Excellent Reporting on the Revolving Door By American Banker

Paper's FOIA request shows a former FHA commish palling around with his future employer

American Banker has a terrific story on the revolving door, digging into the records of former Federal Housing Authority commissioner David Stevens, who left the FHA earlier this year to head the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The Banker got hold of Stevens’ emails through a Freedom of Information Act request and writes that they show how chummy he was with the MBA and the bankers he was supposed to be regulating.

This is an excellent, tough lede:

David Stevens arrived as a commissioner at the Federal Housing Administration in 2009 vowing to restore financial discipline to a government housing body facing the stresses of a post-crash world. A former mortgage banker himself, Stevens, now 54, bolstered the agency’s finances and pursued alleged wrongdoing at nonbank lenders including Berkshire Hathaway and Goldman Sachs & Co. affiliates.

One group the FHA did not feud with during Stevens’ tenure: top industry players, such as Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. A collection of emails between Stevens and the Mortgage Bankers Association may help explain why.

The communications reveal that while at the FHA, Stevens enjoyed close social and professional ties with the mortgage industry’s main lobby — a group whose members originated roughly $300 billion in FHA-guaranteed loans last year.

Stevens turned to the MBA for policy memos, was copied on its internal lobbying strategy debates and asked its boss at the time to devise “an excuse” for him to attend one of its conferences.

The social details are cringeworthy enough, like then MBA CEO John Courson offering to play “social secretary” for Stevens and his wife in New York and talking about attending a “luau” while in Puerto Rico.

You remember Courson and the MBA, right? They’re the mortgage bankers lobbyists who walked away from their gleaming DC headquarters while saying it was wrong for homeowners to walk away from their mortgages. Watch The Daily Show’s classic sketch on that:

But what’s really ugly is what the Banker’s Jeff Horwitz and Kate Berry reveal about how Stevens played with the MBA’s lobbying machine.

The FHA opposed a law that would have banned paying bonuses to brokers for putting borrowers into loans with higher interest rates than they deserved. These yield-spread premiums played a critical role in the housing bubble, incentivizing fraud by brokers who stuffed people into loans they couldn’t afford—all so the broker and mortgage company could make more money. They’re one of the key pieces of evidence connecting executives to the crimes committed for them on the ground. That Obama’s Federal Housing Authority would oppose such a common-sense anti-predatory lending law was baffling. Even a banker-friendly outpost like Tim Geithner’s Treasury Department couldn’t figure it out.

The Banker helps us understand why it happened:

“We understand you have concerns” about the Merkley amendment, senior Treasury attorney Dan Sokolov wrote Stevens in May 2010. “We don’t have a good handle on what they are.”

Stevens forwarded the note to MBA boss Courson, along with a request for the MBA’s take. “Cab [sic] one of your people write a short memo to me on this?” Stevens asked. “We are on it,” Courson replied.

And then there’s this:

In October 2009, a housing consultant, Howard Glaser, alerted the MBA to a surprise push by the National Association of Realtors to block the Home Valuation Code of Conduct, which was designed to eliminate appraisal abuse.

“We need to pull out all the stops to make sure this [effort to block the legislation] does not pass,” wrote an executive member of the MBA and title insurer First American, who was included on the email. An MBA lobbyist, Steve O’Connor, agreed. “We need to scramble on this one,” he said. “There is an FHA play here as well, so we think about a bank shot where they [FHA officials} weigh in and oppose the moratorium if it screws up their risk-management plans.”

After further internal MBA discussions about which members of Congress might support the NAR’s opposing position, Courson forwarded the entire email chain to Stevens. The NAR was defeated.

Stevens, as AB reports, was making $155,000 at the FHA, where he served for just two years. As CEO of the MBA, he’s more in line for something like $1.3 million.

This is a superb piece of reporting. Here’s hoping the mainstream papers amplify it.

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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 rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,