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.
Gardner explains the abuse:
A review of all of the recent “standing” and “real party in interest” cases decided by the bankruptcy courts and the state courts in judicial foreclosure states all arise out of the inability of the mortgage servicer or the Trust to “prove up” an unbroken chain of “assignments and transfers” of the mortgage notes and the mortgages from the originators to the sponsors to the depositors to the trust and to the master document custodian for the trust. As stated in the ….PSA, the parties have represented and warranted that there is “a complete chain of endorsements from the originator to the last endorsee” for the note. And, the Master Document Custodian must file verified reports that it in fact holds such documents with all “intervening” documents that confirm true sales at each link in the chain.
The complete inability of the mortgage servicers and the Trusts to produce such unbroken chains of proof along with the original documents is the genesis for all of the recent court rulings. One would think that a simple request to the Master Document Custodian would solve these problems. However, a review of the cases reveals a massive volume of transfers and assignments executed long after the “closing date” for the Trust from the “originator” directly to the “trust.” I refer to these documents as “A to D” transfers and assignments.
There are some serious problems with the A to D documents. First, at the time these documents are executed the A party has nothing to sell or transfer since the PSA provides such a sale and transfer occurred years ago. Second, the documents completely circumvent the primary objective of securitization by ignoring the “true sales” to the Sponsor (the B party) and the Depositor (the C party). In a true securitization, you would never have any direct transfers (A to D) from the originator to the trust. Third, these A to D transfers are totally inconsistent with the representations and warranties made in the PSA to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to the holders of the bonds (the “Certificateholders”) issued by the Trust. Fourth, in many cases the A to D documents are executed by parties who are not employed by the originator but who claim to have “signing authority” or some type of “agency authority” from the originator. Finally, in many of these A to D document cases the originator is legally defunct at the time the document is in fact signed or the document is signed with a current date but then states that it has an “effective date” that was one or two years earlier.
Yves here. In simple terms, someone (presumably the foreclosure mill) is simply fabricating documents, and doing it in such a ham-handed fashion that it doesn’t even come close to satisfying the requirements of the PSA. In my very limited dealing with these cases, I’ve actually seen it happen. A document that miraculously solved all the problems with a particular case was miraculously found at the eleventh hour in the collateral file for a particular mortgage, late on Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend when the hearing was Tuesday. It was obvious that one of the signatures had been digitally shrunk to fit, when only “wet-ink” signatures are permitted for these documents. The servicer made representations in his original testimony under oath that he later had to recant when presented with evidence that contradicted his assertions.
So understand the implications: the parties to securitization have so screwed up the procedures that they set up that it is pretty much impossible to foreclose (in the 45 of 50 states where the note is the critical element of the transaction) unless they forge documents. That’s fraud, pure and simple. And Freddie and Fannie continue to enable it.