House Republicans want answers on how federal agencies’ mega-settlements with issuers of mortgage-backed securities came to include tens of millions of dollars in payments to “housing counseling” groups allied with the Obama Administration [DS News] Earlier on banks’ payments to activists here, here, etc.
The Obama Administration has repeatedly dodged cases in fear of judicial review of its controversial application of the disparate impact theory to mortgage lending and other aspects of the housing market, but its position has now met with a stiff rebuke from district court judge Richard Leon [Insurance Journal]:
“This is yet another example of an administrative agency trying desperately to write into law that which Congress never intended to sanction,” Leon wrote.
He called the rule “nothing less than an artful misinterpretation of Congress’s intent that is, frankly, too clever by half.”
WSJ editorial this morning: “We hold no brief for Citi, which has been rescued three times by the feds…. [But] good luck finding a justification for [the $7 billion figure] in the settlement agreement. The number seems to have been pulled out of thin air since it’s unrelated to Citi’s mortgage-securities market share or any other metric we can see beyond having media impact.
“This week’s settlement includes $4 billion for the Treasury, roughly $500 million for the states and FDIC, and $2.5 billion for mortgage borrowers. That last category has become a fixture of recent government mortgage settlements, even though the premise of this case involves harm done to bond investors, not mortgage borrowers.” More: Bloomberg. And the settlement directs Citigroup to hire former Eric Holder associate Thomas Perrilli, now at Jenner & Block, for a monitorship that is likely to prove an extremely lucrative plum [Reynolds Holding, Alison Frankel] Also: Ira Stoll.
A big source of frivolous litigation these days, the “sovereign citizen” cult originated on the political right but has now spread more widely [Lorelei Laird, ABA Journal]:
When involved in any legal matter, from pet licensing to serious criminal charges, sovereigns are known for filing legal-sounding gibberish, usually pro se, learned from other sovereigns who sell lessons in “law” online. Frequently, they cite the Uniform Commercial Code, maritime law and the Bible.
They’re also known for the sheer volume of their filings, which can double the size of a normal docket. …
Some sovereigns hold trials in their own “common-law courts,” convicting public officials in absentia and sentencing them to death for “treason.” …Sovereigns sometimes say they are subject only to “God’s law” or to “common law,” meaning the U.S. legal system as they believe it existed before the conspiracy. They may declare themselves independent nations, join fictional American Indian tribes or attempt to create a replacement government within the sovereign community.
Don’t assume that public officials and public employees are the only ones swept in:
The Atta family locked up their Temecula, Calif., home and went on vacation in 2012. While they were gone, Victor Cheng moved in.
Cheng had owned the home before the Attas, but he lost it in foreclosure. Nonetheless, he filed a fraudulent deed with the county recorder’s office, transferred the utilities into his name and even tried to evict the Attas after their return. During his prosecution for burglary, trespassing and filing a false document, he insisted that he was not the person being prosecuted because the indictment spelled his name in all capital letters.
Full story here.
A group called the National Fair Housing Alliance has taken the lead in levying sensational bias charges against mortgage lenders, claiming that neglect of REO (real-estate-owned) properties following foreclosure has followed racially discriminatory patterns. It helped negotiate the extraction of $42 million from Wells Fargo, and is pursuing tens of millions in claims against Bank of America and other lenders. NFHA’s claims have routinely been given unskeptical circulation in the press, but now an investigation by Kate Berry and Jeff Horwitz in the American Banker is bringing overdue scrutiny:
The group has disclosed addresses for only a fraction of the properties it alleges the banks have neglected, but a review of those it has released indicates that NFHA regularly misidentified the institution legally responsible for maintaining specific homes. In some cases, it conflated the banks responsible for maintaining properties with those that were simply serving as trustees for mortgage-bond investors. In others, it faulted banks for damage that occurred before they took possession of properties.
Not in dispute is the leverage the NFHA has gained in its dealings with banks from its close ties to supporters in the federal government. Unusual among Washington agencies, the Department of Housing and Urban Development both funds housing discrimination investigations by nonprofits, including by the NFHA, and provides the venue for them to negotiate their claims.
Grants from HUD and Fannie Mae helped get the NFHA and its leader, Shanna Smith, into the profitable business of investigations in the first place. Banks complain without success about Smith’s practice of demanding a deal while withholding the actual identities and addresses of the properties said to be suffering from bank neglect. Now the HUD-brokered Wells Fargo settlement has paid off richly with $30 million+ for the NFHA and its affiliates, the better with which to stir up more complaints. And watch the revolving door spin, amid few qualms arising from conflicts of interest: “Sara Pratt, the HUD official responsible for investigating and resolving the NFHA’s complaints, and who oversaw its settlement with Wells Fargo, is a former NFHA staffer and consultant.” (cross-posted at Cato at Liberty).
The Washington Post splashes an investigative story about the tax lien business, in which outsiders buy up delinquent municipal property tax liens sometimes amounting to mere hundreds of dollars, then roll in lawyers’ fees and costs that can push up the bill into many thousands, eventuating in the foreclosure of family homes. The narrative is less than clear about exactly how the process works, and even leaves the impression that a tax lien purchaser owed, say, $6,000 can walk away with all the proceeds from the foreclosure of a $197,000 house without having to hand any of it over to mortgage holders, let alone the original owner. And some of the solutions offered (let’s not allow lien foreclosures on elderly people!) would have unintended consequences that are also, to be polite, underexplained. Still, enough of the story is there that an important general principle comes through: it’s dangerous for the law to put opportunistic actors in a position to run up $450/hour legal fees pursuing adversarial process that might not actually have been needed to vindicate their interests.