The NYT On the Case That Started It All

Excellent story conception and execution on GMAC's bungled foreclosure

The New York Times has a great angle on the foreclosure scandal: Go back to the homeowner that broke it wide open.

Surprisingly, this is the first time this story has really been done. Reuters had a brief piece two weeks ago about Nicolle Bradbury’s case, but it was hardly a profile of how it came about. Applaud the Times for a smart story idea, and it’s well executed.

It turns out this all came down to a woman with a $75,000 house in Denmark (insert “something is rotten in” joke here), Maine and a pro bono lawyer getting a huge dose of redemption after an early career foreclosing on people.

Bradbury got laid off and can’t even afford her $474 mortgage payment. Before you go calling her a “deadbeat,” note that she’s worked her whole life—since she was 14—and her county’s unemployment rate has been in the double digits most of the year. She pulled herself up out of a trailer house when the economy was decent.

The Times also focuses on the lawyer’s story here. This guy is a hero:

Her file was pulled, more or less at random, by Thomas A. Cox, a retired lawyer who volunteers at Pine Tree. He happened to know something about foreclosures because when he worked for a bank he did them all the time. Twenty years later, he had switched sides and, he says, was trying to make amends…

The work exacted its cost: his marriage ended and a serious depression began. He gave up law and found solace in building houses. By April 2008, he said, he was sufficiently recovered and started volunteering at Pine Tree Legal.

Hey, it takes one to know one. And Cox zeroed in on a red flag that most people wouldn’t have noticed:

All of this is largely because Mr. Cox realized almost immediately that Mrs. Bradbury’s foreclosure file did not look right. The documents from the lender, GMAC Mortgage, were approved by an employee whose title was “limited signing officer,” an indication to the lawyer that his knowledge of the case was effectively nonexistent.

Mr. Cox eventually won the right to depose the employee, who casually acknowledged that he had prepared 400 foreclosures a day for GMAC and that contrary to his sworn statements, they had not been reviewed by him or anyone else.

I’d like to see somebody revisit this guy and do a more in-depth profile on him. I smell a really good story.

And, woah, look at GMAC (recipient of $17 billion in taxpayer bailouts and a government ward, as the Times’s David Streitfeld is good to point out). It not only lied to the courts, it wanted to trample on the First Amendment. This is the first time I’ve read this (emphasis mine):

GMAC’s reaction to the deposition was to hire two new law firms, including Mr. Aromando’s firm, among the most prominent in the state. They argued that what Mrs. Bradbury and her lawyers were doing was simply a “dodge”: she had not paid her mortgage and should be evicted.

They also said that Mr. Cox, despite working pro bono, had taken the deposition “to prejudice and influence the public” against GMAC for his own commercial benefit. They asked that the transcript be deleted from any blog that had posted it and that it be put under court seal.

GMAC knew how devastating this testimony was and it tried to cover it up. Seems like that’s worth a closer look from somebody. How unusual is that move? Is it ever approved or was this a hail mary? These are bad actors, folks.

Super work by Streitfeld and the Times.

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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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.