Court Limits NY Attorney General’s Reach

New York State Attorney General                  Barbara D. Underwood

Bloomberg quoted me in Credit Suisse Wins Narrowing of $11 Billion Suit, Martin Act. It opens,

New York’s powerful anti-fraud weapon known as the Martin Act was crimped by the state’s highest court, which scaled back what was an $11 billion lawsuit against Credit Suisse Group AG over mortgage-securities practices in the run-up to the financial crisis.

The New York Court of Appeals found that many of the claims were too old, trimming the statute-of-limitations of the law to three years from six years. The Martin Act has been used by the state’s attorney general to police the securities markets since the 1920s, so the ruling may limit the prosecution of fraud in stock and bond sales and some other financial transactions.

“Anything that reduces a statute of limitations will have a big impact on enforcement,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, noting that it can take many years to develop complex financial cases. “This case reflects a significant curtailment of the New York attorney general’s ability to go after alleged financial wrongdoing.”

Prior to the legal battle against Credit Suisse, the Martin Act, one of the country’s oldest and toughest anti-fraud tools, faced relatively few tests in court. The law can be used by the state attorney general to file both civil suits and criminal charges, and requires a lower standard of proof for civil cases than other anti-fraud statutes. It can also be used to launch investigations, which can help extract settlements.

Legal Tool

Through the specter of the Martin Act, New York state has been able to collect billions of dollars in fines from investment banks, insurance companies and mutual funds over a wide variety of alleged fraud. It has also been used to charge individuals, including executives at Tyco International Ltd., accused of looting the company, and former officials at the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Barbara Underwood, said she pursues cases quickly and will continue to do so.

“This decision will have no impact on our efforts to vigorously pursue financial fraud wherever it exists in New York,” Spitalnick said. “That includes continuing our case against Credit Suisse.”

In recent years, the Martin Act has been used against Barclays Plc and other banks to pursue claims they misled customers about the role of high-frequency traders in dark pools, to win a settlement from the Bank of New York Mellon Corp. over foreign-currency trading, and to start an investigation into Exxon Mobil Corp. about whether it misled investors about the impact of climate change.

The case against Zurich-based Credit Suisse came as the office started probes into allegations of wrongdoing related to the financial crisis. The lawsuit, filed by former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in November 2012, claimed the bank ignored warning signs about the quality of loans it was packaging and selling in 2006 and 2007.

Ghost of A Crisis Past

photo by Chandres

The Royal Bank of Scotland settled an investigation brought by New York Attorney General Schneiderman arising from mortgage-backed securities it issued in the run up to the financial crisis. RBS will pay a half a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money even in the context of the settlements that the federal government had wrangled from financial institutions in the aftermath to the financial crisis. The Settlement Agreement includes a Statement of Facts which RBS has acknowledged. Many settlement agreements do not include such a statement, leaving the dollar amount of the settlement to do all of the talking. We are lucky to see what facts exactly RBS is “acknowledging.”

The Statement of Facts found that assertions in the offering documents for the MBS were inaccurate and the securities have lost billions of dollars in collateral. These losses led to “shortfalls in principal and interest payments, as well as declines in the market value of their certificates.” (Appendix A at 2)

The Statement of Facts outlines just how RBS deviated from the statements it made in the offering documents:

RBS’s Representations to Investors

11. The Offering Documents for the Securitizations included, in varying forms, statements that the mortgage loans were “originated generally in accordance with” the originator’s underwriting guidelines, and that exceptions would be made on a “case-by-case basis…where compensating factors exist.” The Offering Documents further stated that such exceptions would be made “from time to time and in the ordinary course of business,” and disclosed that “[l]oans originated with exceptions may result in a higher number of delinquencies and loss severities than loans originated in strict compliance with the designated underwriting guidelines.”

12. The Offering Documents often contained statements, in varying forms, with respect to stated-income loans, that “the stated income is reasonable for the borrower’s employment and that the stated assets are consistent with the borrower’s income.”

13. The Offering Documents further contained statements, in varying forms, that each mortgage loan was originated “in compliance with applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations.”

14. The Offering Documents also included statements regarding the valuation of the mortgaged properties and the resulting loan-to-value (“LTV”) ratios, such as the weighted-average LTV and maximum LTV at origination of the securitized loans.

15. In addition, the Offering Documents typically stated that loans acquired by RBS for securitization were “subject to due diligence,” often described as including a “thorough credit and compliance review with loan level testing,” and stated that “the depositor will not include any loan in a trust fund if anything has come to the depositor’s attention that would cause it to believe that the representations and warranties of the related seller regarding that loan will not be accurate and complete in all material respects….”

The Actual Quality of the Mortgage Loans in the Securitizations

16. At times, RBS’s credit and compliance diligence vendors identified a number of loans as diligence exceptions because, in their view, they did not comply with underwriting guidelines and lacked adequate compensating factors or did not comply with applicable laws and regulations. Loans were also identified as diligence exceptions because of missing documents or other curable issues, or because of additional criteria specified by RBS for the review. In some instances, RBS disagreed with the vendor’s view. Certain of these loans were included in the Securitizations.

17. Additionally, some valuation diligence reports reflected variances between the appraised value of the mortgaged properties and the values obtained through other measures, such as automated valuation models (“AVMs”), broker-price opinions (“BPOs”), and drive-by reviews. In some instances, the LTVs calculated using AVM or BPO valuations exceeded the maximum LTV stated in the Offering Documents, which was calculated using the lower of the appraised value or the purchase price. Certain of these loans were included in the Securitizations.

18. RBS often purchased and securitized loans that were not part of the diligence sample without additional loan-file review. The Offering Documents did not include a description of the diligence reports prepared by RBS’s vendors, and did not state the size of the diligence sample or the number of loans with diligence exceptions or valuation variances identified during their reviews.

19. At times, RBS agreed with originators to limit the number of loan files it could review during its due diligence. Although RBS typically reserved the right to request additional loan-level diligence or not complete the loan purchase, in practice it rarely did so. These agreements with originators were not disclosed in the Offering Documents.

20. Finally, RBS performed post-securitization reviews of certain loans that defaulted shortly after securitization. These reviews identified a number of loans that appeared to breach the representations and warranties contained in the Offering Documents. Based on these reviews, RBS in some instances requested that the loan seller or loan originator repurchase certain loans. (Appendix A at 4-5)

Some of these inaccuracies are just straight-out misrepresentations, so they would not have been caught at the time by regulators, even if regulators had been looking. And that’s why, ten years later, we are still seeing financial crisis lawsuits being resolved.

It is not clear that these types of problems can be kept from infiltrating the capital market once greed overcomes fear over the course of the business cycle. That’s why it is important for individual actors to suffer consequences when they allow greed to take the driver’s seat. We still have not figured out how to effectively address tho individual actions that result in systemic harm.

Who’s a Predatory Lender?

photo by Taber Andrew Bain

US News & World Report quoted me in 5 Clues That You’re Dealing with a Predatory Lender.  It opens,

Consumers are often told to stay away from predatory lenders, but the problem with that advice is a predatory lender doesn’t advertise itself as such.

Fortunately, if you’re on guard, you should be able to spot the signs that will let you know a loan is bad news. If you’re afraid you’re about to sign your life away on a dotted line, watch for these clues first.

You’re being offered credit, even though your credit score and history are terrible. This is probably the biggest red flag there is, according to John Breyault, the vice president for public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, a private nonprofit advocacy group in the District of Columbia.

“A lender is in business because they think they’re going to get paid back,” Breyault says. “So if they aren’t checking to see if you have the ability to pay them back, by doing a credit check, then they’re planning on getting their bank through a different way, like offering a high fee for the loan and setting it up in a way that locks you into a cycle of debt that is very difficult to get out of.”

But, of course, as big of a clue as this is to stay away, it can be hard to listen to your inner voice of reason. After all, if nowhere else will give you a loan, you may decide to work with the predatory lender anyway. That’s why many industry experts feel that even if a bad loan is transparent about how bad it is, it probably shouldn’t exist. After all, only consumers who are desperate for cash are likely to take a gamble that they can pay back a loan with 200 percent interest – and get through it unscathed.

Your loan has an insanely high interest rate. Most states have usury laws preventing interest rates from going into that 200 APR territory, but the laws are generally weak, industry experts say, and lenders get around them all the time. So you can’t assume an interest rate that seems really high is considered normal or even within the parameters of the law. After all, attorney generals successfully sue payday loan services and other lending companies fairly frequently. For instance, in January of this year, it was announced that after the District of Columbia attorney general sued the lending company CashCall, they settled for millions of dollars. According to media reports, CashCall was accused of offering loans with interest rates around 300 percent annually.

The lender is making promises that seem too good to be true. If you’re asking questions and getting answers that are making you sigh with relief, that could be a problem.

Nobody’s suggesting you be a cynic and assume everybody’s out to get you, but you should scrutinize your paperwork, says David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

“Often predators will make all sorts of oral promises, but when it comes time to sign on the dotted line, their documents don’t match the promises,” Reiss says.

And if they aren’t in sync, assume the documentation is correct. Do not go with what the lender told you.

“Courts will, in all likelihood, hold you to the promises you made in the signed documents, and your testimony about oral promises probably won’t hold that much water,” Reiss says. ” Read what you are signing and make sure it matches up with your understanding of the transaction.”

Mnuchin, When No One Is Watching

Alexander Hamilton

My latest column for The Hill is Hamilton Acted in Good Faith. Will Steven Mnuchin Do The Same? It reads:

UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden famously said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

Steven Mnuchin, another leading citizen of Los Angeles, is now in the spotlight as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Running the Treasury Department requires financial know-how, which this former Goldman Sachs banker has in spades. But it also requires character, as a large part of the Treasury secretary’s job is to embody the good faith that the American people want the rest of the world to have in us.

In Alexander Hamilton’s Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit, written just after he became the first U.S. Treasury secretary, he notes that the government must maintain public credit “by good faith, by a punctual performance of contracts. States, like individuals, who observe their engagements, are respected and trusted, while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.”

OneWest’s actions during Mnuchin’s tenure as chief executive officer raise questions about whether Mnuchin has demonstrated the character necessary to be a worthy successor to Hamilton.

A recently disclosed memo by lawyers at California’s Office of the Attorney General documents a pattern of bad faith toward homeowners with OneWest mortgages. The memo documents evidence of widespread wrongdoing that helped the bank and hurt the homeowners. The evidence includes the backdating of notarized and recorded documents in 99.6 percent of the examined mortgage files and unlawful credit bids and substitutions of trustees in 16.0 percent of those files.

These are not merely technical violations. They shortened the time that homeowners had to get their mortgages back in good standing and they violated a number of procedural protections for homeowners facing non-judicial foreclosures.

Non-judicial foreclosures give lenders the ability to bypass the courts so long as they strictly abide by the procedural protections set forth by statute. Non-judicial foreclosures can only maintain their legitimacy if lenders respect those procedural protections. This is because there is no judge to make sure that the procedural protections are being adhered to. Without them, a homeowner can be no more than a sheep being led to the financial slaughterhouse of an improper foreclosure.

Some bankers have argued that focusing on violations of mortgage terms is overly legalistic, and beside the point given the widespread defaults during the financial crisis. It isn’t. The violations documented in the memo benefited the bank and harmed homeowners by allowing foreclosures to occur faster than they would if the formalities were followed.

They also allowed the bank to avoid paying various taxes relating to the sale of foreclosed properties. Some of the violations documented in the memo can result in felony convictions, which shows just how seriously California views the procedural requirements relating to non-judicial foreclosures. Ultimately, California’s then-Attorney General (and now U.S. Senator) Kamala Harris, chose not to file this complex lawsuit, but the memo’s findings are disturbing nonetheless.

As Hamilton knew, acting in good faith, performing agreements as they are written and keeping promises lead to respect and trust, “while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.” The American people deserve a leader at Treasury with those traits, one who cherishes the rule of law as the basis of a both a healthy market economy and a well-functioning democratic government.

Other nations expect that we meet this standard, too. If they see us as just another bully on the world stage, we will lose our ability to lead by example. Members of the Senate Finance Committee should ask Mnuchin whether his actions at OneWest met the standard set forth by Hamilton.

We won’t be in the rooms where important decisions happen, so we need to have confidence in how Mnuchin will act when he thinks that no one is watching.

Carson and Fair Housing

photo by Warren K. Leffler

President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act)

Law360 quoted me in Carson’s HUD Nom Adds To Fair Housing Advocates’ Worries (behind a paywall). It opens,

President-elect Donald Trump’s Monday choice of Ben Carson to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development added to fears that the incoming administration would pull back from the aggressive enforcement of fair housing laws that marked President Barack Obama’s term, experts said.

The tapping of Carson to lead HUD despite a lack of any relative experience in the housing sector came after Trump named Steven Mnuchin to lead the U.S. Department of the Treasury amid concerns that the bank for which he served as chairman engaged in rampant foreclosure abuses. Trump has also nominated Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to serve as attorney general. Sessions has drawn scrutiny for his own attitudes towards civil rights enforcement.

Coupled with Trump’s own checkered history of run-ins with the U.S. Justice Department over discriminatory housing practices, those appointments signal that enforcement of fair housing laws are likely to be a low priority for the Trump administration when it takes office in January, said Christopher Odinet, a professor at Southern University Law Center.

“I can’t imagine that we’ll see any robust enforcement or even attention paid to fair housing in this next administration,” he said.

Trump said that Carson, who backed the winning candidate after his own unsuccessful run for the presidency, shared in his vision of “revitalizing” inner cities and the families that live in them.

“Ben shares my optimism about the future of our country and is part of ensuring that this is a presidency representing all Americans. He is a tough competitor and never gives up,” Trump said in a statement released through his transition team.

Carson said he was honored to get the nod from the president-elect.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need. We have much work to do in enhancing every aspect of our nation and ensuring that our nation’s housing needs are met,” he said in the transition team’s statement.

The problem that many are having with this nomination is that Carson has little to no experience with federal housing policy. A renowned neurosurgeon, Carson’s presidential campaign website made no mention of housing, and there is little record of him having spoken about it on the campaign trail. One Carson campaign document called for privatizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-run mortgage backstops that were bailed out in 2008.

The nomination also comes in the weeks after a spokesman for Carson said that the former presidential candidate had no interest in serving in a cabinet post because he lacked the qualifications. That statement has since been walked back but has been cited by Democrats unhappy with the Carson selection.

“Cities coping with crumbling infrastructure and families struggling to afford a roof overhead cannot afford a HUD secretary whose spokesperson said he doesn’t believe he’s up for the job,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee. “President-elect Trump made big promises to rebuild American infrastructure and revitalize our cities, but this appointment raises real questions about how serious he is about actually getting anything done.”

HUD is a sprawling government agency with a budget around $50 billion and programs that include the Federal Housing Administration, which provides financing for lower-income and first-time homebuyers, funding and administration of public housing programs, disaster relief, and other key housing policies.

It also helps enforce anti-discrimination policies, in particular the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule that the Obama administration finalized. The rule, which was part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act but had been languishing for decades, requires each municipality that receives federal funding to assess their housing policies to determine whether they sufficiently encourage diversity in their communities.

Carson has not said much publicly about housing policy, but in a 2015 op-ed in the Washington Times compared the rule to failed school busing efforts of the 1970s and at other times called the rule akin to communism.

“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse. There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous,” wrote Carson, who lived in public housing for a time while growing up in Detroit.

That dismissiveness toward the rule has people who are concerned about diversity in U.S. neighborhoods and anti-discrimination efforts on edge, and could put an end to federal efforts to improve those metrics.

“If you’re not affirmatively furthering fair housing, we’re going to be stuck with the same situation we have now or it’s going to get worse over time,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and research affiliate at New York University’s Furman Center.

Consumer Protection, Going Forward

photo by Lawrence Jackson

Warren, Obama and Cordray

The New York Times quoted me in Consumer Protection Bureau Chief Braces for a Reckoning. It opens,

Mild-mannered, lawyerly and with a genius for trivia, Richard Cordray is not the sort of guy you picture at the center of Washington’s bitter partisan wars over regulation and consumer safeguards.

But there he is, a 57-year-old Buckeye who friends say prefers his hometown diner to a fancy political reception, testifying in hearing after hearing on Capitol Hill about the agency he leads, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Republicans would like to do away with it — and with him, arguing that the agency should be led by a commission rather than one person.

And with a Republican sweep of Congress and the White House, they may get some or all of what they wish.

Mr. Cordray, a reluctant Washingtonian who has commuted here for six years from Grove City, Ohio, where his wife and twin children live, is the first director of the consumer watchdog agency, which was created in 2010 after Wall Street’s meltdown. By aggressively deploying his small army of workers — he has 1,600 of them — Mr. Cordray has turned the fledgling agency into one of Washington’s most powerful and pugnacious regulators.

The bureau has overhauled mortgage lending rules, reined in abusive debt collectors, prosecuted hundreds of companies and extracted nearly $12 billion from businesses in the form of canceled debts and consumer refunds. In September, it exposed the extent of Wells Fargo’s creation of two million fraudulent customer accounts, igniting a scandal that provoked widespread outrage and toppled the company’s chief executive.

And, according to Mr. Cordray, he and his team have barely scratched the surface of combating consumer abuse.

“We overcame momentous challenges — just building an agency from scratch, let alone one that deals with such a large sector of the economy,” Mr. Cordray said in an interview at his agency’s office here. “I’m satisfied with the progress we have made, but I’m not satisfied in the sense that there’s a lot more progress to be made. There’s still a lot to be done.”

But his future and the agency’s are uncertain. Democrats in Ohio are encouraging Mr. Cordray to run for governor in 2018, which would require him to quit his job in Washington fairly soon, rather than when his term ends in mid-2018. Champions of the agency are imploring him to stay, arguing that if he leaves, the agency is likely to be defanged, its powers to help consumers sapped.

Opponents of the bureau just won a big legal victory: The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said last month that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was unconstitutional, and that the president should have the power to fire its director at will.

The agency is challenging the decision — which was made in a lawsuit brought by the mortgage lender PHH Corporation that contests the consumer bureau’s authority to fine it — and that has temporarily stopped the decision from taking effect. But the ruling has kept alive questions about whether too much power is concentrated in Mr. Cordray’s job, and whether the agency should be dismantled or restructured.

Mr. Cordray, who also battled on behalf of consumers in his previous jobs as Ohio’s attorney general and, before that, its treasurer, is praised in some circles as enormously effective, wielding the bureau’s power to restructure some industries and terrify others.

The bureau has “helped save countless people across the country from abusive financial practices,” said Hilary O. Shelton, the N.A.A.C.P.’s senior vice president for advocacy and policy.

Even the regulator’s frequent foes — including Alan S. Kaplinsky, a partner at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia, who says the agency often overreaches — acknowledge its impact.

“I’ve been practicing law in this area for well over 40 years, and there’s nothing that compares to it,” Mr. Kaplinsky said. “Every company in the consumer financial services market has felt the effects.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has nearly replaced the Better Business Bureau as the first stop for dissatisfied customers seeking redress. It has handled more than a million complaints, many of which it has helped resolve.

*     *    *

The housing crisis dominated the bureau’s early days. When Congress created the new overseer, it also dictated its first priority: making mortgages safer. The deadline was tight. If the bureau did not introduce new rules within 18 months, a congressionally mandated set of lending guidelines would automatically take effect.

The bureau made it with one day to spare.

It banned some practices that had fueled the crisis, like home loans with low teaser rates or no documentation of the borrower’s income, and steered lenders toward “qualified” loans with a stricter set of safeguards, including checks to ensure that customers could afford to repay what they borrowed.

After much grumbling — and many dire forecasts that the new rules would limit credit and harm consumers — mortgage lenders adjusted. They made nearly 3.7 million loans last year for home purchases, the highest number since 2007, according to government data.

“It seems like the financial services industry has figured out how to adapt to this new regulatory regime,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who studied the effects of the bureau’s rule-making. “We’ve moved from the fox-in-the-henhouse market in the early 2000s, where you could get away with nearly anything, to this new model, where someone is looking over your shoulder.”

Tough Edge for Financial Services

Maria T. Vullo %>

Maria Vullo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Law360 quoted me in Cuomo’s DFS Nominee Likely To Keep Tough Edge (behind a paywall). It reads, in part,

Although New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo turned to a longtime BigLaw attorney to lead the New York State Department of Financial Services, observers say the agency is likely to continue taking the aggressive regulatory and enforcement stance that has become its calling card.

The governor tapped Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP’s Maria T. Vullo to lead the DFS, completing a monthslong search to replace former New York Superintendent of Financial Services Benjamin M. Lawsky. In turning to Vullo, Cuomo brings on a litigator and former prosecutor with 25 years of experience in the law, including two decades of representing banks.

But given the reputation that the DFS has built up since it burst onto the scene with its $340 million sanctions violation settlement with the U.K.’s Standard Chartered PLC in 2012, advocates and observers believe that if confirmed, Vullo will continue to push for tough enforcement and big penalties against the banks, insurers and other financial firms that the DFS oversees.

 *     *     *

However, because Vullo comes from a BigLaw background with extensive experience representing financial firms, some have raised concerns that the agency will become less aggressive in enforcing New York state’s financial regulations.But observers who spoke to Law360 said her noncorporate experience gives a clearer picture of how she might run the DFS.

Vullo has been an advocate for women in the legal profession and represented women who sued for damages after being raped during the war in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, helping secure a $745 million verdict in that case.

And in her work for Cuomo during his tenure as New York’s attorney general, Vullo oversaw a staff of around 200 that worked in the office’s investor protection, antitrust, real estate finance, consumer fraud and Internet bureaus.

In that position, she took action against Ezra Merkin and Ivy Asset Management for their roles in defrauding investors in Bernard L. Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme, as well as launching an investigation and action against Ernst & Young for investor losses in Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s 2008 bankruptcy.

Those past experiences should allay any fears that Wall Street’s critics might have, said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.

“I thought that Governor Cuomo would seek an aggressive replacement for Lawsky,” Reiss said. “Vullo fits the bill.”

To that point, financial reform and other advocates said in interviews that they knew little about her, but were encouraged by what they did know.

“What we’re hoping is that the reputation that the department has established will continue through the new leadership,” said Andy Morrison of the New Economy Project, a New York-based advocacy group.

Indeed, Cuomo has an interest in maintaining an aggressive DFS.

The billions of dollars in fines it collected from banks have gone to fund state infrastructure projects, including the construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River north of New York City.

And that get-tough approach has also been a way to attract voters.

“My sense is he benefits from the halo effects of an aggressive DFS,” Reiss said.