June 21 (Bloomberg) -- In one corner, we have five former Bank of America Corp. employees who told a federal court they were instructed to mislead customers on the verge of losing their homes and stall their applications for loan modifications.
In another corner, we have Bank of America, which says nothing could be further from the truth.
Who’s right? If anything, the bank’s strident denials make me more inclined to believe the workers’ claims. “These allegations are absurd, patently false and contrary to Bank of America’s long-standing policy only to foreclose as a last resort when other available options to help keep people in their home have been exhausted,” Jumana Bauwens, a Bank of America spokeswoman, told Bloomberg News in an e-mail this week.
Perhaps some of the allegations may be wrong. But to say all of them are obviously false? You have to wonder. A lot of the former employees’ claims make sense.
We have known for years that the U.S. Treasury Department’s Home Affordable Modification Program failed miserably at its stated goal of helping struggling homeowners. In part, that’s because companies and divisions of major banks that service mortgage loans often can make more money from foreclosures than from loan modifications.
It didn’t bother the banking industry’s “robo-signers” that they risked committing perjury when they signed false affidavits filed in courthouses across the country to speed foreclosures along. Now, Bank of America would have us believe that all of these former employees were making things up under penalty of perjury when they came forward and told their stories.
The former employees’ statements were filed with a federal court in Boston as part of a lawsuit against Bank of America by homeowners who say they were improperly denied permanent loan modifications. Bank of America says it will respond to the statements in greater detail in a court filing.
The workers gave horrific accounts about Bank of America’s compliance with the Home Affordable Modification Program. One consistent theme was that they said they were told to deceive borrowers about the status of their applications.
“My colleagues and I were instructed to inform homeowners that modification documents were not received on time, not received at all, or that documents were missing, even when, in fact, all documents were received in full and on time,” said Theresa Terrelonge of Grand Prairie, Texas, who worked at Bank of America from 2009 to 2010 as a loan-servicing representative. She said workers “were awarded incentives such as $25 in cash, or as a restaurant gift card” based on “how many applications for loan modifications they could decline.”
Simone Gordon of Orange, New Jersey, who left Bank of America in 2012, gave a similar account. “Employees were rewarded by meeting a quota of placing a specific number of accounts into foreclosure, including accounts in which the borrower fulfilled a HAMP trial period,” Gordon said. “For example, a collector who placed ten or more accounts into foreclosure in a given month received a $500 bonus.” Other rewards for placing accounts into foreclosure included gift cards to Target or Bed Bath & Beyond.
“We were regularly drilled that it was our job to maximize fees for the bank by fostering and extending delay of the HAMP modification process by any means we could -- this included by lying to customers,” Gordon said.
William Wilson, a Bank of America underwriter and manager in Charlotte, North Carolina, from 2010 to 2012, described what he said was called a “blitz.” About twice a month, he said, Bank of America would order case managers and underwriters to clean out the backlog of HAMP applications by rejecting any file in which the documents were more than 60 days old. Employees were instructed to “enter a reason that would justify declining the modification to the Treasury Department,” Wilson said.
“Justifications commonly included claiming that the homeowner had failed to return requested documents or had failed to make payments,” he said. “In reality these justifications were untrue. I personally reviewed hundreds of files in which the computer systems showed that the homeowner had fulfilled a trial period plan and was entitled to a permanent loan modification,” but was nevertheless declined during a blitz.
“On many occasions, homeowners who did not receive the permanent modification that they were entitled to ultimately lost their homes to foreclosure,” he said.
After Bloomberg wrote last week about the former employees’ statements, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters, sent a letter to Christy Romero, the special inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, asking that her office investigate. Yet it’s hard to get one’s hopes up about the government’s desire to get at the truth.
There already has been a $25 billion nationwide whitewash of a settlement between regulators and big banks over improper foreclosure practices, along with billion-dollar payments under a different settlement to consultants who were hired to review those practices. Nobody was prosecuted, much less wrist-slapped.
This week, the court-appointed monitor overseeing compliance with the terms of the national mortgage settlement said he found “more work needs to be done” by big mortgage servicers to improve their treatment of customers. But neither he nor the regulators have ever reported anything as dubious as the conduct described in the former Bank of America employees’ court declarations. Perhaps they just missed a bunch of stuff.
If there was a good reason to believe that the government’s priority is to investigate big banks rather than protect them, maybe Bank of America’s blanket denial would seem more credible.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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