February 15, 2013
Eric Schneiderman
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (Cliff Owen / AP)

This week’s State of the Union marked a year since President Obama announced the formation of the Residential Mortgage Backed Securities working group, a task force created to investigate and prosecute fraud and criminal activity by Wall Street that led to the housing crisis.

The task force, co-chaired by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, was something I applauded last January along with many progressives, who view it as a path to justice and relief for homeowners. We support it because it is vital that the mortgage servicers, lenders and big banks that dragged millions of Americans into foreclosure be held accountable. That was true then, and it’s true today.

Many are frustrated that the cases brought so far by the task force, against Bear Stearns and Credit Suisse, were in civil court, not criminal, and we have yet to see a “perp walk.” As last month’s tremendous “Frontline” documentary “The Untouchables” reminded us, four years since the financial crisis, no Wall Street figures of consequence in jail are for financial crimes — an outrage that should boil the blood of anyone committed to the rule of law.

We should all be asking questions about who is to blame and why. The issue in front of us now, though, is, how can we push to get results?

In Salon this week, Dave Dayen, echoing others on the left who have criticized the task force from the start, took a victory lap, writing that the task force never really existed and placing blame largely on the progressive organizations and Wall Street accountability advocates who supported the effort to begin with.

In this telling, the task force was a setup from the start, with the Obama administration cleverly distracting Wall Street accountability advocates. Dayen blames groups like the Campaign for a Fair Settlement, the New Bottom Line, Move On and the Campaign for America’s Future (disclosure: I’m on its board) for buying in to the plot. In reality, though, these organizations have been pressuring the Obama administration for months to clean house at Justice, devote real resources to the task force and make it a top priority inside the White House.

At this moment, with President Obama starting his second term and looking to shape his legacy, we need to be looking for real solutions.

First, the Justice Department has been a roadblock to progress. As “Frontline” showed, Lanny Breuer, the head of the department’s Criminal Enforcement Division, was more concerned with bankers than homeowners. He’s gone, but if others are obstructing the RMBS task force, they need to be removed, now. And if it appears as though Justice is obstructing progress, we need an investigation. Anyone who knows what it’s like to try and work with the Justice Department in this administration is naïve to think that it would be easy to bring cases against Wall Street. This was going to be a fight, and we all knew it.

Second, the Obama administration has allowed a steady “drip” of minor cases and settlements to move forward against the banks without any coordination across agencies, rather than trying to maximize justice –- and settlement money –- for homeowners. These include cases brought by the Federal Housing Financing Agency (FHFA), which is notoriously soft on mortgage servicers.

It’s been nearly four months since Obama promised to replace Ed DeMarco, head of FHFA, who remains the administration’s biggest impediment to help for underwater homeowners. (See my column from last spring, “The Man Blocking America’s Recovery.”) The president now has no excuse to wait, not with qualified candidates in line for the job and the hardest-hit still waiting for relief four months on.

Finally, we face a choice. As it stands today, the “fake” RMBS task force has investigators. It has staff. It has pending investigations. And it has a significant pending congressional appropriation for its work. As George Zornick has reported over the last year for The Nation, the task force has a number of top targets it hopes to pursue. Even if the Obama administration never took it seriously, it exists and has authority to act.

At this moment, we can either fight to see that this investigation is real or we can take our ball and go home. Progressives and Wall Street accountability advocates need the RMBS Task Force to work. Schneiderman, who has been creative in bringing cases under New York’s Martin Act where the Justice Department would not step in, needs the resources and support to do his job –- and hold the president to his promises.

The circular firing squad is easy. What’s hard is the work that needs to be done: getting rid of Ed DeMarco. Cleaning house at DOJ. And ensuring that opportunity in front of us doesn’t go to waste and justice is done through the RMBS task force.