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Officials Warn That Foreclosure Probes May Prove Inadequate

Since flawed foreclosure practices by the nation’s biggest banks became last fall’s biggest scandal, federal bank regulators and the attorneys general of all 50 states launched simultaneous investigations. But there are an increasing number of warnings that neither of those efforts have addressed the full scope of the problem. 

Most notably, Elizabeth Warren, a senior Obama administration advisor, warned about the ongoing probes in Congressional testimony last week: “I think there’s a real question about whether there’s been an adequate investigation.”

After news about fraudulent and missing mortgage documentation raised questions last fall about the legitimacy of foreclosure actions, all 50 states launched a joint investigation. A group of federal bank regulators  launched a separate investigation. As we'd noted, some observers had low expectations for the federal investigation all along,  especially given the involvement of the historically bank-friendly Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. But Warren herself had once expressed higher hopes for the effort led by the states: "Right now my money is on the attorneys general," she'd told the L.A. Times last fall. Now nine months later, it seems she's not so confident about either.

Here’s where things stand. Federal bank regulators in April ordered the banks to submit plans for fixing their foreclosure and mortgage servicing practices, and those plans were submitted last week. (Read our rundown explaining the order.) Some banks are still negotiating with regulators on how to conduct the required foreclosure reviews and which outside law firms will be allowed to assist. As the Wall Street Journal reported today, regulators have questioned the independence of some outside firms, some of which had previously done consulting work for the banks or defended them in foreclosure suits. No fines have yet been imposed on the banks.  

And then there’s the ongoing investigation led by the state attorneys general—though its progress has long been unclear. From as far back as November, news organizations have been reporting that a settlement was near—only to have those reports be repeatedly shot down as rumors. What is clear, as we’ve noted, is that the negotiations have been strained by dissent. Some states have hesitated to dig deeper, favoring instead a quick settlement, according to the Huffington Post:

Some of the attorneys general, who asked to remain anonymous, said the government should use whatever evidence it currently has to extract as much money as possible, and then move on. The states lack the resources to conduct a comprehensive investigation that could take many more months, if not years, they said.

Banks seem to favor a quick settlement as well. "I would do anything to get it done today," J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon told investors last week. "Fix it and move on." (Dimon might be exaggerating a bit when he said he'd do anything—he's said in the past that principal reductions, or reducing the total amount that borrowers owe, is "off the table.")

In Florida, after Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi took office in January, the state forced out two investigators who had led efforts to uncover foreclosure fraud and produced a lengthy report detailing the problems. Former Assistant Attorney General Theresa Edwards told the Palm Beach Post that without warning or justification, she and a colleague were asked to resign in May, despite there being a tremendous amount of investigating still left to be done. One of the dismissed investigators said she had concerns that many misdeeds would go undiscovered amid settlement negotiations.

Meanwhile, a handful of states have sought more aggressive action and warned they may break away from the broader probe. New York’s attorney general Eric Schneiderman—who’s conducting a separate probe into Wall Street’s role in the housing crisis—has said he’ll oppose any “quick, cheap settlement” of the multi-state probe, telling Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle last month that the probe lacked both documents and depositions. A spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's office pushed back on that claim, saying they have "more than adequate investigative material."

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