwards and Clarkson contend that they only had one full-time secretary for five lawyers in the office, and they were getting reams of examples of fraud from all over the state (“we needed more help, not more criticism,” Edwards said).
The report calls the Power Point presentation unprofessional, riddled with inaccuracies and incorrect insinuations. This is despite the fact that Assistant Attorneys General still working under Bondi would use the Power Point in presentations to the Legislature. In particular, Trish Conners, an Associate Deputy AG, made this presentation to the Florida Senate in early 2011 using slides from the Clarkson/Edwards Power Point. In the IG report, Conners says she “may have used a couple of slides from the PPT that June and Theresa prepared, but I do not recall which ones.” As Epstein said last night, “Conners got amnesia about (the report). I had a meeting in her office in March (of 2011) where she personally thanked me for my work as a whistleblower, and said they needed more citizens in Florida doing this work.”
The most potentially damning part of the IG report concerns a draft subpoena that was part of a multistate investigation against LPS. Lawson claims that Clarkson leaked the subpoena to Epstein, which Epstein contends was part of a public records request. Those can be done verbally in the state of Florida, but Lawson claims that there’s no record of it. Epstein added that she has received receipt of previous public records requests from the AGs office. In the case of the LPS subpoena, Lawson contends that it would not fall under a public records request. But Epstein says she never published a draft LPS subpoena, or circulate it to the media, and so it’s impossible for other state AGs to complain that “the subpoena came up on the blog.” Because Clarkson and Edwards have no access to their emails anymore, “it’s difficult to respond to the report.” Days after the alleged leak of the subpoena, Clarkson and Edwards were fired.
The media has accepted the narrative that this IG report cleared Bondi of any wrongdoing in the firing. But it really just raises more questions. Why were so many attorneys defending targets of investigations talking to the head of the economic crimes division? Why was he listening to their concerns over his own investigators in his office? Why was Lawson faulting Clarkson and Edwards for a failure to do “independent investigations to confirm third party complaints” when he was accepting third party complaints from the targets of the investigations? Why is there so much smearing of the work of Lisa Epstein and Lynn Szymoniak, both nationally recognized for their efforts?
Epstein contends that the report “is a coverup. It’s a simple coverup of the fact that (Clarkson and Edwards) were ousted because the targets and their attorneys are very powerful, and they did not like the investigations. All they could do is cast aspersions at anyone connected to the process.”