Law Suits & Courts

Foreclosure investigation growing, state official says. Plantation firm asks judge to toss subpoena

Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A lawyer with the Florida Attorney General's Office urged a Broward County judge Tuesday to allow the state to continue its investigation of a giant South Florida foreclosure law firm, saying regulators were uncovering "substantial, egregious activity."

Jeffrey Tew, representing the law offices of David J. Stern in Plantation, argued the state had no right to subpoena documents from the firm under the state's Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act because the company did not advertise to or directly deal with borrowers. Stern's operation, one of four being investigated by the attorney general, prepares foreclosure paperwork for lenders and loan servicers.

"I think it's laughable to contend that any of [Stern's] lawyers engaged in trade or commerce with anyone who was being foreclosed on," Tew told Judge Eileen O'Connor.

But Theresa B. Edwards, assistant attorney general, said the state has the right to investigate after receiving 200 complaints. "It is a broadening investigation," said Edwards, noting regulators have taken 100 sworn affidavits and looked at complaints going back as far as five years.

One claim being examined was that the foreclosure firms were giving kickbacks to the loan servicers, Edwards said. Tew called the allegation "totally untrue."

O'Connor is expected to issue a ruling in several days.

Three of the four firms under investigation, which are believed to handle most of Florida's foreclosures, are fighting their state's subpoenas. Attorney General Bill McCollum lost the first round last week when a Palm Beach County judge denied the action against Shapiro & Fishman of Boca Raton, saying, among other things, that regulating attorneys' actions was responsibility of The Florida Bar or the court system.

Tew made the same claim Tuesday, although he focused on the deceptive trade statute. McCollum has asked for another hearing in the Palm Beach County case.

The state also is taking a hard look at lenders and servicing companies handling foreclosures and home loans. Complaints continue to mount about sloppy paperwork and "robo-signers," the nickname for employees who have testified they signed documents — sometimes thousands a month — without verifying they were true or the figures accurate.

McCollum sent letters Tuesday to five major lenders and loan servicers: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Ally Financial's GMAC mortgage unit, PNC Financial Group and Litton Loan Servicing. He asked them to meet with him in Tallahassee "as soon as possible."

The partial or complete halt some of these companies have placed on their foreclosures, evictions or sales over the past several weeks is "counterproductive to obtaining the swift solution necessary," McCollum said. Reopening the foreclosure cases "may take many months, even years, given the state of our overburdened court system," he said, stalling the state's economic recovery.

Banking officials earlier this week were predicting the foreclosure reviews could be finished within two weeks to a month.

Peter Zalewski, a principal at the Bal Harbour-based CondoVultures consulting firm, said the lenders' foreclosure moratoriums could seriously slow real estate sales in South Florida. A third of the listings here are foreclosures or short sales.

GMAC spokesman James Olecki did not comment on McCollum's request but said the company has hired independent consultants to review its foreclosure process nationwide. Representatives of Chase and Bank of America said they would work with state attorneys general nationwide. State regulators, led by the Iowa attorney general, are launching a foreclosure task force this week.

PNC Financial did not comment on McCollum's request but said the company was reviewing its foreclosure procedures. Litton could not be reached for comment after several attempts to reach the company by telephone.

Deerfield Beach foreclosure defense attorney Peter Ticktin said state or federal agencies were welcome to examine 150 depositions from cases his firm had handled over the past year and a half, each involving robo-signers. Ticktin piled the files, forming a small mountain, on top of a glossy marble table before calling a news conference in his office Tuesday.

Ticktin said the employees mostly were unaware they were committing perjury when verifying documents they never had seen were true, in part because some were so poorly trained. One signing agent was a beauty school graduate, he said, another a truck driver.

The servicers "were looking for [employees] with little or no secondary education who wouldn't question the banks," Ticktin said. "What we are looking at is nothing less than a conspiracy."

Diane Lade sunsentinel

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