Mortgage Tornado Warning, Unheeded
YEARS before the housing bust — before all those home loans turned sour and millions of Americans faced foreclosure — a wealthy businessman in Florida set out to blow the whistle on the mortgage game.
His name is Nye Lavalle, and he first came to attention not in finance but in sports and advertising. He turned heads in marketing circles by correctly predicting that Nascar and figure skating would draw huge followings in the 1990s.
But after losing a family home to foreclosure, under what he thought were fishy circumstances, Mr. Lavalle, founder of a consulting firm called the Sports Marketing Group, began a new life as a mortgage sleuth. In 2003, when home prices were flying high, he compiled a dossier of improprieties on one of the giants of the business, Fannie Mae.
In hindsight, what he found looks like a blueprint of today’s foreclosure crisis. Even then, Mr. Lavalle discovered, some loan-servicing companies that worked for Fannie Mae routinely filed false foreclosure documents, not unlike the fraudulent paperwork that has since made “robo-signing” a household term. Even then, he found, the nation’s electronic mortgage registry was playing fast and loose with the law — something that courts have belatedly recognized, too.
You might wonder why Mr. Lavalle didn’t speak up. But he did. For two years, he corresponded with Fannie executives and lawyers. Fannie later hired a Washington law firm to investigate his claims. In May 2006, that firm, using some of Mr. Lavalle’s research, issued a confidential, 147-page report corroborating many of his findings.
And there, apparently, is where it ended. There is little evidence that Fannie Mae’s management or board ever took serious action. Known internally as O.C.J. Case No. 5595, in reference to the company’s Office of Corporate Justice, this 2006 report suggests just how deep, and how far back, our mortgage and foreclosure problems really go.
“It is axiomatic that the practice of submitting false pleadings and affidavits is unlawful,” said the report, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. “With his complaint, Mr. Lavalle has identified an issue that Fannie Mae needs to address promptly.”
What Fannie Mae knew about abusive foreclosure practices, and when it knew it, are crucial questions as Congress and the Obama administration weigh the future of the company and its cousin, Freddie Mac. These giants eventually blew themselves apart and, so far, they have cost taxpayers $150 billion. But before that, their size and reach — not only through their own businesses, but also through the vast amount of work they farm out to law firms and loan servicers — meant that Fannie and Freddie shaped the standards for the entire mortgage industry.
Almost all of the abuses that Mr. Lavalle began identifying in 2003 have since come to widespread attention. The revelations have roiled the mortgage industry and left Fannie, Freddie and big banks with potentially enormous legal liabilities. More worrying is that the kinds of problems that Mr. Lavalle flagged so long ago, and that Fannie apparently ignored, have evicted people from their homes through improper or fraudulent foreclosures.
Until a few weeks ago, Mr. Lavalle, 54, had never seen O.C.J. 5595. He had hoped to get a copy after helping Fannie’s lawyers, at Baker & Hostetler in Washington, complete it. He didn’t.