Dodging fees could cost banks more
NEW YORK – It used to be that every time a bank sold a mortgage, the county land recording office received a fee. It wasn’t much – $30 or so – but then real estate boomed in the 1990s and banks pooled millions of mortgages into securities that investors bought and sold.
One mortgage transaction became a dozen or more, and the tab grew ever larger. So the banks came up with a way around the fees. And now they are fighting to avoid perhaps tens of billions of dollars in penalties that have added up over the years.
In 1997, when the banks’ burgeoning business in mortgage securities was clashing with the unwieldy nature of written forms, the industry created its own alternative, an electronic system that would track the ever-changing ownership of home loans.
The banks formed a private company called Mortgage Electronic Registry Systems Inc., or MERS. Its motto: “Process loans, not paperwork.” It has registered more than 65 million loans, three out of every five on the market.
MERS’ owners are all the big mortgage companies, including Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and GMAC. They are all facing a foreclosure fraud investigation launched by all 50 state attorneys general.
Counties complained about the lost revenue after MERS was implemented, but they rarely tried to challenge the new way of doing business. Now, three years after the housing crash and two months after allegations that some banks submitted fraudulent documents to foreclosure courts, every aspect of the nation’s mortgage machine is under scrutiny.
Two lawyers in Reno, Nev., have filed suit in 17 states alleging that banks cheated counties out of billions of dollars. In Virginia, a lawmaker has asked the state’s attorney general to investigate MERS over its failure to pay recording fees. And everywhere elected officials and class-action lawyers turn, the back-office procedures of MERS are being called into question.
The lawsuits challenge MERS’ authority to act on behalf of banks or other investors that own a mortgage. With so many loans registered to MERS, it’s a claim that goes to the heart of the mortgage-fraud scandal.
With MERS ostensibly keeping track of who owns what, counties still get their paperwork and fees the first time a mortgage is filed. Typically, that county fee is rolled into the closing costs homeowners pay when they buy a home.
MERS is “an admitted fee-avoidance scheme,” says Robert Hager, the Nevada lawyer who, along with his partner Treva Hearne, is filing the suits against MERS and its bank owners, including the government-backed mortgage- finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie provide a low- cost flow of funding to the nation’s mortgage markets by buying mortgages from lenders, packaging them into securities and then selling them to investors.
The suits were filed in California, Nevada and Tennessee and 14 undisclosed states where the cases are still under court seal. Hager and Hearne chose the states because their laws allow what are called false claims suits, in which citizens can take legal action against companies that may have cheated the government.