Through my reporting I knew two things: I knew that there were a lot of predatory and fraudulent practices throughout the subprime industry. It wasn’t isolated pockets, it wasn’t rogue lenders, it wasn’t rogue employees. It was really endemic. And I also knew that Wall Street played a big role in this, and that Wall Street was driving or condoning and/or profiting from a lot of these practices. I understood that, basically, the subprime lenders, like Ameriquest and even like Countrywide, were really just creatures of Wall Street. Wall Street loaned these companies money; they then made loans; they off-loaded the loans to Wall Street; Wall Street then sold them [as securities to investors]. And it was just this magic circle of cash flowing. The one thing I didn’t understand was all the fancy financial alchemy—the derivatives, the swaps, that were added on to put them on steroids.
It’s clear that people inside a company, one or two or three people, could commit fraud and get away with it, on occasion, despite the best efforts of a company. But I don’t think it can happen in a widespread way when a company has basic compliance systems in place. The best way to connect the dots from the sleazy practices on the ground to people at high levels was to say, okay, they did have these compliance people in place; they had fraud investigators, loan underwriters, and compliance officers. Did they do their jobs? And if they did, what happened to them?
In late 2010, at the Center for Public Integrity, I got a tip about a whistleblower case involving someone who worked at a high level at Countrywide. This is Eileen Foster, who had been an executive vice president, the top fraud investigator at Countrywide. She was claiming before OSHA that she was fired for reporting widespread fraud, but also for trying to protect other whistleblowers within the company who were also reporting fraud at the branch level and at the regional level, all over the country. The interesting thing is that no one in the government had ever contacted her! [This became “Countrywide Protected Fraudsters by Silencing Whistleblowers, say Former Employees,” September 22 and 23, 2011, one of CPI’s best-read stories of the year; 60 Minutes followed with its own interview of Foster, in a segment called, “Prosecuting Wall Street,” December 14, 2011.] It was very exciting. We worked really hard to do follow-up stories. I did about eight stories afterward, many about General Electric, a big player in the subprime world. We found eight former mortgage unit employees who had tried to warn about abuses and whom management had shunted aside.
I just feel like there needs to be more investigative reporting in the mix, and especially more investigative reporting—of problems that are going on now, rather than post-mortems or tick-tocks about financial disasters or crashes or bankruptcies that have already happened.
And that’s hard to do. It takes a real commitment from a news organization, and it can be a high-wire thing because you’re working on these stories for a long time, and market players you’re writing about yell and scream and do some real pushback. But there needs to be more of the sort of early warning journalism. It’s part of the big tent, what a newspaper is.