Florida foreclosure investigators say they were forced to resign

Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson had headed up investigations on behalf of the Florida attorney general’s office for more than a year into the fraudulent foreclosure practices that had become rampant in the Sunshine State. They issued subpoenas and conducted scores of interviews, building a litany of cases that documented the most egregious abuses.

That is, until the Friday afternoon in May when they were called into a supervisor’s office and forced to resign abruptly and without explanation.

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“It just came out of nowhere,” said Edwards, who had worked in the attorney general’s economic crimes section for more than three years. “We were completely stunned.”

Less than a month before they were forced out, a supervisor cited their work as “instrumental in triggering a nationwide review of such practices.” Now, Edwards is convinced their sudden dismissals will have “a chilling effect” on those probes into the shoddy foreclosure practices that caused national outrage when they made headlines last fall.

Although similar abuses have occurred throughout the country, they have been particularly rampant in Florida, which was ground zero for the housing bust and is home to a collection of large law firms that were hired by the financial industry to relentlessly churn out foreclosures in recent years. That made the investigations headed by Edwards and Clarkson among the earliest and most closely watched by officials across the country.

A spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi declined to comment on what she cited as internal personnel matters but said in an e-mail that the foreclosure investigations remain a top priority.

Before the uproar last fall, Edwards and Clarkson were already investigating the problems plaguing foreclosure filings in the state. Working under then-attorney general Bill McCollum, they created a 98-page presentation entitled “Unfair, Deceptive and Unconscionable Acts in Foreclosure Cases,” which detailed such far-ranging problems as fake and forged affidavits and falsified mortgage ownership records.

Their inquiry led them to focus on “foreclosure mill” law firms that were filing foreclosures for their clients at lightning speed, as well as to the practices of other companies in the mortgage industry. It also led to calls from other attorneys general offices across the country that were beginning to scrutinize similar problems.

“We were farther along in our investigation because we had dug a little deeper than anybody else,” Edwards said. “We kept opening up more and more investigations, more and more cases.”

Their work won them accolades. In the evaluation provided by Edwards, a supervisor wrote that the pair had “achieved what is believed to be the first settlement in the United States relating to law firm foreclosure mills” — a multimillion-dollar settlement a month earlier with a Fort Lauderdale firm.

Despite that praise, Edwards and Clarkson said in separate interviews that they sensed a change when Bondi took office in January. Almost immediately, they said, supervisors began to question their findings and demand details about how they were gathering information.

Both woman say they were summoned into a meeting on the afternoon of May 20 and told they could either resign or be fired. Either way, they would no longer be employed come 5 p.m. They had to come back over the weekend to pick up their things, they said.

“No two weeks’ notice, no severance, no nothing,” Clarkson said. “I have no idea why it happened.”

Added Edwards, “We didn’t even have a chance to go over our cases with anybody. We were just locked out.”

A spokeswoman for Bondi, Jennifer Krell Davis, said the economic crimes division “continues to actively pursue the investigations into foreclosure law firms.” She said the division’s director, Richard Lawson, is leading the inquiry into one of the state’s largest foreclosure firms and is supervising other cases.

“The division has made these investigations a top priority and will continue to actively pursue all of our investigations into foreclosure law firms,” Davis said in an e-mail, adding that Lawson had assigned 14 attorneys and investigators to work on the cases that belonged to Edwards and Clarkson.

As for their hasty departure, she wrote, “We do not comment on personnel matters. However, the Florida Attorney General’s Office is always striving to make sure that we have the best staff working to serve and protect the people of Florida.”

Edwards and Clarkson, whose dismissals were first detailed this week by The Palm Beach Post, have since opened a private law firm together in South Florida focused largely on foreclosure defense. They expressed doubts about how aggressively the cases they left behind will be pursued, saying the other attorneys in their division are dedicated and hardworking but that each already had a full caseload.

For her part, Clarkson said she worries about the work left undone, the potential misdeeds left undiscovered, even as state and federal officials negotiate a settlement with banks to end some of the worst practices.

“There is so much paperwork that came in due to our subpoenas that I didn’t even get a chance to look at,” she said, adding, “I looked at enough to know that there’s a lot more problems out there.”

 
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