Falling Out of Love with . . . Eric Schneiderman

When I first heard about NY State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman standing up and pushing back against DC’s rush to settle with Wall St bankers and mortgage servicers over the foreclosure debacle, I cheered.  In fact, I did more than cheer.  I wrote to Schneiderman and thanked him for having the courage and integrity to stand with American homeowners, those who had been abused by unfair [and illegal] business practices, and then further compromised by mortgage modifications and refinancing schemes that turned into a giant con game.

The stories were always the same, particularly with the mod and refi angle.  Homeowners called their lending representatives.  They were encouraged to fill out mountains of paperwork, pay a particular monthly amount, and then [months later] once they fulfilled their obligation?  They were told they did not qualify, would be required to pay ‘x’ amount of dollars upfront or the local sheriff would be knocking at the door.  And not for a friendly ‘hello.’

The bait and switch games have been cruel, destructive and predatory.  The idea that these same financial institutions–unable to produce proper and legal paperwork on many of these properties, the whole robosigning/MERS debacle—were being offered a sweetheart deal including immunity from civil and criminal prosecution was nothing short of outrageous.

Schneiderman stood up first and said, ‘No.’  He was later joined by five additional state attorney generals: Beau Biden [DE], Martha Coakley [MA], Catherine Cortez Masto [NV], Kamala Harris [CA] and Lisa Madigan [IL]. Each has pledged to independently investigate the malfeasance and fraud in the mortgage industry and seek prosecution where warranted.

However, during his State of the Union Address, President Obama announced the creation of a Federal Mortgage Fraud Task Force. To my dismay and that of many others, it was subsequently announced the aggressively independent Schneiderman was joining the DC team.

The immediate question [and I’m glad I’m not alone in this]: Will Eric Scneiderman be sucked into the Washington Borg, be used for window dressing by the Administration or remain staunchly on the side of ordinary Americans, who have been abused and sucker-punched enough.

Though I’m generally an optimist, I have to admit—it does not look good.

As an article at Yves Smith’s site pointed out, the very fact that negotiations with the TBTFs proceed uninterrupted sends up a red flag.  Why proceed with negotiations, offering the banks a back door exit, if you’re running an investigation into fraud?  The composition of the Task Force is also troubling, composed as it is with people from the original Task Force that has done very little.  Consider Eric Holder, for instance—not exactly the poster child of a justice fighter.

Additionally, indications are that a miniscule fraction of FBI agents [10] have been assigned to the Task Force in comparison to William Black’s forensic team [1000] to tackle the S&L scandal.  Matt Stoller stated that the current investigation is on the order of 40x the magnitude and complexity although I actually heard Bill Black say the magnitude was in the 70-80x range.

In the same article, Stoller quotes Eric Holder, who seems to truly believe [or at least wants everyone else to believe] that the Administration and the DOJ have been dedicated to rooting out corruption:

On Tuesday night, the President referenced this initiative, asking us to, “hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.”

That is precisely what we intend to do.  And the good news is that we aren’t starting from scratch.

Over the past three years, we have been aggressively investigating the causes of the financial crisis.  And we have learned that much of the conduct that led to the crisis was – as the President has said – unethical, and, in many instances, extremely reckless.  We also have learned that behavior that is unethical or reckless may not necessarily be criminal.  When we find evidence of criminal wrongdoing, we bring criminal prosecutions.  When we don’t, we endeavor to use other tools available to us – such as civil sanctions – to seek justice.  My number one to commitment to the American people is that we will continue to devote significant resources to combating financial fraud and be as aggressive and creative as we can be in holding accountable those who, in violating the law, contributed to the financial crisis.

For example, in just the last six months, the Department has achieved prison sentences of 60, 45, 30, and 20 years in a variety of financial fraud cases charging securities fraud, bank fraud, and investment fraud.   And, just last month, I announced the largest fair lending settlement in history, resolving allegations that Countrywide Financial Corporation and its subsidiaries engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of discrimination against minority borrowers from 2004 through 2008.

Either the Administration and DOJ have done a very poor job of keeping the public abreast of their multiple investigations/prosecutions or the average layperson would refer to this claim as: Don’t trust your lying eyes.

Schneiderman has reportedly stated that if the investigation is not on the up and up, he will publicly step away. He has insisted that the investigative work will be rigorous and unrelenting.

I hope he means it.  I hope the queasy sense I have in my gut is wrong because false champions have become the disheartening rule.

Though I’m more likely to see the glass half full than half empty, I and many others have witnessed the same repetitive pattern:  promising, good-intentioned men and women go to DC, only to be chewed up in the machine.  Or irreparably compromised. And though I’ve always believed Barack Obama inept in leadership qualities, he does have an uncanny ability to disable and defang his opponents. David Dayen wrote a convincing essay to the same effect.

I want to be wrong about this.  I hope the naysayers are wrong, too.

Breaking up is hard to do.