Posted on Thursday, October 21, 2010
With a surge in lawsuits against law firms specializing in foreclosures, a case in Mississippi is casting light on another aspect of the mortgage mess — the connection between Wall Street private equity firms and those law firms, often known as foreclosure mills.
The lawsuit on behalf of homeowners claims that Great Hill Partners, a private equity firm, has benefited from what the lawsuit calls an illegal fee-splitting arrangement between Prommis Solutions and several of the busiest foreclosure law firms it controls. Great Hills is the biggest stakeholder in Prommis, a company that acts as a middleman between mortgage servicers and law firms.
A lawyer for Prommis rejected that claim, and officials of Great Hill Partners did not respond to inquiries. But a review of public filings, company news releases and other public statements shows that several private equity firms or entities they control have stakes in the business operations of some of the busiest foreclosure law firms in New York, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia and Texas.
Some of those law firms — like the offices of David J. Stern of Plantation, Fla., and Steven J. Baum of Amherst, N.Y. — are among those that are either under scrutiny by law enforcement officials or face actions by homeowners contending that they used inaccurate or fraudulent mortgage-related documents. Both lawyers have denied any wrongdoing, and neither has been charged with a crime.
The influence, if any, that private investors are having on the practices of the foreclosure mills is not clear. But the issue is likely to be examined in coming months in lawsuits like the one in Mississippi and as a nationwide task force of state attorneys general start their inquiry into the accuracy of mortgage documents.
To maximize investment returns, private equity firms often squeeze down costs in the operations they acquire. And some legal experts suggest that could be a factor in the quality of legal documents generated by foreclosure mills.
“The concern is that you are pushing production down to least-cost producer,” said Susan Carle, a professor at American University Washington College of Law.
Tom Miller, the Iowa attorney general who is heading up the task force investigating questionable document practices, said he was not aware that private equity firms had acquired some foreclosure-related operations. While there is no law against such purchases, Mr. Miller said the issue could prove significant because it expanded the possibilities of where and how the foreclosure system failed.
“If this is happening, this is something we are concerned about and would want to find out more about it,” Mr. Miller said in a telephone interview.
The investors involved in foreclosure mills include a publicly traded investment fund, Ares Capital, as well as other midsized and small buyout firms like Great Hill Partners.
The involvement of private equity firms in the legal industry is not new. But their involvement with foreclosure mills appears to have started about five years ago, just as the housing market was starting to collapse and the number of foreclosure procedures was beginning to boom.
The relationship between the Wall Street specialists and a law firm appears to work like this: A private equity firm, in a transaction worth tens of millions of dollars, buys a wide range of services used by the law firm, like its accounting, computer data, document processing and title search departments. Then, a subsidiary of that private equity firm or an entity it controls makes money by providing those services back to that law firm or other businesses for a fee.
For example, about three years ago, Tailwind Capital, a private equity firm in Manhattan, acquired many of the business-related operations of a law firm near Buffalo run by Mr. Baum, which does one of the highest volumes of foreclosures in New York State. Soon afterward, the fund bought similar operations from one of Connecticut’s biggest foreclosure law firms, Hunt Leibert Jacobson of Hartford.
Ares Capital, which financed the move, is also now a co-investor in those assets, which are held in a Tailwind unit called Pillar Processing, a public filing indicates.By BARRY MEIER Washington Post Julie Creswell contributed reporting.