Posted on Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Foreclosure Furor Rises; Many Call for a Freeze
By DAVID STREITFELD and GRETCHEN MORGENSON
The uproar over bad conduct by mortgage lenders intensified Tuesday, as lawmakers in Washington requested a federal investigation and the attorney general in Texas joined a chorus of state law enforcement figures calling for freezes on all foreclosures.
Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and 30 other Democratic representatives from California told the Justice Department, the Federal Reserve and the comptroller of the currency that “it is time that banks are held accountable for their practices.”
In a request for an investigation into questionable foreclosure practices by lenders, the lawmakers said that “the excuses we have heard from financial institutions are simply not credible."
Officials from the federal agencies declined to comment.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, sent letters to 30 lenders demanding they stop foreclosures, evictions and the sale of foreclosed properties until they could provide assurances that they were proceeding legally.
Both developments indicated that scarcely two weeks after the country’s fourth-biggest lender, GMAC Mortgage, revealed that it was suspending all foreclosures in the 23 states where the process requires judicial approval, concerns about flawed foreclosures had mushroomed into a nationwide problem.
Some of the finger-pointing was also being directed back at Congress. The Ohio secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, suggested in a telephone interview on Tuesday that a bill passed by Congress last week about notarizations could facilitate foreclosure fraud.
Dubious notary practices used by banks to justify foreclosures have come under scrutiny in recent weeks as GMAC and other top lenders suspended homeowner evictions over possible improper procedures.
Ms. Brunner, who has recently referred possible cases of notary fraud in her state to federal authorities, worries that the legislation would allow the lowest standard for notaries to become a nationwide practice. She said she also worried that the changes were coming in the middle of a foreclosure storm where people could lose their homes improperly.
“A notary’s signature is that of a trusted, impartial third party, whose notarization bolsters the integrity of the document,” Ms. Brunner said. “To take away the safeguards of notarization means foreclosure procedures could be more susceptible to fraud.”
As banks’ foreclosure practices have come under the microscope, problems with notarizations on mortgage assignments have emerged. These documents transfer the ownership of the underlying note from one institution to another and are required for foreclosures to proceed.
In some cases, the notarizations predated the preparation of the legal documents, suggesting that signatures were not reviewed by a notary. Other notarizations took place in offices far away from where the documents were signed, indicating that the notaries might not have witnessed the signings as the law required.
Notary practices vary from state to state and the bill, sponsored by Representative Robert B. Aderholt, a Republican from Alabama, would essentially require that one state’s rules be accepted by others. If one state allows its notaries to sign off on electronic signatures, for example, documents carrying such signatures and notarized by officials in that state would have to be recognized and accepted in any state or federal court.
Ms. Brunner pointed out that some states had adopted “electronic notarization” laws that ignored the requirement of a signer’s personal appearance before a notary. “Many of these policies for electronic notarization are driven by technology rather than by principle, and they are dangerous to consumers,” she said.
Mr. Aderholt had introduced the bill twice before and both times it passed the House of Representatives but not the Senate. Mr. Aderholt reintroduced the bill last October and it passed the Senate on Sept. 29. It is awaiting President Obama’s signature.
Mr. Aderholt’s press secretary, Darrell Jordan, said there was no connection between the timing of the bill and the current notarization problems with foreclosures. In a statement announcing the bill’s passage, Mr. Aderholt said: “This legislation will help businesses around the nation by eliminating the confusion which arises when states refuse to acknowledge the integrity of documents notarized out of state.”
Last week, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America joined GMAC in suspending foreclosures in the states where they must be approved by a judge. The judicial states do not include California or Texas. But Mr. Abbott, the Texas attorney general, told lenders in letters dated Oct. 4 that if they used so-called robo-signers — employees who signed thousands of foreclosure affidavits a month, falsely attesting that they had reviewed the material — it would be a violation of Texas law.
As a result, he wrote, “the document and therefore the foreclosure sale would have been invalid.”
The three lenders who are at the center of the controversy, GMAC Mortgage, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, declined to comment. Other lenders singled out by Mr. Abbott include Wells Fargo, CitiMortgage, HSBC and National City.
Meanwhile, shares of a major foreclosure outsourcing company, Lender Processing Services of Jacksonville, Fla., fell 5 percent on Tuesday, adding to a slide that began last week.
The company’s documentation practices are stirring questions, including how the same employee can have wildly varying signatures on mortgage documents. L.P.S. blamed a midlevel manager’s decision to allow employees to sign forms in the name of an authorized employee. It says it has stopped the practice.
The United States Attorney’s Office in Tampa began investigating L.P.S. in February. An L.P.S. representative could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
Other calls for investigations came from Senators Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey.