Rush to foreclose by Fannie, Freddie helped feed problems with legal paperwork
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 12:00 AM
As the housing market came crashing down in 2008, the giant mortgage company Fannie Mae took an unprecedented step to help tackle the rising tide of foreclosures. It named an exclusive group of law firms that would help rapidly carry out the unsavory task of filing legal paperwork to remove homeowners from their homes.
Today, problems with documents handled by firms on Fannie's list - and a similar one created by its smaller rival Freddie Mac - are at the heart of federal and state probes over faulty foreclosure practices that now threaten to further undermine the housing market.
Fannie and Freddie, the largest mortgage companies, shaped the practices being challenged in courtrooms around the country. They picked law firms that could foreclose fast and paid them based on how many foreclosures they could process. Speed was essential because delays cost the companies money - and, after they were taken over by the government two years ago, meant losses for taxpayers, too.
Not only did the companies urge swift foreclosures, but in at least one case Fannie executives also greenlighted working with a firm that they knew firsthand had engaged in legally questionable practices, according to documents and interviews with lawyers and industry officials.
That firm was the Law Offices of David J. Stern in Florida, which built a hundred-million-dollar-plus business foreclosing on the tens of thousands of borrowers who lost their homes in the housing crash.
In 2000, the Fannie executive responsible for overseeing outside law firms in Florida was questioned about Stern's firm in connection with a class-action lawsuit alleging it had charged borrowers bogus fees based on fraudulent paperwork.
In a deposition, Susan Reid, an associate general counsel who oversaw Stern's firm for Fannie until two months ago, was asked by a lawyer representing borrowers why her company hired law firms such as Stern's to handle foreclosures.
"We felt that timelines and the time it took to foreclose on a piece of property . . . could be improved," she responded. She explained that with "every month" that passed, "we're losing money."
Did Fannie, she was then asked, have any safeguards to ensure that law firms, rushing to foreclosure, followed the law? "I don't know of any policies and procedures," she answered.
To the contrary: Fannie and Freddie over the years have prodded law firms and mortgage servicers that collect payments to move even faster.
When law firms or servicers have taken too long to foreclose, Fannie and Freddie have threatened to charge them a penalty fee, according to industry sources and documents. And every few months, the two mortgage companies have sent servicers report cards ranking them on how rapidly they completed foreclosures compared with their peers.
A giant footprint
Fannie and Freddie occupy a unique place in the mortgage world. They are the biggest buyers of pools of home loans, accounting for trillions of dollars of mortgages. These purchases provide an essential source of funding to lenders to make more loans.