Thousands of foreclosure scams yield a small number of criminal chargesby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Homeownership Center says 66,000 homes have been foreclosed on in Minnesota the past three years. Many of those who lost their homes made bad mortgage decisions and got in over their heads. But prosecutors say a significant number of those 66,000 people were cheated out of their homes with so-called toxic mortgages or scams intended to strip them of their equity.
Minnesota Public Radio news decided to try find out how many of the bad actors involved in those toxic deals have been brought to justice. The answer so far is a few dozen have been brought up on criminal charges. A few hundred more have been named in civil suits from folks trying to get their money and homes back.
Minneapolis, Minn. — There's no running count being kept, but observers agree that most of the tens of thousands of Minnesotans scammed by equity strippers, predatory lenders and mortgage fraudsters have not gotten justice.
The record for those who try is mixed.
Seventy-five year old Becky Benson of Minneapolis lost her lawsuit. Benson got caught in a classic equity stripping scam.
She remembers the handsome young real estate agent going door to door in her south Minneapolis neighborhood. He was charming and treated her very nicely, Benson says.
She signed her house over to the young man who leased it back to her at three times the monthly payment.
"I was only paying just a little over $300 a month, he went up to $900."
Benson found a lawyer who sued on her behalf to nullify the deal, but she lost both at the district and appeals court levels.
One judge wrote in the opinion he sympathized with her plight but in fact and in law she'd signed a legal deal.
There's no one place where all the information about who's been brought to justice over the mortgage meltdown is collected. Minnesota Public Radio news contacted a number of groups - public and private - involved in chasing down the crooks.
The office of Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman has been one of the most active in filing criminal charges. The office has charged 25 individuals and companies and have won some convictions, Freeman says.
One of the big ones is Donald Walthall and his Brooklyn Park based, Universal Mortgage. Walthall has been convicted of multiple mortgage fraud counts and will serve at least six years in prison, but Freeman says his office is going for more because of the extent of Walthall's fraudulent dealings.
"We're bringing a racketeering claim on that. Many times these fraudmeisters distribute the money all over the place and under the racketeering laws we can reach into their homes, their bank accounts, the ones they've created for their kids and other folks and we can retrieve more money," he says.
They have four big cases involving various aspects of mortgage fraud in the pipeline, Freeman says.
A number of private groups are helping foreclosed homeowners file civil suits to try get money and in some cases their homes back. Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, the Volunteer Lawyers Network, the Housing Preservation Project, Centro Legal, Minneapolis Legal Aid and dozens of cooperating private practice attorneys have handled several hundred cases.
Minneapolis Legal Aid also has a class action lawsuit in the works that would effectively suspend more than half the foreclosures underway in Minnesota.
A lower court threw out the case. Legal Aid is appealing to the Minnesota Supreme Court which will issue a decision in a couple of months.
The attempt to bring the people Mike Freeman calls the fraudmeisters to justice or at least rein in their activities doesn't stop there.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson says attorneys in her office have helped hundreds of people keep their homes or get money back.
Lately her office is focused on scammers selling so called mortgage foreclosure rescue services, Swanson says.
"We've filed about 10 lawsuits against those kinds of companies. (We) have so far gotten either settlements or judgements against half of them that ban those companies from operating in Minnesota again, that shut down their owners too," she says.
The attorney general has won settlements totaling $25 million the past two years. The money is being returned to people gulled by various predatory lending, equity stripping and crooked mortgage operations.
The Minnesota Commerce Department so far this year has taken actions against 140 mortgage originators, real estate salespeople and brokers and appraisers.
Some have lost their license, others have been hit with fines which this year totaling nearly $200,000. In all, several hundred people have faced consequences for the mortgage meltdown in Minnesota.
Minneapolis attorney David Graham, who works for Oppenheimer Wolf and Donnelly and is a volunteer in the Volunteer Lawyers network, says the measure of justice meted out so far in this country from the mortgage meltdown is mixed.
"We haven't done that well as a country, (we) have done better as a state though," he says.
However Minnesota also has trouble keeping up.
There aren't enough state regulators to investigate mortgage fraud and lay the groundwork for legal action, according to Jonathan Bargen, a staff attorney for the St. Paul-based non-profit Centro Legal.
"The last time I spoke with the Commerce Department, which is where you send complaints of improper activity by a broker or real estate agent, (it takes) 10 months from when they receive (complaints) to when they'll initiate their investigation," he says.
There's little doubt many of the predatory lenders, equity strippers, crooked mortgage brokers, originators and others got away with a crime.
However, Minneapolis Legal Aid supervising attorney Kristin Siegesmund cautions against assuming there's a big population of crooks living large off their ill gotten gains.
"If there's any poetic justice most of them went and leveraged their money back into the real estate markets so I'm not sure how many of them are walking away with a lot of money," she says.
That may be what happened to the young real estate agent who took advantage of 75-year old Becky Benson in Minneapolis. Even if he's out of business and has lost his shirt, Benson is still mad.
"Very much...I done everything I was told, and I didn't get nothing out of it," she says.
Worse than nothing, Becky Benson faces likely foreclosure and eviction in the next year.
People worried about foreclosure should not give up hope, says Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services attorney Larry Moloney.
"There's thousands more of these type of cases and it's a goal of ours to reach out and tell people that there is help," he says.
The help for some is legal action. Others may benefit if Congress can decide on a plan to force lenders to renegotiate mortgage terms.
However for thousands, the chance of help is gone. It disappeared with foreclosure and their eviction.
- Morning Edition, 11/04/2008, 7:20 a.m.