I was trying to make the story not just local but national. I had some local cases involving Associates [First Capital Corp., then a unit of Ford Motor Corp.]. Basically, it turned out that Ford Motor Company, the old-line carmaker, was the biggest subprime lender in the country. The evidence was pretty clear that they were doing many of the same kinds of bait-and-switch salesmanship and, in some cases, pure fraud, that we later saw take over the mortgage market. I felt like this was a big story; this is the one! Later, investigations and Congressional hearings corroborated what I was finding in ’94, ’95, and ’96. And it seems so self-evident now, but I learned that finding ex-employees often gives you a window into what’s really going on with a company. The problem has always been finding them and getting them to talk.

I spent the better part of the ‘90s writing about the poverty industry and about predatory lending. As a reporter you don’t want to be defined by one subject. So I was actually working on a book about the history of racial integration in sports, interviewing old Negro-league baseball players. I was really trying to change a little bit of how I was moving forward career-wise. But it’s like the old mafia-movie line: every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.


Subprime goes mainstream

In the fall of 2002, the Federal Trade Commission announced a big settlement with Citigroup, which had bought Associates, and at first I saw it as a positive development, like they had nailed the big bad actor. I’m doing a 1,000-word freelance thing, but of course as I started to report I started hearing from people who were saying that this settlement is basically giving them absolution, and allowed them to move forward with what was, by Citi standards, a pretty modest settlement. And the other thing that struck me was the media was treating this as though Citigroup was cleaning up this legacy problem, when Citi itself had its own problems. There had been a big magazine story about [Citigroup Chief Sanford I.] “Sandy” Weill. It was like “Sandy’s Comeback.” I saw this and said, ‘Whoa, this is an example of the mainstreaming of subprime.’

I pitched a story about how these settlements weren’t what they seemed, and got turned down a lot of places. Eventually I went to Southern Exposure and called the editor there, Gary Ashwill, and he said, “That’s a great story, we’ll put it on the cover.” And I said, “Well how much space can we have?” and he said, “How much do we need?” That was not something you heard in journalism in those days.

I interviewed 150 people, mostly borrowers, attorneys, experts, industry people, but the stuff that really moves the story are the former employees. Many of them had just gotten fired for complaining internally. They were upset about what had gone on—to some degree about how the company treated them, but usually very upset about how the company had pressured them and their co-workers to mistreat their customers.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.