January 12, 2012 archive

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Crossposted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

By ARTHUR S. BRISBANE, The New York Times

January 12, 2012, 10:29 am

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?


Windblown Hare

FL IG: Nothing to See Here. Move On

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

The Florida Inspector General, Jeff Atwater issued a statement (pdf) deciding not to investigate the forced resignation of two lawyers who led a crackdown on foreclosure fraud. The report concluded that no one in the office of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi broke any laws or rules.

naked capitalism‘s Yves Smith explains the “hatchet job” that this report reveals:

Now narrowly, there may indeed be nothing to investigate relative to their firing, in that workers in the US have pretty close to zero rights and a boss can indeed fire someone simply for not sharing his sense of priories. But there is a more general question of public interest as to whether a firing in a public office was indeed politically motivated, particularly if the investigators were ruffling the feathers of parties that the AG did not want to annoy (and as the brief one page conclusion notes, Florida does have statutes against “misuse of a public position” but query how that is interpreted in practice).

Effectively, this “review” is an effort at reputation/character assassination via the release of pretty much only one side of a “he said, she said” (Clarkson and Edwards were given a brief phone interview which was limited to two conversations Lawson had with them about their performance; they were given no opportunity to contest the allegations made in the subsequent interviews, which were not just with Lawson, Conners, and Muniz, but also five other members of the AG’s office).[..]

To put it mildly, if you read the 85 page document and didn’t know the context (the extensive, widespread evidence of bad conduct and strained pleadings by the foreclosure mills and LPS, and the prior tip top reviews received by Clarkson and Edwards), you’d think they were fuckups of the first order and were lucky to have jobs. This is heresay presented as unvarished truth, and the unsupported (and as we will discuss later, often obviously untrue or at best misleading) charges extend to two Florida foreclosure fraud investigators, Lisa Epstein and Lynn Szymoniak. [..]

For clarity and overview of just how the Florida Attorney General’s office has become so corrupt, David Dayen at FDL explains how the departure of the an old school Republican as AG and, at the same time, the resignation of economic crimes division led to the whitewash of the firings:

(Bill) McCollum left the AGs office in January, replaced by a different Republican, Pam Bondi. At the same time, the longtime director of the economic crimes division left, and Richard Lawson, a former defense attorney for white collar criminals – mainly bank officials – came in. As Lawson acknowledges in his statement to the IG report (more on that in a minute), he received complaints from the lawyers of several of the defendants in Clarkson and Edwards’ cases, in particular Lender Processing Services (LPS), which was part of a multistate investigation at the time.

Lawson immediately went to work criticizing Clarkson and Edwards’ conduct, disputing their claims, savaging the work of their office, and micromanaging their investigations (but only the foreclosure fraud investigations, not their other work). By May they were out, fired by Lawson and Bondi. They were given 90 minutes to pack up their things and leave the office, and lost access to all their files and emails. [..]

The most potentially damning part of the IG report concerns a draft subpoena that was part of a multistate investigation against LPS. Lawson claims that Clarkson leaked the subpoena to Epstein, which Epstein contends was part of a public records request. Those can be done verbally in the state of Florida, but Lawson claims that there’s no record of it. Epstein added that she has received receipt of previous public records requests from the AGs office. In the case of the LPS subpoena, Lawson contends that it would not fall under a public records request. But Epstein says she never published a draft LPS subpoena, or circulate it to the media, and so it’s impossible for other state AGs to complain that “the subpoena came up on the blog.” Because Clarkson and Edwards have no access to their emails anymore, “it’s difficult to respond to the report.” Days after the alleged leak of the subpoena, Clarkson and Edwards were fired.

And the deeper that you look into the IG’s report the worse it gets. More from Yves:

Abigail Field’s post on how the Florida attorney general’s office befriends foreclosure fraudsters is an important, if nausea-inducing read. One of the striking sections that makes the extent of the corruption clear is a snippet toward the end. It show how the AG’s office acted to help Lender Processing Services do damage control, when it had LPS under investigation for foreclosure frauds.

Field points out that the investigation of LPS was launched under the previous AG, Bill McCollum, and is supposedly still active. [..]

Field goes through the current AG Pam Bondi’s fraudster-favoring conduct, which is less surprising than it ought to be, since the AG’s Economic Crimes Division has a proud history of being more in bed with probable criminals than against them. Here Field relies on the report of a former seven year staffer in the AG’s office, attorney Andrew Spark, who wrote after Bondi took office about the long standing considerable obstacles to serving the public interest, such as the all too predictable revolving door (with former employees going to foreclosure mills). While Spark made it clear that he was not a supporter of the aggressive Clarkson/Edwards position (these were the two employees we wrote about yesterday who were fired under suspicious circumstances), he nevertheless presents damning evidence in the section of his letter titled “Powerful interests have influence.”

The message, as Yves states, is very clear, doing your job efficiently in Florida will get you fired and your reputation destroyed because it’s more important to protect the banks than the homeowners they defrauded.

About that 50 State Fraud Settlement

Crossposted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

Big Banks Face Inquiry Over Home Insurance

By LOUISE STORY, The New York Times

Published: January 10, 2012

Mr. Lawsky’s office issued 31 subpoenas or other legal notices related to the case in early October, just as the state’s insurance and banking departments were merged under his new agency. His office has already turned up instances where mortgage servicing units at large banks steered distressed homeowners into insurance policies up to 10 times as costly as the homeowners’ original plans.

In some cases, those policies were offered by affiliates of the banks themselves, raising questions about conflicts of interest; in other cases, there may have been kickbacks between unrelated companies, according to the person briefed on the investigation.

The investigation is yet another legal battle for the nation’s largest banks and points to the sorts of problems they may continue to face nationwide. The banks, in separate negotiations with federal and state authorities over suspected foreclosure abuses, have been trying to negotiate a settlement with state and federal officials to avoid future investigations, but it is not clear if businesses like home insurance would be covered if a deal were reached.

These policies are called ‘forced placement’ because homeowners are forced to take them as a condition of the loan.

New York Investigates Forced-Place Insurance Scams

By: David Dayen, Firedog Lake

Wednesday January 11, 2012 7:35 am

I first wrote about forced-place insurance back in November of 2010. Basically, banks who take over the insurance for homeowners whose policies have lapsed end up getting a kickback when the insurer ramps up the price. And the homeowners pay the cost. In some cases, the policies didn’t even lapse; the bank assumed the homeowners’ insurance costs and steered the borrower into costly deals, adding the balance to principal. Sometimes the servicer just purchased redundant coverage for borrowers who were current on their policies. And this provides yet another incentive for servicers to keep borrowers delinquent: they can take over their insurance in that case, and jack up the price, getting a kickback in the process.

Dodd-Frank made this type of forced-place insurance scam illegal. Yet, despite the fact that we’ve known about this for years, it takes the New York State Department of Financial Services to run the investigation. Presumably the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, now newly bolstered with the ability to regulate non-bank financial operations like mortgage servicers, can get involved. But Dodd-Frank makes it unclear who is supposed to regulate forced-place insurance scams at the federal level. Until then, we have to rely on the states.

It’s just another example of how most bank profits really do come from criminal enterprises. As American Banker reports today, JPMorgan Chase has recently stopped filing consumer debt collection lawsuits, because a whistleblower charged that the bank “falsely overstated the balances of thousands of delinquent accounts it sold to a third party.” And, they also found the exact same robo-signing problem we’ve seen in foreclosure fraud.

Florida AG Office Encouraged to Intervene on Behalf of Foreclosure Fraudster LPS

By: David Dayen, Firedog Lake

Wednesday January 11, 2012 8:15 am

The invaluable Abigail Field has a long piece about Pam Bondi, the Florida AG, incidentally a member of the executive committee on the foreclosure fraud settlement led by Iowa AG Tom Miller, and her ties to the foreclosure industry in Florida. These include the usual financial ties, but also the sense that the Florida AG’s office was a no-go zone for investigations against banks, servicers and the entities that pushed foreclosure fraud. And Field uncovers a long history of this.

The Economic Crimes Division of that office habitually ignored or dismissed crimes happening in the state. And in one case, they lobbied an AG in another state on behalf of the target of a national investigation.

The story concerns Lender Processing Services (LPS), the foreclosure document processor currently under indictment in Nevada for its practices. Michigan’s Republican Attorney General, Bill Schuette, issued criminal subpoenas to LPS in June of last year. And Lisa Epstein, the foreclosure fraud blogger, obtained through a public records request communications between LPS’ attorneys at Baker & McKenzie and the Florida AG’s office. In them, Baker & McKenzie asks the Florida AG to help them persuade Schuette to switch his subpoenas from criminal to civil ones.

Joan Meyer is a partner for Baker & McKenzie; Victoria Butler works in the AG’s office. She asks in the first email to “catch up” about the Michigan criminal subpoenas, and adds that “These public announcements can deeply impact LPS’s business operations and stock price and seem unnecessary if the AGs who issue them have already agreed to a meeting. Wondering if there’s anything we can do.” The meeting she refers to is part of the wider foreclosure fraud investigation.

In the second email, Meyer adds that “Sue Sanford from the Michigan AG’s Office is going to call you about the State AG meeting with LPS. She may ask about converting her investigation from criminal to civil. If you are comfortable, please encourage her to join the civil group. I would like to share information with her and get her up to date regarding the information we provided at the meeting but thus far cannot because of the criminal restrictions.”

This is a lawyer for LPS encouraging one AG office to lobby another, to get criminal subpoenas converted to civil ones. This came at a time when LPS was under active investigation by the state of Florida.

IG Report Whitewashes Firing of Foreclosure Fraud Investigators in Florida

By: David Dayen, Firedog Lake

Monday January 9, 2012 7:22 am

June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards were career lawyers in the South Florida office of the Attorney General, economic crimes division. Back during the dark days of 2010, Clarkson and Edwards were the most aggressive law enforcement officials, from the top down, in identifying and investigating the web of foreclosure fraud, particularly the stew that emerged in Florida, with bogus documents, forgeries, go-go foreclosure mills valuing speed over accuracy, and document processing companies providing menus for law firms to finish off the theft of homes from borrowers.

Much of the information Clarkson and Edwards got into the public sphere motivated the investigations and lawsuits we see today. At the end of 2010, Clarkson and Edwards prepared a Power Point Presentation, called Unfair, Deceptive and Unconscionable Acts in Foreclosure Cases. That Power Point, bringing together all the types of document fraud seen in Florida foreclosure courts, had a profound impact. I described it at the time as “a full pictorial history of the past decade in the mortgage industry, complete with actual shots of improper mortgage assignments. They show the same name of a bank officer being written four different ways, clearly forged. They show stamps from notarizations that expired before they were used to certify foreclosure documents.”

McCollum left the AGs office in January, replaced by a different Republican, Pam Bondi. At the same time, the longtime director of the economic crimes division left, and Richard Lawson, a former defense attorney for white collar criminals – mainly bank officials – came in. As Lawson acknowledges in his statement to the IG report (more on that in a minute), he received complaints from the lawyers of several of the defendants in Clarkson and Edwards’ cases, in particular Lender Processing Services (LPS), which was part of a multistate investigation at the time.

Lawson immediately went to work criticizing Clarkson and Edwards’ conduct, disputing their claims, savaging the work of their office, and micromanaging their investigations (but only the foreclosure fraud investigations, not their other work). By May they were out, fired by Lawson and Bondi. They were given 90 minutes to pack up their things and leave the office, and lost access to all their files and emails.

This looked suspiciously like a politically motivated firing. Advocates for homeowners, along with the group Progress Florida and a couple Democratic lawmakers, urged an investigation. Two days before state Rep. Darren Soto and state Sen. Eleanor Sobel asked the Justice Department to investigate, Bondi personally requested an investigation, outsourcing it to the inspector general for the state’s Chief Financial Officer, Jeff Atwater, a Republican former member of the state legislature. That report came out late Friday, and it completely exonerated the AG’s office for the Clarkson and Edwards firing. “During the course of the inquiry there was no specific allegation of wrongdoing made by any person, and no discovery of evidence of wrongdoing on the part of anyone involved in the matter,” the report concludes.

The media has accepted the narrative that this IG report cleared Bondi of any wrongdoing in the firing. But it really just raises more questions. Why were so many attorneys defending targets of investigations talking to the head of the economic crimes division? Why was he listening to their concerns over his own investigators in his office? Why was Lawson faulting Clarkson and Edwards for a failure to do “independent investigations to confirm third party complaints” when he was accepting third party complaints from the targets of the investigations?

Thomas Perrelli, DoJ Point Person on Foreclosure Fraud Settlement, Stepping Down by March

By: David Dayen, Firedog Lake

Thursday January 12, 2012 6:17 am

I keep hearing from everyone “in the know” that these foreclosure fraud settlement talks are just about wrapped up. Surely everyone’s just practicing their signatures for the big signing ceremony, right? Except that there hasn’t really been any news on the settlement for a few weeks. And now the number 3 at the Justice Department, Thomas Perrelli, the central figure running the talks from the federal government side, will step down in a couple months.

Aside from the obvious fact that there’s not going to be a number three at Justice for the next year, because Obama made four recess appointments over the holiday break and Republicans are so mad about it they’re going to retaliate as soon as they get back from vacation, Marcy Wheeler writes that this “sets a finite deadline” for the foreclosure fraud settlement. I actually think it seals its fate. No deadline has yet been responded to on the settlement. Aside from the half-dozen or so Democrats who aren’t on board, there are plenty of Republicans who don’t want to see the banks take any penalty at all. The talks haven’t even gotten around to that persuasion stage, as there remain outstanding issues with the banks in terms of the nature of the penalties and the level of release from liability.

On this Day In History January 12

Cross posted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

January 12 is the 12th day of the year  

On this day in 1932, Hattie Ophelia Wyatt Caraway (February 1, 1878 – December 21, 1950), a Democrat from Arkansas, becomes the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

Hattie Wyat was born near Bakerville, Tennessee, in Humphreys County, the daughter of William Carroll Wyatt, a farmer and shopkeeper, and Lucy Mildred Burch. At the age of four she moved with her family to Hustburg, Tennessee. After briefly attending Ebenezer College in Hustburg, she transferred to Dickson (Tenn.) Normal College, where she received her B.A. degree in 1896. She taught school for a time before marrying in 1902 Thaddeus Horatius Caraway, whom she had met in college; they had three children, Paul, Forrest, and Robert. The couple moved to Jonesboro, Arkansas where she cared for their children and home and her husband practiced law and started a political career.

The Caraways settled in Jonesboro where he established a legal practice while she cared for the children, tended the household and kitchen garden, and helped to oversee the family’s cotton farm. The family eventually established a second home Riversdale at Riverdale Park, Maryland. Her husband, Thaddeus Caraway, was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1912, and he served in that office until 1921 when he was elected to the United States Senate where he served until he died in office in 1931. Following the precedent of appointing widows to temporarily take their husbands’ places, Arkansas governor Harvey Parnell appointed Hattie Caraway to the vacant seat, and she was sworn into office on December 9. With the Arkansas Democratic party’s backing, she easily won a special election in January 1932 for the remaining months of the term, becoming the first woman elected to the Senate. Although she took an interest in her husband’s political career, Hattie Caraway avoided the capital’s social and political life as well as the campaign for woman suffrage. She recalled that “after equal suffrage I just added voting to cooking and sewing and other household duties.”

n May 1932 Caraway surprised Arkansas politicians by announcing that she would run for a full term in the upcoming election, joining a field already crowded with prominent candidates who had assumed she would step aside. She told reporters, “The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job.” When she was invited by Vice President Charles Curtis to preside over the Senate she took advantage of the situation to announce that she would run for reelection. Populist Louisiana politician Huey Long travelled to Arkansas on a 9-day campaign swing to campaign for her. She was the first female Senator to preside over this body as well as the first to chair a Committee (Senate Committee on Enrolled Bills). Lacking any significant political backing, Caraway accepted the offer of help from Long, whose efforts to limit incomes and increase aid to the poor she had supported. Long was also motivated by sympathy for the widow as well as by his ambition to extend his influence into the home state of his rival, Senator Joseph Robinson. Bringing his colorful and flamboyant campaign style to Arkansas, Long stumped the state with Caraway for a week just before the Democratic primary, helping her amass nearly twice as many votes as her closest opponent. She went on to win the general election in November.


Muse in the Morning

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Muse in the Morning
The time when most of you should withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd.


Strips 3

True North

I’m trying to find true geographic north from a compass.  The magnetic declination (curvature from the poles) in my vicinity shows “counter-clockwise, 15 degrees,” or thereabouts.  Since the magnetic pole is somewhere in NE Canada, I am wondering about the further correction that needs to be made in order to be pointed to the actual pole of the Earth, however wobbly, because I want to remain correct at all times, despite flip-flopping magnetic politicians.  

The “sun-compass” technique (bisecting the hour-hand-of-the watch-directed-at-the-sun with “12-noon”) looks pretty good, in terms of perfecting the dial, but I am worried about “time-of-year” (earth axis tilt) and “daylight savings-time” issues.

I have not thought these things out, to my own satisfaction.  Throw a dog a bone.

The magnetic compasses are obviously off.  The cell-phone apps, equally off.  They both report the same.  One would think that a cell-phone using GPS could calculate true geographic north, but not in my limited experience.

I suppose the people at Creech in Nevada kill people using magnetic-fucking-north drones?  I don’t think so.  They use true north, as I would like to, but not to “kill people,” but to simply aim a goddamned brick compass in a patio, you god-forsaken heathens; how I hate you all, except for the folks at DD, and a few others.  God bless you all.

I look forward to your inspirational dialogue on these issues.

Late Night Karaoke

My Little Town 20120111: Harold

Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River.  It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.

This week I am writing about a person who may be living, so no last name will be used.  Since there were more than one person around my age named Harold in Hackett at the time, it would be difficult to identify him.  Harold was a friend of mine, and lived just down the street across the Midland Valley railroad tracks.  Harold was more typical of the people my age than I was there, not being really interested in doing well in school or making something out of himself.

Everyone has had a friend like Harold.  I liked him, but he has some issues.  One of his issues was telling the truth.  He just made up stuff constantly, and from an early age.  I often though that he should have been a fiction writer because some of his stories were certainly original, if incredible.