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.

Manafort’s Mystery Mortgage

photo by Kevin Dooley

NBC News quoted me in Manafort Got $3.5M Mystery Mortgage, Paid No Tax. It opens,

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort took out a $3.5 million mortgage through a shell company just after leaving the campaign, but the mortgage document that explains how he would pay it back was never filed — and Manafort’s company never paid $36,000 in taxes that would be due on the loan.

In addition, despite telling NBC News previously that all his real estate transactions are transparent and include his name and signature, Manafort’s name and signature do not appear on any of the loan documents that are publicly available. A Manafort spokesperson said the $3.5 million loan was repaid in December, but also said paperwork showing the repayment was not filed until he was asked about the loan by NBC News.

News of the missing documents comes as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is taking a “preliminary look” at Manafort’s real estate transactions, according to a source familiar with the matter.

On August 19, 2016, Manafort left the Trump campaign amid media reports about his previous work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, including allegations he received millions of dollars in payments.

That same day, Manafort created a holding company called Summerbreeze LLC. Several weeks later, a document called a UCC filed with the state of New York shows that Summerbreeze took out a $3.5 million loan on Manafort’s home in the tony beach enclave of Bridgehampton.

Manafort’s name does not appear on the UCC filing, but Summerbreeze LLC gives his Florida address as a contact, and lists his Bridgehampton home as collateral.

A review of New York state and Suffolk County records shows the loan was made by S C 3, a subsidiary of Spruce Capital, which was co-founded by Joshua Crane, who has partnered with Donald Trump on real estate deals. Spruce is also partially funded by Ukrainian-American real-estate magnate Alexander Rovt, who tried to donate $10,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign on Election Day but had all but the legal maximum of $2,700 returned.

The mortgage notice for the loan, however, was never entered into government records by the lender. A mortgage notice normally names the lender, and gives the interest rate, the frequency with which payments must be made, and the length of the mortgage.

Real estate experts contacted by NBC News called the omission “highly unusual,” though not illegal.

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who specializes in real estate law, said, “It would be totally ill-advised to not record the loan on the property that is being secured. … Recording the mortgage on the property protects the lender.” Without it, there’s no public record that the borrower owes money.

Reiss on Lawsky’s Departure from DFS

Bloomberg interviewed me for Lawsky Leaving After $3 Billion in Fines Makes a Mark. The article reads in part,

When Ocwen Financial Corp. (OCN) shares soared on the news that regulator Benjamin Lawsky, who’s probing the company, will step down, Bill Miller shrugged.

The next head of New York’s Department of Financial Services will probably be as aggressive as Lawsky, continuing the uncertainty for Ocwen, said Miller, who runs the $2.2 billion Legg Mason Opportunity Trust. (LMOPX) Lawsky’s investigations of nonbank mortgage servicers such as Ocwen have caused their shares to plunge.

“Ocwen has been rallying on the view that with him gone that will lift the burden, but I would be surprised if the next person didn’t at least follow through in the way Lawsky was going to,” said Miller, whose fund, which invests in Nationstar Mortgage Holdings Inc., has gained an annual 38 percent since 2011.

In three years as New York’s financial watchdog, Lawsky extracted more than $3 billion in fines from global banks, called for the firing of executives and questioned whether the lightly regulated nonbank servicers are properly handling modifications and defaults. As the department’s first superintendent, Lawsky hired experienced lawyers from the New York Attorney General’s office, creating a strong enforcement culture that will continue after he’s gone, said Kathryn Judge, an associate professor focusing on financial institutions at Columbia University Law School.

“Similar to what we saw Eliot Spitzer doing as attorney general, being in New York allowed Lawsky to step in where federal regulators hadn’t,” Judge said. “By stepping into this role at a formative stage for the regulator, he created a footprint. That legacy will survive.”

*     *     *

The superintendent’s work has reflected favorably on the governor, said David Reiss, a professor who specializes in real estate and consumer protection at Brooklyn Law School. That will encourage Cuomo to select a successor who’s equally dynamic, Reiss said.

Cuomo will want to build on Lawsky’s record of protecting homeowners from improper foreclosures and holding mortgage servicers accountable, said Reiss.

Chief of staff Anthony Albanese, general counsel Daniel Alter, and capital markets division head Maria Filipakis are among the top people that Lawsky brought to the department. One of them may be in a position to replace him, according to a lawyer who has had extensive dealings with the superintendent. The lawyer asked not to be named because he’s not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

The successor will have to focus more on regulation and finding answers to the issues the department uncovered with nonbank servicers and insurers, said Eric Dinallo, who served as New York’s superintendent of insurance from 2007 to 2009.

“Each superintendent or commissioner wants to put their unique stamp on the agency,” he said.

Reiss in Bloomberg on CS Lawsuit

Bloomberg quoted me in Credit Suisse Waits for $11 Billion Answer in N.Y. Fraud Suit.  It reads in part,

As Credit Suisse Group AG (CSGN) sees it, time has run out on New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s pursuit of Wall Street banks for mortgage fraud that helped trigger the financial crisis.

Schneiderman sued Credit Suisse in 2012 as part of a wide-ranging probe into mortgage bonds. He claimed Switzerland’s second-largest bank misrepresented the risks associated with $93.8 billion in mortgage-backed securities issued in 2006 and 2007.

Credit Suisse asked a Manhattan judge in December to dismiss Schneiderman’s case, as well as his demand for as much as $11.2 billion in damages. The bank argued that New York, by waiting so long to file the lawsuit, missed a three-year legal deadline for suing. The state countered that it had six years to file its complaint.

If the bank wins, Schneiderman will face a new roadblock as he considers similar multibillion-dollar claims against a dozen other Wall Street firms. The judge in New York State Supreme Court could rule at any time.

“It would obviously tilt everything in the favor of Credit Suisse and similarly situated financial institutions,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, hindering New York’s remaining efforts to hold banks accountable for mistakes that spurred a recession.

*     *     *

Since the latest bonds cited in Schneiderman’s suit originated in 2006 and 2007, if the judge chooses the bank’s argument, the lawsuit may be dismissed. If the judge takes Schneiderman’s more expansive view, most or all of the suspect bonds may still be covered by the litigation.

“The entire case is time-barred,” Richard Clary, a lawyer for the bank, told Friedman at the December hearing. Lawyers for the state argued that such limits weren’t intended to apply to the attorney general.

“We’ve successfully resolved cases filed within six years,” Deputy Attorney General Virginia Chavez Romano said, citing last year’s JPMorgan accord. “It has been our decades-long practice.”

So far, New York’s courts have broadly interpreted the statute in finding a six-year period, Brooklyn Law School’s Reiss said. That may be changing as legal scholars and financial industry lawyers question its propriety.

“Having these incredibly long and ambiguous statutes of limitations is not particularly fair,” he said.

*     *     *

Friedman’s ruling in the Credit Suisse case may be crucial to Schneiderman’s probe of close to a dozen other banks, and whether he can sue them successfully.

New York agreed with the firms in October 2012 that any legal deadline for bringing fraud claims against them would be suspended while he continues his investigation, a person familiar with the matter said.

Such tolling agreements stopped the clock on any statute of limitations and ensured Schneiderman can bring fraud claims against banks for conduct going as far back as 2006, said the person.

Brooklyn Law School’s Reiss said the banks may have agreed to the delay to avoid forcing Schneiderman to file a “kitchen sink complaint with every possible allegation in it” just to beat the clock. Doing so also builds good will with regulators and may also facilitate a favorable settlement.

The agreements don’t necessarily mean that suits will be filed, the person said. If Schneiderman sues any of the banks, they may then assert the statute of limitations is three years, and not six, just as Credit Suisse has done.

*     *     *

This may be a more potent argument if Friedman rules for the Swiss bank in the pending case.

A three-year statute-of-limitations would mean they can’t be held responsible for transactions before 2009, while a six-year deadline would allow Schneiderman to reach back to 2006.

There’s “great uncertainty” about whether Schneiderman can move forward with the Credit Suisse case in light of the statute of limitations arguments, said James Cox, a corporate law professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Reiss said that any ruling would probably be challenged all the way to the Court of Appeals in Albany, the state’s highest court.