Four Whistleblowers Who Sounded the Alarm on Banks’ Mortgage Shenanigans
Whistleblower suits settled as part of the government’s $25 billion settlement offer a glimpse at the kinds of behavior that ran rampant in big banks’ mortgage operations.
According to one suit, Bank of America allegedly passed bad loans on to the Federal Housing Administration. According to another, the bank allegedly denied qualified homeowners access to HAMP, the government's loan modification program.
The suits were all settled as part of the overall $25 billion mortgage deal. They were filed under the False Claims Act, which provides incentives for whistleblowers to come forward in cases in which someone has defrauded the government. Whistleblowers can net up to 25 percent of the total settlement from False Claims suits, and in some of these cases, the reward is in the millions.
Details are available for four of the cases; documents in a fifth, against JPMorgan Chase, have not yet been filed in Massachusetts. While the cases were settled as part of the overarching agreement, they still have to be accepted by the courts in which they were originally filed. In reaching the settlements, none of the banks admits or denies the lawsuits' allegations.
We've laid out the details of each case.
Countrywide Defrauded the FHA
Kyle Lagow worked at LandSafe, a contractor of Countrywide, which Bank of America bought in 2008. He brought a suit in 2009 alleging that the company systematically undermined the appraisal process for home loans in order to approve as many as possible:
The result was bad loans passed on to the FHA for insurance, while Countrywide was later able to file millions in claims from the FHA. (Read the complaint, which has plenty of juicy details.)
Lagow alleged that much of the appraisal staff was not properly trained, and that many of the appraisals were done by a developer, KB Home, which had a stake in making sure the loans closed:
Countrywide pressured LandSafe to blacklist appraisers with whom KB Home "had too many issues." (KB Home did not respond to requests for comment.):
Lagow's complaints were ignored or challenged:
He also said he was fired for bringing the issue to Countrywide executives. Lagow's suit was settled for $75 million, and was a component of the FHA's $1 billion settlement with Bank of America over FHA insurance. Documents detailing his cut of the $75 million haven't yet been filed. Bank of America did not respond to requests for comment.
Rampant Robosigning at Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan and Citi
Lynn Szymoniak, a lawyer, was facing foreclosure in 2008 when she received what she believed were fake documents from her bank. She began an investigation and eventually filed a false claim suit against the country's four largest mortgage servicers.
Szymoniak's suit is still sealed, but she told CBS' "60 Minutes" last year about a mystery woman, "Linda Green," who appeared to be the vice president of 20 different banks and whose signature varied on the thousands of mortgage documents she had supposedly signed. Szymoniak also discovered what she called a "sweatshop" company, Docx, which had forged signatures on thousands of mortgage documents. (The banks that Szymoniak named told "60 Minutes" that Docx was hired by subcontractors. The company has since been shut down.)
Her suit was settled for $95 million, and she will receive $18 million. JPMorgan Chase declined to comment, and Wells Fargo and Bank of America did not respond to our inquiries. A spokesman for Citi declined to respond to the specific allegations but said that Citi "is making every effort to ensure that no foreclosure goes forward based on an inaccurate or defective affidavit."
JPMorgan Chase Hid Fees from Veterans Program
Two employees at a Georgia mortgage broker alleged in a suit filed last summer that JPMorgan, along with Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citigroup, scammed a program that is supposed to make it easier for veterans to get loans. The banks hid fees that would have disqualified loans from the program, lumping them with other items on the clients' bills, and then submitted fraudulent documents to the government for reimbursement under the veterans program:
JPMorgan settled for $45 million. The two whistleblowers, Victor Bibby and Brian Donnelly, told Reuters that together they would receive $11 million. They also said they would continue their case against the other banks. JPMorgan declined to comment.
Bank of America Cut Qualified Homeowners Out of HAMP
Gregory Mackler worked at Urban Lending, a company contracted by Bank of America to handle HAMP requests. His suit, filed last summer, alleged that Bank of America actively sought to reduce the number of people who qualified for the government's loan modification program, HAMP, pushing instead the bank's often less affordable proprietary loan modifications. This approach saved Bank of America money but cost homeowners. (Read the complaint.)
Mackler's complaint describes many ways that Bank of America, through Urban Lending, allegedly disqualified homeowners for HAMP.
Payments were intentionally processed incorrectly so that they would be deemed late:
Houses that were owner-occupied were declared not so based on "drive-by" inspections:
In some instances, Countrywide started foreclosure proceedings on homeowners who had been told they were "under review" for HAMP modifications. (ProPublica has detailed many similar instances.) And the customer advocates assigned to HAMP customers didn't have access to the information that they needed:
When Mackler raised concerns with Bank of America executives, the suit alleged, he was ignored or told that Bank of America was "not of course interested":
According to the suit, Mackler was fired "in retaliation" in March 2011. Bank of America did not respond to our requests for comment.
The suit was settled for $6.5 million, and Mackler's cut has not been finalized.
Banks and the government have fallen short in helping homeowners in danger of foreclosure.
The Story So Far
Systemic failures at the country’s banks and mortgage servicers have exacerbated the most severe foreclosure crisis since the Great Depression, and government efforts to limit the damage have fallen short. ProPublica created an unrivaled database of homeowners who have faced foreclosure, opened a Facebook page to encourage homeowners to share their stories, wrote profiles of some of them, and incorporated their experiences into our reporting. We also provided a comprehensive rundown of the numbers behind the crisis.
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