Friday, October 15, 2010

States set to unveil joint probe into foreclosures

WASHINGTON – Up to 40 state attorneys general are preparing to launch a joint investigation into the mortgage industry over the foreclosure-document mess.

If the states have their way, mortgage companies will have to revamp the way they handle foreclosures, pay penalties for violations and expand help to homeowners on the verge of foreclosure.

The top law enforcement officials of states around the country are already weighing the outlines of a potential settlement with the industry, said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who will lead the investigation. The inquiry will be announced Wednesday morning.

Miller said one idea being discussed is to create an independent monitor to review whether banks have fixed their problems.

"We want the companies to put in a system such that this will not happen again," Miller said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We want to explore what other remedies might be available, in a way that makes homeowners and the general housing economy better off."

Some banks, such as Wells Fargo & Co. and Citigroup Inc., insist they did nothing wrong. But employees of Bank of America, Ally Financial's GMAC Mortgage unit and JPMorgan Chase have acknowledged in depositions that they signed thousands of foreclosure documents without reading them.

"The behavior already on the record involves thousands of false statements to judges," said Peter Swire, an Ohio State University law professor who recently left the White House economic policy staff. "That's a weak hand for the banks."

Attorneys general have taken the lead in responding to a nationwide scandal that's called into question the accuracy and legitimacy of documents used to force millions of people from their homes.

"This is a serious matter, and I think that the financial firms that engaged in this practice have real exposure," said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. "It would well serve them to think hard about what their exposure is."

The attorneys general "are trying to step in and make policy where the federal government has failed to do so," Howard Glaser, a mortgage industry consultant in Washington.

Several federal agencies have been looking into the issue, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday the administration supports "the steps that the attorney generals and our federal regulators are taking to get to the bottom of and to fix the process in the mortgage industry."

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