Too Big To Jail: Is Wells Fargo Guilty of Negligent Homicide?

Terrance Heath

As Robert Borosage wrote, “Too Big Too Fail” has become “Too Big To Jail.” According to attorney general, our big banks have gotten so big that bringing criminal charges against them for blatantly criminal acts “will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.” (Click here to tell Attorney General Eric Holder that no bank should be “Too Big To Jail,” and no bank should be above the law.) is “Too Big To Jail” a license to kill? Does that mean big banks can get away with murder — or at least negligent homicide?

It sounds like Wells Fargo may have gotten away with murder or some lesser charge in the case of Larry Delassus, innocent victim of “death by typo” c/o Wells Fargo. [Via Digby.]

On the morning of Dec. 19, 2012, in a Torrance courtroom, Larry Delassus‘ heart stopped as he watched his attorney argue his negligence and discrimination case against banking behemoth Wells Fargo.

His death came more than two years after Wells Fargo mistakenly mixed up his Hermosa Beachaddress with that of a neighbor in the same condo complex. The bank’s typo led Wells Fargo to demand that Delassus pay $13,361.90 ­— two years of late property taxes the bank said it had paid on his behalf in order to keep his Wells Fargo mortgage afloat.

But Delassus, a quiet man who suffered from the rare blood-clot disorder Budd-Chiari syndrome and was often hospitalized, didn’t owe a penny in taxes.

One of his neighbors, whose condo “parcel number” was two digits different from Delassus’, owed the back taxes.

In a series of painfully tragic events, Wells Fargo relied on its typographical error to double Delassus’ mortgage — from $1,237.69 to $2,429.13 — as its way of recouping the $13,361.90 in taxes Delassus didn’t owe. Delassus, a retiree living on a $1,655 check, couldn’t meet the mysteriously increased mortgage. He stopped paying, and soon was far behind on his mortgage.

Delassus and his attorney did not discover until May 2010 that a mis-entered number had dragged Delassus into this spiral. As court documents obtained by L.A. Weeklyshow, after admitting its error, Wells Fargo foreclosed on Delassus anyway and sold his condo.

Delassus had to move to a tiny apartment in an assisted-living home in Carson.

Friends say he didn’t die of heart disease that day in court, as the coroner found. He was, they believe, killed by a system so inhumane that it could not undo a devastating piece of red tape the system itself created.

According to the LA Weekly piece, Wells Fargo later acknowledged its error, but by then Delassus — a disabled veteran who suffered from Budd-Chiari syndrome —had stopped paying his mortgage after Wells Fargo doubled his payments, leading the bank to foreclose. (Strangely, there was an unexplained $2,861 discrepancy between the $13,361 Wells Fargo said it paid in property taxes on Delassus’ behalf, and the $10,500 the bank admitted in court documents was mistakenly charged to Delassus.) Not only that, but the bank refused to let Delassus resume his regular mortgage payments in the $1,237 installments he paid before the bank mistakenly jacked-up his payments.

Instead the bank demanded that he pay a sizable “reinstatement cost,” which is usually the past due amount plus fees. The bank never told Delassus how much his reinstatement cost would be. Instead, Wells Fargo demanded full payment on the condo, payment due within 24 hours. Delassus sued Wells Fargo for negligence and discrimination against a disabled person. To add insult to injury, in May 2011 the bank sold Delassus’ condo one day after he’d been released from the hospital after a bout of illness.

According to friends, Delassus still had enough faith in our system of justice to honestly believe that he would return to his home of 16 years. He was in court, listening to his attorney argue his case when he slumped over and died.

Here was a guy who received a notice out of nowhere from Wells Fargo, demanding that he repay the bank for property taxes he didn’t even owe. The bank then proceeded to double his mortgage payments even as Delassus was probably still trying to figure out what the hell happened.

It’s not surprising that Delassus stopped payment on his mortgage while he and his attorney tried to sort things out. It’s unlikely that the bank would have accepted a partial payment, and might have returned the check, charged him a late fee, and maybe even foreclosed on him anyway. Given the complexities of finance law, making the payments might have been interpreted as legally acknowledging the alleged debt.

Wells Fargo, even after admitting its error, foreclosed on Delassus for failing to make mortgage the payments he would have made had it not been for Wells Fargo’s initial error. The stress of it all might nearly have killed someone in excellent health.

 None of this is surprising given Wells Fargo’s record.

The coroner later reported heart disease was the cause of death. But I tend to agree with his friends, that Delassus was killed by a system not only “so inhumane that it could not undo a devastating piece of red tape the system itself created,” but so nearly sadistic that it continued punishing Delassus for an error of its own making. 

Delassus isn’t the only homeowner on Wells Fargo’s body count. In fact, Delassus’ story brings to mind what happened to Norman Rousseau when Wells Fargo made a mistake with his mortgage.

The quick version of this terrible story is that Norman and Oriane Rousseau of Newbury Park, California were scammed into a predatory mortgage. But they made their payments anyway, always paying with a cashier’s check in person at the same branch. Then one day the bank misapplied their payment and said they still owed the money. This started a long, nasty process that led to the bank evicting the Rousseaus from their home.

Here’s the shocker: right at the start the Rousseaus came up with proof that the bank had received the payment and had cashed the check. But the bank continued to claim it had missed the payment, gave the Rousseaus the runaround, started applying fees, and used it as an excuse to foreclose on the house anyway.

The Rousseaus fought back, the bank dragged it out for so long and pulled so many tricks, getting its way every step of the process, until this last Sunday Norman Rousseau finally gave up and shot himself in despair – two days before the scheduled eviction, Tuesday, May 15. (The Rousseau’s lawyer just said he was able to win a 2-week delay.)

First-degree murder charges might be asking too much, but negligent homicide — defined as allowing others to die through criminal negligence

What’s to be expected of a bank that engaged “robo-signing,” committed massive foreclosure fraud, and even laundered drug money for Mexican cartels?

4. Wells Fargo

They illegally laundered drug money for the Mexican cartels – and nobody went to jail.

Here’s a suggestion: Read stories “War Torn Mexico: A Population in Terror,” which begins: “Massacres, beheadings, YouTube videos featuring cartel torture sessions and even car bombs are becoming commonplace in Juarez.” Study the statistics on the violent murders – which include Federal agents, children, and “penniless immigrants” – and then remind yourself: These are Wells Fargo’s business partners.

Rap Sheet: Mexican drug cartels. It makes the brain reel, doesn’t it? 

Shameless quotes: “We’re more of a Main Street bank than a Wall Street bank.” “”Of all the decisions I’ve had to make, few have been as difficult as cutting the dividend.” (Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf)

Here’s the thing. If we can’t get a bank like Wells Fargo for committing massive foreclosure fraud, or laundering money for Mexican drug cartels, what can we get them for? Iran hangs bankers for far less. And Wells Fargo is just one part of Wall Street’s “Foreclosure Fraud Machine.” How is it that our government, our justice system can’t even bring charges against criminal enterprises masquerading as banks because doing so “will have a negative impact on the national economy? Talk to Larry Delassus, Norman Rousseau and the other homeowners above about “negative impacts.”  

Well, as Digby noted, at least Delassus and Rosseau suffered at the hands of the private sector, rather than some “faceless, uncaring Government bureaucrats who make too much money.”

They had to do what they had to do. Because moral hazard.

Obviously, this is just one many thousands of similar stories across the nation during the past few years. And it’s still happening. But I’m pretty sure that if we can just cut Social Security and Medicare and get millionaires to fork over the money they lose between their couch cushions it will all be good.

The truth is, Wells Fargo will get away with what it did to Larry Delassus, like it’s gotten away with everything above. At most, it will pay a few fines and settlements that amount to chump change compared to its record $4.94 billion in profits reported at the end of 2012.

If you or I, or any other person perpetrated even half of the crimes Wells Fargo committed as a “corporate person,” we wouldn’t have a hope of getting away with it. Banks, no matter how big they are, shouldn’t be able to get away with it either.  

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