A couple of weeks ago, I was invited down to Washington to testify before the House Judiciary Committee hearing, "Foreclosed Justice: Causes and Effects of the Foreclosure Crisis." The panel that I was to be on included two other lawyers who represent homeowners, Professor Christopher Peterson (the University Of Utah law professor who has really got MERS's number), and representatives of three of the large loan servicers. Since one of those loan servicers representatives was to be from GMAC Mortgage, LLC, an outfit that has commanded quite a bit of my time and attention over the past six months, I hoped for the opportunity to make sparks fly with him in the hearing room.
I worked hard on my written testimony, giving GMAC Mortgage a lot of special attention. I headed down to DC on the day before the hearing just to be sure I made it on time. At 7pm, a call came in from the committee staffer telling me that the servicers were not going to be at the next day's hearing after all. Perhaps I am getting a swelled head, what with all of the recent media attention, but I wondered if the last-minute bailout meant that GMAC's representative did not want to sit before the committee with me as I much as I wanted to be with him.
Despite the absence of the servicers on our panel, I was still feeling energized the next morning. After all, after two recent hearings conducted by the Senate Banking Committee and one by the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity of the House Finance Committee, the House Judiciary Committee hearing was to be the first one where real, everyday foreclosure defense lawyers were appearing to explain the foreclosure crisis from a personal perspective. (No disrespect here to Diane Thompson of NCLC, who testified before the Senate Banking Committee -- she surely is a real lawyer, but she sits at the right foot of God as the country's preeminent expert on HAMP.)
The next day there were to be two panels before the 40-member committee, which meets in a big, impressive room. The first would include representatives from the OCC, Treasury and the Federal Housing Finance agency and a State Supreme Court (trial court) judge from New York. I was geared for action, but when the hearing started, there were only nine committee members in their seats. Later, the number shrank to three -- one of them distracted by an animated cell phone conversation.
Between a recess for a House vote and the glacial progress of the hearing, my fellow panel members and I were informed by a staffer mid-afternoon that, while they were thankful for our attendance, our panel would not getting an opportunity to testify that day.
Despite this unpleasant surprise, I came away with four observations:
1) I believe that an activist federal intervention into state property laws to help solve the foreclosure scandal should be avoided. There are some areas where our federal government can handle issues better than the states, but this is not one of them. Example: The recent win that I scored in the Maine Supreme Court in August, where, construing more than 150 years of Maine foreclosure law development, our Court ruled that MERS cannot have standing to conduct foreclosures in Maine. This much-desired result came from local judges on a readily accessible state level court interpreting legal issues presented by local lawyers. We did not need, nor do we want, remote legislators in Washington telling us what the law will be for uniquely local matters.
2) During the hearing, one of the Republican committee members argued that if the rule of law was enforced across the board, then perhaps the mortgage servicers would not be behaving as they do. He asked why there is not much more activity at the state level to sanction the lawyers who enable and present the servicers' dishonest claims. He wondered why the state courts are not being much more active in sanctioning misconduct, and why there is no criminal prosecution of misconduct, simple as submitting affidavits filled with perjury. I felt that these were legitimate questions. The dishonest affidavits issue is a simple one and I do not think that there is a good excuse for state boards of bar overseers failing to take action against the offending lawyers. And it puzzles me that no one state Supreme Court has taken any creative action, or undertaken a judicial inquiry to determine what, if any, remedy should exist for homeowners who lost their homes based upon dishonest affidavits. On the other hand, state judiciaries are tremendously overloaded and underfunded and have little to no spare capacity to take these issues on.
3) I wanted to ask this Republican if Congress should demand that Attorney General Eric Holder bring federal criminal charges against those who broke the law by submitting thousands of dishonest affidavits. I met with our newly appointed U.S. Attorney here in Maine about a month ago to urge him to consider using federal mail fraud and wire fraud statutes to pursue criminal charges against the servicers and perhaps their lawyers. The cryptic response seemed to be that the direction to do so would need to come from Washington. Apparently there is no such direction. Months ago, Holder said he was investigating. What is there to investigate? The crime is simple. We have served the evidence up on a silver platter of thousands of dishonest affidavits filed all over the country. Attorney General Holder should instruct U.S. attorneys in all fifty states to immediately start indicting those responsible for filing the dishonest affidavits, including the affiants and the notaries right on up to senior officers in the servicers who had to know what was going on. A wave of such indictments would surely change the culture in the servicing industry.
4) Another thing that stuck with me from the hearing is an apparent fundamental misunderstanding on the issue of principal reductions. Those who advocate against a foreclosure moratorium until there can be certainty that servicers will behave are also generally against forcing servicers to provide principal reductions as a part of the loan modification process. What the advocates of the "foreclosures are good" school seem to ignore is the fact that every foreclosure is, in fact, a principal reduction. Each foreclosure of an underwater mortgage reduces the principal recoverable on that loan. The rub is that foreclosures result in larger principal reductions than do loan modifications, which reduce the loan balance to market value, where homeowners can afford to pay. This is so because once a foreclosed property goes into REO inventory, it usually sells at a 20% discount to market value (and it also depresses the value of surrounding properties). Wouldn't it be better to avoid this deep discount and keep a homeowner in his home with a principal reduction to market value, rather than putting that homeowner on the street where his ability to become a consumer again will be delayed so much longer?
The House Judiciary Committee reconvened this hearing for December 8, 2010. I was about to leave Maine when I was advised at the last minute that the Republicans were now demanding another delay of one week. While I have agreed to return to Washington for this now twice delayed hearing, I wonder how much value I can really bring to that Committee's process. Relatively few committee members are even willing to show up, and the lame duck House of Representatives leaves me doubtful about really being heard and having a meaningful impact.
I came away feeling that I may be more useful in focusing on solutions up here in Maine in the hope that they may continue to ripple outwards. Because not much is happening in Washington.
Thomas Cox is a retired bank lawyer in Portland, Maine who serves as the Volunteer Program Coordinator for the Maine Attorney’s Saving Homes (MASH) program. He represents homeowners in foreclosure and assists and consults with other volunteer lawyers in providing pro bono legal services to these Maine homeowners.