“I’ve waited for orders from above for long enough,” he says. “I have an obligation to my constituents. I’m derelict in my duties if I don’t go after this. I’m 99.9 percent sure I’m going to go ahead and do what I think I have the authority to do, and if I’m wrong, prove me wrong.”
Essex official wants to sue over mortgage mess
John O’Brien is a national folk hero to anti-foreclosure activists. The Southern Essex Register of Deeds has garnered national attention by accusing big banks of acting like a “criminal enterprise.” After an audit revealed widespread flaws in banks’ handling of mortgage paperwork, O’Brien likened his Salem registry to a crime scene.
So when a New York law firm began soliciting local registries to join a class action lawsuit against an embattled mortgage clearinghouse, O’Brien should’ve been the first to sign on. He wasn’t. O’Brien was told he didn’t have the authority to join the effort. Deed registries in Norfolk, Bristol, and Plymouth counties are now pushing ahead with the case, while O’Brien is left standing on the sidelines.
O’Brien’s inability to sue over mortgage paperwork filed in his own registry highlights a quirk in Massachusetts state government. The state eliminated most of its county governments more than a decade ago, even as it retained some of the trappings of county government. District attorneys and sheriffs are still elected at the county level, for example, but they’re funded by the state. The consolidation of county governments also left the state’s 21 registries of deeds intact.
The registries remain elected offices, but most registers are now employees of Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office. They don’t have the sort of leeway they once had under county government, and that includes ability to retain outside lawyers and initiate lawsuits on their own. It’s a constraint registers in Norfolk, Bristol and Plymouth counties aren’t working under.