I resigned from the Roanoke Times and for most of 2005 was freelancing full-time. I made virtually no money that year, but by working on the Ameriquest story, it helped me move to the next thing. I was hired by The Wall Street Journal to cover the bond market. Of course, I came in pitching mortgage-backed securities as a great story. I could have said it with more urgency in the proposal, but I didn’t want to come off as an advocate.
Daily bond-market coverage is their bread and butter, and I tried to do the best I could on it. I was doing what I could for the team but I was not playing in a position where my talents and my skills were being used to the highest. I felt like I had a lot of information that needed to be told, and an understanding that many other reporters didn’t have. And I could see a lot of the writing focused on deadbeat borrowers lying about their income, rather than how things were really happening.
Through my reporting I knew two things: that there were a lot of predatory and fraudulent practices throughout the subprime industry. It wasn’t isolated pockets, rogue lenders, or rogue employees. It was 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 Countrywide, were creatures of Wall Street. Wall Street loaned these companies money; the companies then made loans and off-loaded the loans to Wall Street; Wall Street then sold the loans as securities to investors. It was this magic circle of cash flowing. The one thing I didn’t understand was all the fancy financial alchemy—the derivatives, the swaps—that was added on to put the loans on steroids.
It’s clear that people inside a company could commit fraud and get away with it, despite a company’s best efforts. 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 had these compliance people in place. 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. 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 reporting fraud at the branch and regional levels. The interesting thing is that no one in the government had ever contacted her! In September 2011, this became, “Countrywide Protected Fraudsters by Silencing Whistleblowers, say Former Employees,” one of CPJ’s best-read stories of the year; 60 Minutes followed with its own interview of Foster, in a segment called, “Prosecuting Wall Street.” It was very exciting.
There needs to be more investigative reporting of problems that are going on now, rather than post-mortems 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, because you’re working on these stories for a long time, and market players you’re writing about do some real pushback. But there needs to be more of this early-warning journalism.