I’ve got to applaud BusinessWeek for its aggressive investigation of dirty subprime lenders getting back into the mortgage game with the help of the federal government. It’s the cover story this week, aptly illustrated with a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a subheadline that says “Don’t let the makeover fool you.”
This is the kind of assertive reporting and editorial packaging that we don’t see enough.
Chad Terhune and Robert Berner report that lots of subprime shops are now in the business of hawking Federal Housing Administration loans, and—surprise!—their borrowers are going default at a much faster clip than the average.
But now there’s a severe danger that aggressive lenders and brokers schooled in the rash ways of the subprime industry will overwhelm the FHA with loans for people unlikely to make their payments. Exacerbating matters, FHA officials seem oblivious to what’s happening—or incapable of stopping it. They’re giving mortgage firms licenses to dole out 100%-insured loans despite lender records blotted by state sanctions, bankruptcy filings, civil lawsuits, and even criminal convictions…
As a result, the nation could soon suffer a fresh wave of defaults and foreclosures, with Washington obliged to respond with yet another gargantuan bailout.
Here’s one of the subprime slimeballs BW points out:
Jerry Cugno started Premier Mortgage Funding in Clearwater, on the Gulf Coast of Florida, in 2002. Over the next four years, it became one of the country’s largest subprime lenders, with 750 branches and 5,000 brokers across the U.S. Cugno, now 59, took home millions of dollars and rewarded top salesmen with Caribbean cruises and shiny Hummers, according to court records and interviews with former employees. But along the way, Premier accumulated a dismal regulatory record. Five states—Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin—revoked its license for various abuses; four others disciplined the company for using unlicensed brokers or similar violations. The crash of the subprime market and a barrage of lawsuits prompted Premier to file for U.S. bankruptcy court protection in Tampa in July 2007. Then, in March, a Premier unit in Cleveland and its manager pleaded guilty to felony charges related to fraudulent mortgage schemes.
But Premier didn’t just close down. Since it declared bankruptcy, federal records show, it has issued more than 2,000 taxpayer-insured mortgages—worth a total of $250 million. According to the FHA, Premier failed to notify the agency of its Chapter 11 filing, as required by law. In late October, an FHA spokesman admitted it was unaware of Premier’s situation and welcomed any information BusinessWeek could provide.
You’d think the government would have had Premier on a watch list. According to data compiled by the FHA’s parent, the U.S. Housing & Urban Development Dept. (HUD), the firm’s borrowers have a 9.2% default rate, the second highest among large-volume FHA lenders nationally.
And check out this Long Island outfit:
But why the federal government would want to do business with Lend America is perplexing. Ashley has a long history of legal scrapes. One of them led to his pleading guilty in 1996 in federal court in Uniondale, N.Y., to two counts of wire fraud related to a mortgage scam at another company his family ran called Liberty Mortgage. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine. His father, Kenneth Ashley, was sentenced to nearly four years in prison.
How are these folks slipping through the cracks? BizWeek supplies the answer with excellent context on the FHA bureaucracy itself:
Some current and former federal housing officials say the agency isn’t anywhere close to being equipped to deal with the onslaught of lenders seeking to cash in. Thirty-six thousand lenders now have FHA licenses, up from 16,000 in mid-2007. FHA “faces a tsunami” in the form of ex-subprime lenders who favor aggressive sales tactics and sometimes engage in outright fraud, says Kenneth M. Donohue Sr., the inspector general for HUD. “I am very concerned that the same players who brought us problems in the subprime area are now reconstituting themselves and bringing loans into the FHA portfolio,” he adds.
FHA staffing has remained roughly level over the past five years, at just under 1,000 employees, even as that tsunami has been building, Donohue points out. The FHA unit that approves new lenders, recertifies existing ones, and oversees quality assurance has only five slots; two of those were vacant this fall, according to HUD’s Web site. Former housing officials say lender evaluations sometimes amount to little more than a brief phone call, which helps explain why questionable ex-subprime operations can re–invent themselves and gain approval.
There’s lots of stuff on the shady doings at the above-mentioned Premier:
The case before Judge Enslen concerned Marcia Clifford, 53. She won a civil verdict that Premier had violated federal mortgage law when it replaced the fixed-rate loan it had promised her with one bearing an adjustable rate. Enslen also found that Premier had misrepresented Clifford on her application as employed when she was out of work and living on $700 a month in disability payments. Despite his ire, the judge decided to award Clifford, who did sign the deceptive documents, only $3,720 in damages, an amount based on unauthorized fees Premier had pocketed.
Clifford’s name now appears along with a lengthy list of Premier’s other creditors in the bankruptcy court in Tampa. Unable to make her $600 monthly mortgage payment, she received an eviction notice in June and says she is likely to lose her three-bedroom house in Belding, Mich. “It was a bait and switch,” Clifford says, sobbing. “The folks at Premier are coldhearted.”
Janice Dixon is also owed money by Premier. In March 2006 an Alabama jury awarded her $127,000 in damages related to a fraudulent refinancing in which, she alleged, the company didn’t disclose the full costs of her borrowing. “Who will fix this?” Dixon, 49, asks. “They will continue to do these same things over and over.”
This is exactly the kind of reporting we needed more of in the last six years (though BusinessWeek certainly has previously done great work) and exactly what we need going forward.Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.