Focus: Mortgage-Lending Meltdown – The watchdogs that didn’t bark
Four years after the banking system nearly collapsed from reckless mortgage lending, federal prosecutors have stayed on the sidelines, even as judges around the country are pointing fingers at possible wrongdoing.
The federal government, as has been widely noted, has pressed few criminal cases against major lenders or senior executives for the events that led to the meltdown of 2007. Finding hard evidence has proved difficult, the Justice Department has said.
The government also hasn’t brought any prosecutions for dubious foreclosure practices deployed since 2007 by big banks and other mortgage-servicing companies.
But this part of the financial system, an examination shows, is filled with potential leads:
- Foreclosure-related case files in just one New York federal bankruptcy court, for example, hold at least a dozen mortgage documents known as promissory notes bearing evidence of recently forged signatures and illegal alterations, according to a judge’s rulings and records reviewed by Reuters. Similarly altered notes have appeared in courts around the country.
- Banks in the past two years have foreclosed on the houses of thousands of active-duty U.S. soldiers who are legally eligible to have foreclosures halted. Refusing to grant foreclosure stays is a misdemeanor under federal law.
- The U.S. Treasury confirmed in November that it is conducting a civil investigation of 4,500 such foreclosures. Attorneys representing service members estimate banks have foreclosed on up to 30,000 military personnel in potential violation of the law.
- In Alabama, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled in December that Wells Fargo & Co. had filed at least 630 sworn affidavits containing false “facts,” including claims that homeowners were in arrears for amounts not yet due.
- Wells Fargo “took the law into its own hands” and disregarded laws banning perjury, Judge Margaret A. Mahoney declared.
- And in thousands of cases, documents required to transfer ownership of mortgages have been falsified. Lacking originals needed to foreclose, mortgage servicers drew up new ones, falsely signed by their own staff as employees of the original lenders — many of which no longer exist.
But the mortgage-foreclosure mess has yet to yield any federal prosecution against the big banks that are the major servicers of home loans.
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