“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.