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.

 

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.