Oklahoma’s attorney general said he is prepared to break ranks with a coalition that is crafting a settlement with the nation’s largest mortgage servicers, underscoring the challenges law enforcement officials face as they try to address widespread problems with foreclosure practices.
E. Scott Pruitt said Wednesday that he is opposed to forcing the servicers to pay at least $20 billion in fines and use the money to reduce the principal on mortgages of “underwater” borrowers, who owe more on their loans than their homes are worth.
“I have asked my attorneys to prepare me for an option that does not require that,” Pruitt said in an interview.
He said elements of the settlement now under discussion address issues that go beyond the problems investigated by the states. The abusive practices that prompted dismay with the firms are unrelated to underwater loans and any fines should be based solely on wrongful conduct, he said.
A series of problems within the mortgage servicing industry — including widespread instances of forged foreclosure documents and flawed paperwork — surfaced last fall and prompted federal officials and the state attorneys general to join forces and take action against the industry’s largest players.
As the officials tried to hammer out details of a broad legal settlement behind closed doors, details reached the news media about the scope of fines under discussion and a possible requirement that servicers modify loans for borrowers. But Pruitt said that the lead negotiators had not shared these specifics with other attorneys general until they met in Washington last month.
Rifts soon emerged, and Pruitt joined a handful of other Republican attorneys general to voice concern, including Ken Cuccinelli II of Virginia.
The $20 billion to $25 billion fine “came as a surprise,” Pruitt said. “There was a perception that there was unanimity and that was something I wanted to dispel.”
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who has led the settlement talks for the state officials, has acknowledged that some fellow attorneys general have expressed reservations about the proposals under discussion.
“There’s a great deal of diversity of opinion and personality; we all recognize that,” Miller said in an interview last month. “Some of [the attorneys general] have done that publicly; some of them have done it privately within our family.”
Miller said that state attorneys general usually do not pursue cases of corporate wrongdoing in such a collective fashion. Typically, officials from a handful of states conduct an investigation and work out a settlement with companies that have broken the law. Other states then decide whether to sign on.
When reports surfaced last fall of widespread problems with foreclosure practices, all 50 state attorneys general joined the ensuing investigation. Maintaining unity has been difficult as the probe turned into settlement negotiations with the banks.
A spokesman for Miller declined to comment Wednesday.
The negotiations between the banks on one hand and state and federal officials on the other continued at a meeting in Washington last week. The two groups reached accord on some issues of the settlement, but many other items remain unresolved, said a person familiar with the talks.
The Justice Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal watchdogs have joined the state attorneys general in their negotiations with the banks.
The regulator of the nation’s largest banks, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, announced last week a separate deal with financial firms that requires them, in part, to hire consultants to determine whether any borrowers were harmed by shoddy foreclosures practices and reimburse them for the damage. Some critics say this settlement, which did not include fines, was too soft.
Pruitt said that the settlement talks should continue at the national level and that his office plans to engage in that process. But in the meantime, he said his attorneys will work to determine what transpired in Oklahoma and craft an alternative plan specific to the state in case he opposes the national settlement once it has been finalized.