Two New Fraud Deals Show Wall Street’s Washington Insiders At Work

Richard Eskow

It must’ve been like old home week when the old gang of Wall Street and Washington insiders finalized a couple more cushy settlements last week.

Everybody knew the drill: Ignore the potential criminal charges and agree on settlement figures they think the public will swallow – figures that are big enough to sound impressive but far smaller than the banks’ ill-gotten gains.  They’ve done this dozens of times before.

But there was an empty chair at the negotiating table.

Bank of America was there, as it has been so many times before. So were the other too-big-to-fail banks.  Representatives from the Attorney General’s office were undoubtedly there, too. The Attorney General was a high-priced Wall Street attorney.

The banks’ “independent” reviewers were there, too, or at least their reports were. Those reports said that there were very few problems with the banks’ transactions.  That should’ve have raised some red flags around the negotiating table: An audit in San Francisco found that 84 percent of foreclosures were performed illegally, while another in North Carolina found “singular irregularities”  in roughly three-quarters of the mortgages reviewed.

So i shouldn’t have been such a surprise when an as-yet unpublished GAO report showed that these rosy reviews were disastrously flawed.

But then, the insiders had it wired. The reviewers included Promontory Financial Group, whose CEO was Comptroller of the Currency under President Bill Clinton. Then he became a senior attorney at Wall Street defense firm Covington & Burling. Small world: The Attorney General of the United States worked at Covington & Burling too.

Promontory and the other reviewers have an underlying conflict of interest: they’re reviewing their own client base. That’s the same conflict of interest that corrupted the for-profit “ratings agencies,” leading them to rate their clients’ toxic mortgage-backed securities as “AAA.”

Promontory was also the firm that said “well over 99.9 percent” of the loans issued by Standard Chartered bank complied with the law and only $14 million of them were illegal. Then the bank admitted that $250 billion of its deals, not $14 million, were illegal. That’s 17,000 times as much illegality as Promontory found in its ‘review.’ (17857.142 as much, to be precise, but who’s counting?)

Promontory kept the foreclosure gig anyway, with no objection from Washington’s regulators or law enforcement officials.

But then, who around that table would question Promontory? We know them, they probably thought. We’ve always known them.

Promontory and the other “independent” reviewers collected $1.5 billion in fees for worthless work, from a settlement that was supposed to help the occupant of that empty chair.

But of course the chair was empty. The occupant’s invitation was never sent out.  It never is.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has attended many such meetings – meetings in which senior bankers bind their shareholders to billions in fines and restitution, sometimes as penalty for fraud against those very same shareholders.(The banks also have a knack for covering their obligations with money from investors they’ve already defrauded, including working people’s pension funds)  The SEC’s senior attorney always has a seat at the table,either  literally or figuratively, whenever a big bank settlement is negotiated.

A new person was appointed to that position just today. The SEC’s new chief counsel held a senior regulatory position under President Clinton, too. But if you think he went to work for Covington & Burling after leaving public service like his colleague did, you’re wrong.

He worked for Arnold & Porter.

After joining Covington’s biggest competitor the SEC’s new legal chief moved on to another law firm, still defending banks and bankers from the agency he now represents. He had one last high-profile case before rejoining the government: MF Global. That’s the firm that stole its investors’ money instead of investing it. He defended one of its’ executives.

One of this weekend’s settlements with Bank of America addressed the fraudulent sale of mortgages to Fannie Mae. (Fannie Mae: That’s the government agency that was “privatized,” ruined by privatized greed, and then rescued by the taxpayers who now own it.)  The agreement was undoubtedly hammered out between Bank of America and Fannie Mae’s CEO, who represented the people’s interests in this case.

Fannie Mae’s CEO hasn’t been there long. His last job was as General Counsel for … Bank of America. In fact, he was BofA’s top attorney in 2008, at the height of its foreclosure misdeeds. Now he’s settling those misdeeds as part of a wave of deals that will allow the bank’s executives to escape criminal prosecution. So he had a seat at both sides of the table.

That happens a lot in these deals. Get used to it.

Bank of America’s agreed-upon payment to Fannie Mae sounds big – $3.6 billion. But that comes to exactly one percent of the outstanding debt on those loans – debt that’s still owed by the occupant of that empty chair.  The bank’s total settlement costs are roughly 0.75 percent of the total loan value.

BofA also agreed to sell the servicing rights to these mortgages … undoubtedly to another one of the banks sitting around that frequently-used table.  The buyer will need to recoup their investment, of course — and loan servicers boost their income by overcharging the occupant of that empty chair.

So whose chair is it?  You already know. That chair belongs to the borrower whose home value was artificially inflated by a bank-hired appraiser. It belongs to the homeowner who paid her mortgage on time every month, but was still hit with unjustified ‘servicing charges’ that caused her to fall behind … and lose her home.

That empty chair belongs to the minority communities targeted for predatory lending, then left to wither and die. It belongs to the bedroom communities whose residents invested their life’s savings in real estate whose value had been artificially pumped up by by bank speculation.   It belongs to millions of families – in Hendersonville, in West Garfield Park, in Baltimore and Jacksonville and Bakersfield and thousands of other communities across the country.

That chair belongs to the family who lost $50,000 or $75,000 or $100,000 when they lost their homes, and then got $1,200 back in that “big” $25 billion deal -  and only then if they were “lucky.” It belongs to all the Americans who lost trillions of dollars in housing value when the bank-created bubble finally burst, and who were then left holding the debt.

That chair belongs to all the people who can’t find work because nobody’s hiring. Nobody’s hiring because nobody’s buying. And nobody’s buying because so many people are struggling to pay their overpriced loans.

That chair belongs to you, and it belongs to me. And as long as it’s empty these deals will all turn out the same. A small circle of friends will keep cutting the same cushy deals over and over again until we go to Washington and demand a change, this change:

No more deals.  No more negotiations. Not until we’re in the room. Not until we’re  seated in the chair, at the table, in the chambers of justice, that have always rightfully belonged to us – and only us.

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