ForeclosureGate: Not just bungled paperwork, it is FRAUD  (Part 1)

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Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Much of the mainstream media, with the notable exceptions of the New York Times and Washington Post in particular which "get it" as to the nature and the scope of the robo-foreclosure scandal, have demonstrated a lack of concern (I would argue a lack of knowledge of the legal complexities of foreclosure) for the fraud committed by major lending institutions.

Representative of this attitude was an opinion in the Arizona Republic last week, Don't prolong housing slump:

Some of the nation's largest mortgage lenders have frozen home foreclosures, the result of a burgeoning scandal regarding how banks have been handling the complicated process of foreclosure. In Arizona, those lenders include J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America, two of the state's largest mortgage lenders.

Have some banks bungled the foreclosure-documentation process? Evidence suggests they may have. Is this freeze a threat to the housing recovery that must lead Arizona and the U.S. out of the recession? It most certainly is.

* * *

The reasons behind the scandal are infuriatingly obvious to anyone reading the horror stories in The Republic written by our Catherine Reagor, or watching the reports of KPNX 12 News reporter Melissa Blasius. The evidence they have compiled of haphazard paperwork and callous treatment of homeowners is disturbing.

Unfortunately, a "resolution" of the scandal that requires months or years of court battles could cause even greater pain. All 50 states are contemplating legal action. Class-action lawsuits already have been filed, and ambitious lawyers are signing up entire neighborhoods as clients. Congress, as always among the last to see the consequence of its actions, is calling for investigations.

The nation's lawmakers in fact may be the last line of defense against this fast-expanding crisis, discouraging as that may seem. The rights of homeowners must be protected, but at the same time the American legal system should not constitute an economic suicide pact for the entire country.

Got that? The robo-foreclosure scandal is just 'bungled" and "haphazard" paperwork that can be readily fixed over time by lenders. There was no fraud in the origination of these mortgages or the sales of mortgage-backed securities in the derivatives market. Those damn lawyers - and all 50state Attorneys General, mind you - are just legal vultures looking to make a quick buck off lenders and traders who simply made "mistakes" in paperwork. Their suggestion seems to be that Congress should immunize lenders and traders from lawsuits. Forget about all those troublesome laws. Let them conduct business as usual.

As someone who used to do foreclosures and deed of trust sales as part of my practice, I can tell you from personal knowledge and experience that this robo-foreclosure scandal is not as simple as the Arizona Republic misleads its readers to believe.

Susie Madrak writing at crooksandliars.com describes the problem. Just A 'Handful' Of Problems? Nope, At Least 4,500 Houses In NYC With Improper Mortgage Foreclosure Documents:

You know all those snide remarks the financial bobbleheads have been making about a "handful" of foreclosures with improper documentation?

[I]n New York City alone, it's more than 4,000:

Thousands of foreclosures across the city are in question because paperwork used to justify the seizure of homes is riddled with flaws, a Daily News probe has found.

Banks have suspended some 4,450 foreclosures in all five boroughs because of paperwork problems like missing and inaccurate documents, dubious signatures and banks trying to foreclose on mortgages they don't even own.

The city's not alone. All 50 states are investigating foreclosure paperwork, evicted homeowners are hiring lawyers and buyers of foreclosed homes are fretting over the legality of their purchases.

Last week, New York's top judge, Jonathan Lippman, began requiring all bank lawyers to sign a form vouching for the accuracy of their foreclosure paperwork.

That could have been a problem for one Long Island foreclosure that was being brought by GMAC Mortgage last year.

A sworn affidavit dated March 30 was signed by someone identified as Sherry Hall, vice president of a GMAC affiliate called Homecomings Financial Network.

Fifteen days later another sworn affidavit surfaced in another Suffolk County foreclosure, this time signed by a GMAC vice president named Sheri D. Hall.

Despite the difference in the names, the signatures were identical - and were vouched for by the same notary.

Suffolk Supreme Court Justice Peter Mayer refused to approve the foreclosure bearing the name Sherry Hall and ordered her, and the notary, to appear in court Nov. 17. GMAC officials did not return calls.

"It's nice to know someone in authority is looking at the fine print," said Derek McCoy, the delinquent homeowner in the case who's trying to keep his Coram home with a loan modification.

Mayer issued his decision Sept. 21, the day after GMAC, which was rescued from failure with a $17 billion taxpayer bailout, suspended foreclosures in the 23 states where court approval is required, including New York.

The moratorium, which ended last week, came after GMAC "robo-signer" Jeffrey Stephan admitted in a Maine case he'd signed 10,000 foreclosure documents a month without reviewing them.

Stephan also robo-signed in New York. The News found six Bronx foreclosures with his signature, including five in one month.

In one case, a judge halted foreclosure on an E. 242nd St. property because Stephan's affidavit did not include supporting documents. The case resumed after GMAC submitted the documents - and a new affidavit.

Judges are also seeing banks foreclosing on homes they don't yet own - a problem that concerns Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Arthur Schack.

Schack said it's become increasingly "murky" trying to determine who holds a mortgage at the time of foreclosure because they're often passed from one lender to another.

At a state Senate committee hearing last year, Schack testified that the lender must prove it holds the mortgage on the day the foreclosure is filed.

"Sounds simple, but unfortunately it's not so simple at times," he said.

Last August, Schack dismissed a foreclosure the Bank of New York was bringing on an E. 48th St. home in Brooklyn that was filed 61 days before the mortgage was assigned to the bank.

The judge dubbed as "nonsensical" a computer printout the bank claimed proved it held the mortgage before the foreclosure was brought.

To be continued.

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ForeclosureGate: Not just bungled paperwork, it is FRAUD  (Part 2)

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Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

The New York Times provides a more in-depth analysis of the robo-foreclosure scandal in this report. Big Legal Clash on Foreclosure is Taking Shape:

About a month after Washington Mutual Bank made a multimillion-dollar mortgage loan on a mountain home near Santa Barbara, Calif., a crucial piece of paperwork disappeared.

But bank officials were unperturbed. After conducting a “due and diligent search,” an assistant vice president simply drew up an affidavit stating that the paperwork — a promissory note committing the borrower to repay the mortgage — could not be found, according to court documents.

The handling of that lost note in 2006 was hardly unusual. Mortgage documents of all sorts were treated in an almost lackadaisical way during the dizzying mortgage lending spree from 2005 through 2007, according to court documents, analysts and interviews.

Now those missing and possibly fraudulent documents are at the center of a potentially seismic legal clash that pits big lenders against homeowners and their advocates concerned that the lenders’ rush to foreclose flouts private property rights.

That clash — expected to be played out in courtrooms across the country and scrutinized by law enforcement officials investigating possible wrongdoing by big lenders — leaped to the forefront of the mortgage crisis this week as big lenders began lifting their freezes on foreclosures and insisted the worst was behind them.

Federal officials meeting in Washington on Wednesday indicated that a government review of the problems would not be complete until the end of the year.

In short, the legal disagreement amounts to whether banks can rely on flawed documentation to repossess homes.

While even critics of the big lenders acknowledge that the vast majority of foreclosures involve homeowners who have not paid their mortgages, they argue that the borrowers are entitled to due legal process.

Banks “have essentially sidestepped 400 years of property law in the United States,” said Rebel A. Cole, a professor of finance and real estate at DePaul University. “There are so many questionable aspects to this thing it’s scary.”

* * *

After freezing most foreclosures, Bank of America, the largest consumer bank in the country, said this week that it would soon resume foreclosures in about half of the country because it was confident that the cases had been properly documented. GMAC Mortgage said it was also proceeding with foreclosures, on a case-by-case basis.

While some other banks have also suggested they can wrap up faulty foreclosures in a matter of weeks, some judges, lawyers for homeowners and real estate experts like Mr. Cole expect the courts to be inundated with challenges to the banks’ actions.

“This is ultimately going to have to be resolved by the 50 state supreme courts who have jurisdiction for property law,” Professor Cole predicted.

* * *

[J]udges in some states have halted or delayed foreclosures because of improper documentation. Court cases are likely to hinge on whether judges believe that banks properly fulfilled their legal obligations during the mortgage boom — and in the subsequent rush to expedite foreclosures.

The country’s mortgage lenders contend that any problems that might be identified are technical and will not change the fact that they have the right to foreclose en masse.

“We did a thorough review of the process, and we found the facts underlying the decision to foreclose have been accurate,” Barbara J. Desoer, president of Bank of America Home Loans, said earlier this week. “We paused while we were doing that, and now we’re moving forward.”

Some analysts are not sure that banks can proceed so freely. Katherine M. Porter, a visiting law professor at Harvard University and an expert on consumer credit law, said that lenders were wrong to minimize problems with the legal documentation.

“The misbehavior is clear: they lied to the courts,” she said. “The fact that they are saying no one was harmed, they are missing the point. They did actual harm to the court system, to the rule of law. We don’t say, ‘You can perjure yourself on the stand because the jury will come to the right verdict anyway.’ That’s what they are saying.”

Robert Willens, a tax expert, said that documentation issues had created potentially severe tax problems for investors in mortgage securities and that “there is enough of a question here that the courts might well have to resolve the issue.”

As the legal system begins sorting through the competing claims, one thing is not in dispute: the pell-mell origination of mortgage loans during the real estate boom and the patchwork of financial machinery and documentation that supported it were created with speed and profits in mind, and with little attention to detail.

Once the foreclosure wheels started turning, said analysts, practices became even shoddier.

For example, the foreclosure business often got so busy at the Plantation, Fla., law offices of David J. Stern — and so many documents had to be signed so banks could evict people from their homes — that a supervisor sometimes was too tired to write her own name.

When that happened, Cheryl Samons, the supervisor at the firm, who typically signed about 1,000 documents a day, just let someone else sign for her, court papers show.

“Cheryl would give certain paralegals rights to sign her name, because most of the time she was very tired, exhausted from signing her name numerous times per day,” said Kelly Scott, a Stern employee, in a deposition that the Florida attorney general released on Monday. A lawyer representing the law firm said Ms. Samons would not comment.

Bill McCollum, Florida’s attorney general, is investigating possible abuses at the Stern firm, a major foreclosure mill in the state, involving false or fabricated loan documents, calling into question the foreclosures the firm set in motion on behalf of banks.

* * *

As lenders and Wall Street firms bundled thousands of mortgage loans into securities so they could be sold quickly, efficiently and lucratively to legions of investors, slipshod practices took hold among lenders and their representatives, former employees of these operations say.

Banks routinely failed to record each link in the chain of documents that demonstrate ownership of a note and a property, according to court documents, analysts and interviews. When problems arose, executives and managers at lenders and loan servicers sometimes patched such holes by issuing affidavits meant to prove control of a mortgage.

In Broward County, Fla., alone, more than 1,700 affidavits were filed in the last two years attesting to lost notes, according to Legalprise, a legal services company that tracks foreclosure data.

When many mortgage loans went bad in the last few years, lenders outsourced crucial tasks like verifying the amount a borrower owed or determining which institution had a right to foreclose.

Now investors who bought mortgage trusts — investment vehicles composed of mortgages — are wondering if the loans inside them were recorded properly. If not, tax advantages of the trusts could be wiped out, leaving mortgage securities investors with significant tax bills.

For years, lenders bringing foreclosure cases commonly did not have to demonstrate proof of ownership of the note. Consumer advocates and consumer lawyers have complained about the practice, to little avail.

But a decision in October 2007 by Judge Christopher A. Boyko of the Federal District Court in northern Ohio to toss out 14 foreclosure cases put lenders on notice. Judge Boyko ruled that the entities trying to seize properties had not proved that they actually owned the notes, and he blasted the banks for worrying “less about jurisdictional requirements and more about maximizing returns.”

He also said that lenders “seem to adopt the attitude that since they have been doing this for so long, unchallenged, this practice equates with legal compliance.” Now that their practices were “put to the test, their weak legal arguments compel the court to stop them at the gate,” the judge ruled.

* * *

What finally prompted a re-examination of the foreclosure wave was the disclosure in court documents over the last several months of so-called robo-signers, employees like Ms. Samons of the Stern law firm in Florida who signed affidavits so quickly that they could not possibly have verified the information in the document under review.

Lenders and their representatives have sought to minimize the significance of robo-signing and, while acknowledging legal lapses in how they documented loans, have argued that foreclosures should proceed anyway. After all, the lenders say, the homeowners owe the money.

People who have worked at loan servicers for many years, who requested anonymity to protect their jobs, said robo-signing and other questionable foreclosure practices emanated from one goal: to increase efficiency and therefore profits. That rush, they say, allowed for the shoddy documentation that is expected to become evidence for homeowners in the coming court battles.

For example, years ago when banks made loans, they typically stored promissory notes in their vaults.

But the advent of securitization, in which loans are bundled and sold to investors, required that loan documents move quickly from one purchaser to another. Big banks servicing these loans began in 2002 to automate their systems, according to a former executive for a top servicer who requested anonymity because of a confidentiality agreement.

First to go was the use of actual people to determine who should be liable to a foreclosure action. They were replaced by computers that identified delinquent borrowers and automatically sent them letters saying they were in default. Inexperienced clerical workers often entered incorrect mortgage information into the computer programs, the former executive said, and borrowers rarely caught the errors.

Other record-keeping problems that are likely to become fodder for court battles involve endorsements, a process that occurs when notes are transferred and validated with a stamp to identify the institution that bought it. Eager to cut costs, most institutions left the notes blank, with no endorsements at all.

Problems are also likely to arise in court involving whether those who signed documents required in foreclosures actually had the authority to do so — or if the documents themselves are even authentic.

For example, Frederick B. Tygart, a circuit court judge overseeing a foreclosure case in Duval County, Fla., recently ruled that agents representing Deutsche Bank relied on documents that “must have been counterfeited.” He stopped the foreclosure. Deutsche Bank had no comment on Wednesday.

* * *

Meanwhile, another judge on Wednesday indicated that the courts would not simply sign off on the banks’ documentation. Jonathan Lippman, the chief judge of New York’s courts, ordered lawyers to verify the validity of all foreclosure paperwork.

“We cannot allow the courts in New York State to stand by idly and be party to what we now know is a deeply flawed process, especially when that process involves basic human needs — such as a family home — during this period of economic crisis,” Judge Lippman said in a statement.

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ForeclosureGate: Not just bungled paperwork, it is FRAUD  (Part 3)

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Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Is the banks’ sloppy paperwork a matter of simple technicalities that are relatively easy to cure, as the banks contend? Or are there more far-reaching consequences for banks and the institutions that bought mortgage-backed securities during the mania? One Mess That Can’t Be Papered Over - NYTimes:

Oddly enough, the answer to both questions may be yes.

According to real estate lawyers, most banks that have gotten into trouble because they didn’t produce proper proof of ownership in foreclosure proceedings can probably cure these deficiencies. But doing so will be costly and time-consuming, requiring banks to comb through every mortgage assignment and secure proper signatures at each step of the way — and it surely will take much longer than a few weeks, as banks have contended.

Once this has been done appropriately (not by robo-signers, mind you) the missing links in the banks’ chain of ownership can be considered complete and individual foreclosures can proceed legally.

None of this will be easy, however. And it will be especially challenging when one or more of the parties in the chain has gone bankrupt or been acquired, as is the case with so many participants in the mortgage business.

Still, addressing all of these lapses is possible, according to Joshua Stein, a real estate lawyer in New York. “If there are missing links in your chain of title, you go back to your transferor and get the documents you need,” he said in an interview last week. “If the transferor doesn’t exist any more, there are ways to deal with it, though it’s not necessarily easy or cheap. Ultimately, you can go to the judge in the foreclosure action and say: ‘I think I bought this loan but there is one thing missing. Look at the evidence — you should overlook this gap because I am the rightful owner.’ ”

Such an unwieldy process will make it more expensive for banks to overhaul their loan servicing operations to address myriad concerns from judges and regulators, but analysts say it can be done.

On the other hand, resolving paperwork woes in the world of mortgage-backed securities may be trickier. Experts say that any parties involved in the creation, sale and oversight of the trusts holding the securities may be held responsible for any failings — and if the rules weren’t followed, investors may be able to sue the sponsors to recover their original investments.

Mind you, the market for mortgage-backed securities is huge — some $1.4 trillion of private-label residential mortgage securities were outstanding at the end of June, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

Certainly no one believes that all of these securities have documentation flaws. But if even a small fraction do, that would still amount to a lot of cabbage.

Big investors are already rattling the cage on the issue of inadequate loan documentation. Last week, investors in mortgage securities issued by Countrywide, including the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, sent a letter to Bank of America (which took over Countrywide in 2008) demanding that the bank buy back billions of dollars worth of mortgages that were bundled into the securities. The investors contend that the bank did not sufficiently vet documents relating to loans in these pools.

The letter stated, for example, that Bank of America failed to demand that entities selling loans into the pool “cure deficiencies in mortgage records when deficient loan files and lien records are discovered.” Bank of America has rejected the investors’ argument and said that it would fight their demand to buy back loans.

Mortgage securities, like other instruments that have generated large losses for investors during the crisis, have extremely complex structures. Technically known as Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits, or Remics, these instruments provide investors with favorable tax treatment on the income generated by the loans.

When investors — like the New York Fed — contend that strict rules governing these structures aren’t met, they can try to force a company like Bank of America to buy them back.

Which brings us back to the sloppy paperwork that lawyers for delinquent borrowers have uncovered: some of the dubious documentation may undermine the security into which the loans were bundled.

For example, the common practice of transferring a promissory note underlying a property to a trust without identifying it, known as an assignment in blank, may run afoul of rules governing the structure of the security.

“The danger here is that the note would not be considered a qualified mortgage,” said Robert Willens, an authority on tax law, “an obligation which is principally secured by an interest in real property and which is transferred to the Remic on the start-up day.” If, within three months, substantially all the assets of the entity do not consist of qualified mortgages and permitted investments, “the entity would not constitute,” he said.

If such failures increase taxes for investors in the trusts, Mr. Willens said, the courts will have to adjudicate the inevitable conflicts that arise.

What if a loan originator failed to provide documentation substantiating that what’s known as a “true sale” actually occurred when mortgages were transferred into trusts — documentation that is supposed to be provided no longer than 90 days after a trust is closed? Well, in that situation, a true sale may not have legally happened, and that doesn’t appear to be a problem that can be smoothed over by revisiting and revamping the paperwork.

“The issue of bad assignment has many implications,” said Christopher Whalen, editor of the Institutional Risk Analyst. “It does question whether the investor is secured by collateral.”

In other words, were the loans legally transferred into the trust, and, if not, do the trusts lack collateral for investors to claim?

For example, according to a court filing last year by the Florida Bankers Association, it was routine practice among its members to destroy the original note underlying a property when it was converted to an electronic file. This was done “to avoid confusion,” the association said.

But because most securitizations state that a complete loan file must contain the original note, some trust experts wonder whether an electronic image would satisfy that requirement.

All of this suggests that while a paperwork cure may eventually exist for foreclosures, higher hurdles exist when it comes to remedying flaws in mortgage-backed securities. The only way to wrestle with the latter, some analysts say, is in a courtroom.

“The whole essence of this crisis is fraud and unless we restore the rule of law and transparency of disclosure, we are not going to fix this,” said Laurence J. Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University.

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ForeclosureGate: Not just bungled paperwork, it is FRAUD  (Part 4)

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Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

There’s been plenty of recent media attention to the prospect of investor lawsuits over fraudulent mortgages and mortgage-backed securities. But as Zach Carter writes at Truthout.org, The Elephant in the Foreclosure Fraud Room: Second Liens:

The four largest banks hold nearly half a trillion dollars worth of second-lien mortgages on their books—loans that could be decimated if investors successfully target improper mortgage servicing operations. The result would be major trouble for the financial system. The result would be major trouble for too-big-to-fail behemoths.

* * *

[T]he nation’s four largest banks also operate the four largest mortgage servicers. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup service about half of all mortgages in the United States. They also have multi-trillion-dollar businesses whose interests often conflict with those of mortgage security investors.

The most glaring conflicts involve second-lien mortgages. Much of the foreclosuregate coverage has focused on first-liens—ordinary mortgages that people take out when they want to buy a home. But during the housing bubble, banks frequently sold second-lien mortgages in an effort to cash-in on inflated home prices. If you’ve had a mortgage for a few years, and paid down $30,000 of your home’s value, a bank might try to sell you a new $30,000 loan, backed by the equity you’ve accumulated in your house by paying your first mortgage.

* * *

Usually homeowners have to put up a certain amount of money up-front when they buy a house—this is the down-payment. But the profits available from mortgage securitization were tempting. Banks could issue a mortgage, sell it off to investors, and not have to worry about any potential losses. So banks got around down-payments by selling a second-lien mortgage at the same time they sold the ordinary first mortgage. The second-lien would be used to pay the down-payment on the first lien.

This is a neat trick, but if home values decline just a tiny bit, the second lien mortgage becomes almost immediately worthless. If a borrower can’t pay the first lien, the second lien is wiped out entirely. Similarly, if a bank modifies a first lien to lower a borrower’s overall debt burden, the second lien is also wiped out.

That’s a big deal, because even when home prices have declined dramatically, losses from foreclosure on first liens only eat up about 58 percent of the value of the loan, according to Valparaiso University Law Professor Alan White. The second lien, by contrast, is 100 percent gone.

The fact that four giant banks own almost half a trillion dollars of second-lien mortgages makes things very tricky. If a borrower gets into trouble on a first-lien mortgage, the mortgage servicer has three options. It can 1) foreclose, or 2) offer a loan modification that reduces the borrower’s overall debt burden (principal reduction), or 3) tweak the payment plan, charge some immediate late fees, and try to keep the borrower paying on the current debt level (extending the life of the loan, forgiving missed payments, lowering the interest rate).

If either of the first two are adopted, the second lien is wiped out. If the third option is pursued, the bank buys an extra few months of payments for the second lien. When the payment plan proves unsustainable, the bank can work out a new payment plan with the borrower, and hope for the best. This third tack often proves destructive for both borrowers and the first-lien owners. Tweaking payment plans can exhaust a borrowers’ savings and makes them unable to afford a meaningful loan modification. At the same time, it can generate fees for the servicer that investors ultimately pay for.

Many investors believe that banks are servicing first-lien mortgages for the benefit of second-liens. That’s because the megabank servicers own the second liens, while mortgage security investors own the first liens. This is a conflict-of-interest. A servicer is supposed to maximize the value of the first-lien for the investor. But it’s conceivable that servicers–JPMorgan Chase, BofA, Citi, Wells Fargo– are systematically screwing over both borrowers and investors in order to maximize profits on second-lien mortgages that are, by any reasonable economic analysis, already worthless.

* * *

[T]he market’s view about second-lien mortgages couldn’t be clearer. Second-liens trade at 25 cents on the dollar or less in the secondary markets. If a bank wants to sell a second-lien mortgage to another investor, it has to take a loss of at least 75 percent in order to do so. But regulators have allowed banks to account for their second liens at 90 percent or more of their original value.

Not every second-lien features this conflict-of-interest, and borrowers won’t abandon every second-lien. But it’s easy to imagine hundreds of billions of dollars in losses on second-liens hitting the four biggest banks (see Mike Konczal’s analysis from March here). And the more investors learn about shoddy documentation in the foreclosure process, the more legal ammunition they have against servicers.

This, ultimately, is the most significant aspect of the letter investors wrote to Countrywide this week. Investors are pressuring Countrywide—a mortgage servicer owned by Bank of America—to push losses from about $16.5 billion worth of mortgages back onto the bank that securitized those mortgages. In this case, the bank that securitized the loans was another division of Countrywide, so the bank isn’t going to comply with the letter, since it means eating losses itself, and the situation is almost certainly headed for lawsuit territory (see Andrew Leonard’s explanation of the case here).

But that letter indicates that investors are organizing to go after improper mortgage servicing itself, not just fraudulent loan and security sales. That means investors are trying to sack banks with second-lien losses—and second-lien losses could easily dwarf the other losses that analysts have focused on so far.

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ForeclosureGate: Not just bungled paperwork, it is FRAUD  (Part 5)

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Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

The New York Times last week investigated the connection between the law firms that are "foreclosure mills" and the Wall Street private equity firms they represent. Private Equity Firms Linked to Foreclosure Mills:

With a surge in lawsuits against law firms specializing in foreclosures, a case in Mississippi is casting light on another aspect of the mortgage mess — the connection between Wall Street private equity firms and those law firms, often known as foreclosure mills.

The lawsuit on behalf of homeowners claims that Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm, has benefited from what the lawsuit calls an illegal fee-splitting arrangement between Prommis Solutions and several of the busiest foreclosure law firms it controls. Great Hills is the biggest stakeholder in Prommis, a company that acts as a middleman between mortgage servicers and law firms.

A lawyer for Prommis rejected that claim, and officials of Great Hill Partners did not respond to inquiries. But a review of public filings, company news releases and other public statements shows that several private equity firms or entities they control have stakes in the business operations of some of the busiest foreclosure law firms in New York, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia and Texas.

Some of those law firms — like the offices of David J. Stern of Plantation, Fla., and Steven J. Baum of Amherst, N.Y. — are among those that are either under scrutiny by law enforcement officials or face actions by homeowners contending that they used inaccurate or fraudulent mortgage-related documents. Both lawyers have denied any wrongdoing, and neither has been charged with a crime.

The influence, if any, that private investors are having on the practices of the foreclosure mills is not clear. But the issue is likely to be examined in coming months in lawsuits like the one in Mississippi and as a nationwide task force of state attorneys general start their inquiry into the accuracy of mortgage documents.

To maximize investment returns, private equity firms often squeeze down costs in the operations they acquire. And some legal experts suggest that could be a factor in the quality of legal documents generated by foreclosure mills.

* * *

Tom Miller, the Iowa attorney general who is heading up the task force investigating questionable document practices, said he was not aware that private equity firms had acquired some foreclosure-related operations. While there is no law against such purchases, Mr. Miller said the issue could prove significant because it expanded the possibilities of where and how the foreclosure system failed.

“If this is happening, this is something we are concerned about and would want to find out more about it,” Mr. Miller said in a telephone interview.

The investors involved in foreclosure mills include a publicly traded investment fund, Ares Capital, as well as other midsize and small buyout firms like Great Hill Partners.

The involvement of private equity firms in the legal industry is not new. But their involvement with foreclosure mills appears to have started about five years ago, just as the housing market was starting to collapse and the number of foreclosure procedures was beginning to boom.

The relationship between the Wall Street specialists and a law firm appears to work like this: A private equity firm, in a transaction worth tens of millions of dollars, buys a wide range of services used by the law firm, like its accounting, computer data, document processing and title search departments. Then, a subsidiary of that private equity firm or an entity it controls makes money by providing those services back to that law firm or other businesses for a fee.

For example, about three years ago, Tailwind Capital, a private equity firm in Manhattan, acquired many of the business-related operations of a law firm near Buffalo run by Mr. Baum, which does one of the highest volumes of foreclosures in New York State. Soon afterward, the fund bought similar operations from one of Connecticut’s biggest foreclosure law firms, Hunt Leibert Jacobson of Hartford.

Ares Capital, which financed the move, is also now a co-investor in those assets, which are held in a Tailwind unit called Pillar Processing, a public filing indicates.

* * *

Law firms receive a relatively low fee from companies that service home loans, say about $1,200 a case for handling a foreclosure-related proceeding. But those fees can translate into big profits for lawyers and their private equity partners when tens of thousands of foreclosures are involved. The law firms and the private equity firms have structured these deals with an eye toward avoiding legal statutes and ethical rules like those that bar fee-splitting between lawyers and nonlawyers.

But that relationship has been challenged in the Mississippi lawsuit against Prommis and Great Hill Partners.

Another company, Lender Processing Services, is also accused in the lawsuit of illegally splitting fees with foreclosure law firms; it also denies doing so.

* * *

In a telephone interview, Prommis’s general counsel, Richard J. Volentine Jr., said that the company did not split fees with its affiliated law firms and that those fees were paid directly to those firms by the loan servicers.

In its S.E.C. filing, Prommis alerted potential investors that it could face challenges from bar associations, prosecutors or homeowners that its relationship with its law firms constituted the “unauthorized practice of law” or involved “impermissible fee sharing” arrangements.

Prommis also stated in that filing that any steps that slowed the pace of foreclosures, like government programs that helped homeowners renegotiate loans, would hurt its revenue.

It will be fascinating to see how discovery into this aspect of the robo-foreclosure scandal plays out. There are some big-time law firms with legal exposure here.

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Source: http://www.blogforarizona.com/blog/2010/10/foreclosuregate-not-just-bungled-paperwork-it-is-fraud-part-3.html