Mark Pittman dies; reporter foretold mortgage industry woes

By Bob Ivry
Monday, November 30, 2009

Mark Pittman, 52, an award-winning reporter who wrote stories in 2007 predicting the banking system's collapse as a result of the subprime mortgage crisis and who fought to open the Federal Reserve to greater scrutiny, died Nov. 25 in Yonkers, N.Y. He had heart ailments, although the cause of death was not immediately clear.

Mr. Pittman, who joined Bloomberg News in 1997, won the Gerald Loeb Award in 2007 from the UCLA Anderson School of Management, the highest award in financial journalism, for his series of articles on the breakdown of the U.S. mortgage industry.

"He was one of the great financial journalists of our time," said Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University in New York and the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for economics.

Mr. Pittman's fight to make the Fed more accountable resulted in a lawsuit and an Aug. 24 victory in Manhattan federal court affirming the public's right to know about the central bank's more than $2 trillion in loans to financial firms. He drew the attention of filmmakers Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, who gave him a prominent role in their documentary about subprime mortgages, "American Casino."

"Who sues the Fed? One reporter on the planet," said Emma Moody, a Wall Street Journal editor who worked with Pittman at Bloomberg. "The more complex the issue, the more he wanted to dig into it."

James Mark Pittman was born Oct. 25, 1957, in Kansas City, Kan., where he played linebacker on his high school football team. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1981.

Mr. Pittman's first reporting job, covering police for the Coffeyville Journal in southern Kansas, paid so little he took a part-time job as a ranch hand in Oklahoma. He then spent a year in Rochester, N.Y., and 12 years at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.

At Bloomberg, Mr. Pittman wrote in 2007 about the security of home loans as subprime borrowers with bad credit histories began missing mortgage payments at a faster pace.

He also reported on U.S. banks exporting toxic mortgages overseas and on the role Henry M. Paulson played in creating those troubled assets as chief executive of Goldman Sachs Group before Paulson became treasury secretary.

Mr. Pittman "was the best at burrowing into the most complex securities Wall Street could come up with and explaining the implications of them to readers of all levels of sophistication," said Gretchen Morgenson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning financial columnist for the New York Times. "His investigative work during the crisis set the standard for other reporters everywhere. He was a giant."

Mr. Pittman also covered the U.S. bailout of American International Group, and he wrote about how lending throughout the world could be frozen if just 5 percent of U.S. mortgage borrowers missed their monthly payments.

In "American Casino," whose title comes from an expression Mr. Pittman used in the documentary, the filmmakers profile subprime borrowers who are losing their homes, mortgage brokers who made loans they knew their customers could never repay and bankers and ratings analysts whose companies profited from the housing boom.

Bloomberg's lawsuit against the Fed, which was filed after Mr. Pittman's requests under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act were denied, continues without him. The central bank won a delay pending an appeal.

Mr. Pittman and his wife of 14 years, Laura Fahrenthold-Pittman, opened an art gallery in Yonkers in 2005.

His marriage to Vicky Holloman Pittman ended in divorce.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage; two daughters from his second marriage; his parents; and two brothers.

-- Bloomberg News

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