Foreclosure Relief? Don’t Hold Your Breath
So many were skeptical when the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency announced yet another program in April. This one was intended to provide reparations to homeowners who’d been hurt financially by foreclosure abuses at banks.
As the details trickle out, the program looks like more of the disappointing same. “This is just the next program that’s getting people’s hopes up,” said Alys Cohen, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Washington. “Not only will it not help people, it could easily harm them.”
The program arose out of a regulatory review in late 2010 of loan servicing practices at the nation’s largest banks. The review followed the robo-signing scandal that erupted after consumer lawyers — not regulators, mind you — identified numerous apparent forgeries and other improper foreclosure documents filed with courts by banks and their representatives.
Last April, the banks agreed to fix problems found in the review and were required to hire independent consultants to audit their practices in 2009 and 2010. JPMorgan Chase engaged Deloitte, while Citibank and U.S. Bancorp hired PricewaterhouseCoopers. Three other banks hired Promontory Financial.
On Nov. 1, letters started going out to more than four million borrowers who were ensnared in the foreclosure process in the two years covered by the program. Those people were told how to request reviews of their cases. The letters also described 22 types of financial harm they might have experienced. Borrowers have until April 30 to request a review.
Obviously, this program has a lot of moving parts. But many of them are flawed, according to Ms. Cohen and other foreclosure experts.
Some of the problems were aired at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Dec. 13. Three Democrats — Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Jack Reed of Rhode Island — expressed doubts about the program to Julie L. Williams, chief counsel at the comptroller’s office. The senators were especially vocal about the potential for conflicts of interest among the consultants hired to conduct the reviews.
This is a real defect since the consultants were chosen by the banks that are paying them. And companies that have done work for these banks in the past, or that hope to do more work for them in the future, were not barred from taking on the assignments.
According to Ms. Williams, the comptroller’s office closely vetted the consultants to disqualify any that posed a conflict.
BUT Michael Olenick, a specialist in mortgage research, said he spotted a conflicted consultant after one hour of digging. Allonhill, a smallish firm appointed by Aurora Bank, a mortgage servicer, is headed by Sue Allon, whose previous small firm acted as credit risk manager in a 2003 mortgage pool for which Aurora oversaw the loans’ servicing. The prospectus on that deal noted that Murrayhill, Ms. Allon’s former firm, would “monitor and advise the servicers with respect to default management of the mortgage loans.” It also said that Murrayhill would make recommendations to the servicers regarding delinquent loans.
Now, under the comptroller office’s program, Ms. Allon’s firm may be analyzing the treatment of borrowers on whose loans it acted as credit risk manager. “This conflict is so deep and so obvious, how could anybody have missed it?” Mr. Olenick asked.
A representative for Ms. Allon wrote in an e-mail that Allonhill “focuses on a different area of the mortgage industry than Murrayhill did.” She said the foreclosure information Allonhill was reviewing for Aurora was “outside the scope of what was provided to Murrayhill.”
Aurora did not comment.
JPMorgan Chase’s hiring of Deloitte to analyze foreclosure practices also raises questions. Deloitte was the auditor not only for Washington Mutual, the huge mortgage lender that collapsed in 2008, but also for Bear Stearns, another defunct firm. Both WaMu and Bear were acquired by JPMorgan, so any loans they made may come under scrutiny by the same firm that audited their books.
Nye Lavalle, a foreclosure fraud expert who began warning bank executives about bad lending practices back in 1999, is troubled by this situation. “This review process is a wink-wink, nod-nod,” he said.
JPMorgan and Deloitte declined to comment.
Robert Garsson, a spokesman for the comptroller’s office, said the regulator was satisfied with its vetting process. “We were particularly focused on situations where consultants and law firms may have previously worked on issues they would be called upon to evaluate in the review process,” he said in a statement. “If we identify conflicts that were not apparent at the time the engagement letters were signed, we will take steps to address them.”
Beyond the potential for conflicts, Ms. Cohen pointed to other flaws in the program. For instance, she said the years under review were not when most subprime loans were put into foreclosure. Many predatory loans are likely to be excluded from the analysis.
Even more problematic, Ms. Cohen said, is the fact that the program has left troubled borrowers who participate in it unprotected against further damage. For example, participants in line to get remuneration may be asked to give up their rights to defend themselves if they get into financial trouble again.
“This process is not meant to fix the original lending practices, so people need to hang on to their right to challenge the original loan later,” she said.
She also noted that borrowers in the process of having their cases reviewed could still lose their homes under the program. “O.C.C. has said their policy will involve an escalation process and expedited review of people in a certain proximity to a foreclosure sale,” Ms. Cohen said. “But the sale itself is not being stayed in any systematic way.”
None of this surprises Ms. Cohen or others familiar with the regulator. “This is the O.C.C . that we’re talking about,” she said. “It has a long record of favoring banks over homeowners.”