Posted by Yves Smith at 6:08 am
A good piece at Mother Jones, “Fannie and Freddie’s Foreclosure Barons” (hat tip Foghorn Leghorn) provides a window on a seamy big business: cut rate foreclosure processing machines that routinely ride roughshod over borrowers and the law.
Unfortunately, space limitations prevent the story from going deeply into some critical issues. The piece does a good job of explaining how these cut rate legal services operations are creations of Fannie and Freddie and illustrating how they are engaging in fabricating documents. The story focuses on a specific bad actor, a law firm founded by David Stern that handles roughly 1/5 of the foreclosures in Florida:
Ariane Ice sat poring over records on the website of Florida’s Palm Beach County…She and her husband, Tom, an attorney, ran a boutique foreclosure defense firm called Ice Legal…. Ice had a strong hunch that Stern’s operation was up to something, and that night she found her smoking gun.
It involved something called an “assignment of mortgage,” the document that certifies who owns the property and is thus entitled to foreclose on it….By law, a firm must execute (complete, sign, and notarize) an assignment before attempting to seize somebody’s home.
A Florida notary’s stamp is valid for four years, and its expiration date is visible on the imprint. But here in front of Ice were dozens of assignments notarized with stamps that hadn’t even existed until months—in some cases nearly a year—after the foreclosures were filed. Which meant Stern’s people were foreclosing first and doing their legal paperwork later. In effect, it also meant they were lying to the court—an act that could get a lawyer disbarred or even prosecuted. “There’s no question that it’s pervasive,” says Tom Ice of the backdated documents—nearly two dozen of which were verified by Mother Jones. “We’ve found tons of them.”
This all might seem like a legal technicality, but it’s not. The faster a foreclosure moves, the more difficult it is for a homeowner to fight it—even if the case was filed in error. In March, upon discovering that Stern’s firm had fudged an assignment of mortgage in another case, a judge in central Florida’s Pasco County dismissed the case with prejudice—an unusually harsh ruling that means it can never again be refiled. “The execution date and notarial date,” she wrote in a blunt ruling, “were fraudulently backdated, in a purposeful, intentional effort to mislead the defendant and this court.”…
But the Ices had uncovered what looked like a pattern, so Tom booked a deposition with Stern’s top deputy, Cheryl Samons, and confronted her with the backdated documents—including two from cases her firm had filed against Ice Legal’s clients. Samons, whose counsel was present, insisted that the filings were just a mistake. She refused to elaborate, so the Ices moved to depose the notaries and other Stern employees whose names were on the evidence. On the eve of those depositions, however, the firm dropped foreclosure proceedings against the Ices’ clients.
It was a bittersweet victory: The Ices had won their cases, but Stern’s practices remained under wraps. “This was done to cover up fraud,” Tom fumes. “It was done precisely so they could try to hit a reset button and keep us from getting the real goods.”
Backdated documents, according to a chorus of foreclosure experts, are typical of the sort of shenanigans practiced by a breed of law firms known as “foreclosure mills.” ….The mills think “they can just change things and make it up to get to the end result they want, because there’s no one holding them accountable,” says Prentiss Cox, a foreclosure expert at the University of Minnesota Law School. “We’ve got these people with incentives to go ahead with foreclosures and flood the real estate market.”
Yves here. This is far from the only form of document forgeries. A widespread abuse is what bankruptcy attorney Max Gardner calls the “alphabet problem.”
Mortgage securitizations were very carefully designed to satisfy a number of concerns. One of them was bankruptcy remoteness, that if an originator failed, as Countrywide, New Century, IndyMac and a host of others did, that the creditors in the bankruptcy would not be able to claw mortgages back out of securitizations (assets sold close to the date of a bankruptcy may be deemed to have been conveyed fraudulently, and thus can be seized by the court on behalf of the creditors).
To prevent this from occurring, the Pooling and Servicing Agreement (the master document that governs the securitization) would provided for a minimum of two independent legal entities to sit between the originator and the trust that would hold the mortgages being securitized (technically, the note, which is the IOU; the mortgage, which is a lien, follows the note in 45 states). So the prescribed minimum number of steps was A (originator) => B => C => D (trust). Some securitizations (for reasons unrelated to establishing bankruptcy remoteness) would provide for even more steps.
Keep in mind that the PSA also required that the notes be conveyed to the trust, with the proper chain of endorsements, by closing; certain exceptions and fixes were permitted up to 90 days after closing, but these would be applicable only to a very small proportion of the pool.
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