We at The Audit have called on the press to do more reporting on the underbelly of the mortgage industry, who fed it, and how it metastasized in the absence of government oversight.
So it’s nice, but all too rare, for us when we see all three in one neat package. The Miami Herald has run a series of stories since July called “Borrowers Betrayed” on the ex-cons—literally—who ran rampant in the Florida mortgage-brokerage industry during the boom and the regulators who let them do it.
State regulators allowed thousands of ex-convicts to enter a profession that gave them access to the most sensitive and personal financial information: credit cards, bank accounts and Social Security numbers.
Those criminals went on to commit nearly $85 million in mortgage fraud, the newspaper found. They stole their customers’ identities. They stole their money. They even stole their homes…
Beyond the licensing, regulators routinely overlooked or ignored complaints, allowing rogue brokers to flourish amid one of the biggest housing booms in state history.
It’s excellent (and as Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture, says, prize-winning) stuff and has already claimed the head of a key regulatory agency in Florida and led the state to enact emergency measures to rectify the problem.
Jack Dolan, the reporter who kicked off the series, which he wrote with colleagues Rob Barry and Matthew Haggman, has been at the Herald for a year and a half. Before that he was on the I-team of the Hartford Courant for six years.
The Audit spoke to Dolan recently about mortgage crimes, lax regulators and “street-level dealers”:
The Audit: How did you get the idea for this story? The mortgage mess has obviously been the big news, particularly in Florida, but where did this angle come from?
Jack Dolan: I started on a story in August of 2007 on all the toxic mortgages that had been written in Miami. If you stood on the roof of The Miami Herald, we’re surrounded almost 360 degrees by empty brand-new, gleaming condo towers. And you have to figure there’s not a 30-year fixed mortgage in any one of them.
Part of what I was doing was talking to mortgage brokers just to see if anybody even asks for a 30-year fixed anymore. As just kind of CYA, before I would put a mortgage broker’s “expert” quote in the paper, I would put them quickly through the state criminal-background check, and I was really stunned by a couple of people I saw, crimes like fraud and there was one RICO I came across that way.
So it was kind of a short leap from there to ask the state banking commissioner for all of the licensed mortgage brokers in the state and do a mass batch match looking for their criminal records. The first screen that came up there was one bank robbery and I figured we were onto something.
TA: It’s interesting you found that in a pretty basic step but one I don’t think most reporters would have gone through the trouble of doing.
JD: In Miami you might. I went to Missouri grad school and I worked at NICAR, so I just sort of got it drummed into my head—check
TA: What did you expect to find when you went in there? Some of those numbers are amazing.
JD: I expected there would be some criminal histories. There’s gonna be a few pot possessions and stuff like that. The law said that they were supposed to screen brokers for crimes involving fraud, dishonesty, and “moral turpitude”, which has a pretty broad definition. When I saw the first screen, and one of the first people was a bank robber. I said, “okay, how did a bank robber slide around that definition?”
TA: How many were prevented from getting licenses?
JD: Whenever the agency takes some sort of action against a broker or even an applicant, they have to file a final order, so we went back and looked through all the final orders for denial of licenses that mentioned fraud, dishonesty or moral turpitude. I forget what the number was, but I’m tempted to say twenty-nine from 2000 to 2007.
TA: They had the regulatory power to do this. What was the reason they didn’t? A big part of the problem on Wall Street and across the country has been this laissez-faire attitude toward regulation. Was it philosophy? What caused them to just not do their job?