Below is an excerpt from Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, published on May 17 by The New Press.
There is a rot at the heart of our democracy, rooted in a nagging mystery that has yet to be unraveled. It gnaws at people, occupies their thoughts, leaves them searching for answers in the chill of the night. Americans want to know why no high-ranking Wall Street executive has gone to jail for the conduct that precipitated the financial crisis.
The oddest thing about the predominance of the question is that everyone already assumes they know the answer. They believe that too many politicians, regulators, and law enforcement officials, bought off with campaign contributions or the promise of a future job, simply allowed banker miscreants to annihilate the law in pursuit of profit. But they must not like the explanation very much, because they keep asking why, as if they want to be proven wrong, to be given a different story.
Maybe they don’t like the implications of a government that lets Wall Street walk. It does too much violence to the conception of the country they have in their mind, with its ideals of justice and fairness. It explains the disempowerment people feel in the face of a rigged economic and political system, with differing standards of treatment depending on wealth and power. It engenders a loss of faith in core institutions, turning our democracy into a sideshow, where the real action happens offstage. It inspires people to don tricornered hats and protest crony capitalism, or pitch camp at the base of Wall Street and refuse to move. It generates a profound anxiety, for if bankers can bring the economy to the point of ruin and get away with it, what’s to stop them from doing it again? It makes our economy seem too fragile, our laws too impotent.
Or maybe people just want the details filled in, to confirm their suspicions, so they can point fingers at those who created this two-tiered system of accountability. There must be a set of facts that prove we’re living in a new Gilded Age, where holders of prodigious wealth guide government policy the way a string guides a marionette. There must be a smoking gun.
Those details are available, but not where most chroniclers of the financial crisis have ever cared to look. They usually take a ten-thousand-foot view, recounting stories of the hubris of bank CEOs or tracking the swashbuckling, without-a-net exploits of those tasked with stanching the bleeding. But few have offered the perspective of millions of ordinary Americans, the ones who never visited a Wall Street office tower or a Washington conference suite, and who endured most of the suffering that resulted from the crash. At ground level, the crisis was not a cautionary tale of greed or an adventure plot: It was a tragedy, too casually hidden from view.
Starting in 2009—as the crisis raged—three of these ordinary Americans decided to take on this mystery for themselves, to fill in those details, to understand what Wall Street perpetrated and why. In so doing, they played a significant role in uncovering the largest consumer fraud in American history.
They didn’t work in government or law enforcement. They were not experts in real estate law. They had no history of anti-corporate activism or community organizing. They had no resources or institutional knowledge. They were a cancer nurse, a car salesman, and an insurance fraud specialist, and they were all foreclosure victims. While struggling with the shame and dislocation and financial stress that foreclosure causes, they did something extraordinary: They read their mortgage documents. Wall Street’s scheme was not hidden but readily apparent in millions of pieces of documentary evidence, and to be a whistleblower, you just had to pay attention.
All whistleblowers are a little bit crazy. They obsess over things most people overlook. They see grand conspiracies where others see only shadows. In this case, these whistleblowers, armed with only a few websites and a hunger for the truth, found that the mortgage industry fundamentally ruptured a centuries-old system of U.S. property law; that millions of documents generated to foreclose on people’s homes were phony; and that all those purchasing a mortgage in America were taking a gamble that they would be tossed onto the street with nothing, even if they made every payment and played by the rules. Virtually everyone to whom they presented this information reacted the same way: “That can’t be true.” Right up until the day the banks admitted it.
These three—Lisa Epstein, Michael Redman, and Lynn Szymoniak— unearthed another layer of the mystery, too. After they exposed foreclosure fraud and forced the nation’s leading mortgage companies to stop repossessing homes, they saw firsthand the unwillingness of our government to deliver any consequences. In fact, walk into any courtroom today and you will see the same false documents, the same ones Lisa, Michael, and Lynn exposed, used to foreclose on homeowners.
As America searches for understanding amid the perversity of the financial crisis, they should know that there were a few determined people, far from the corridors of power, who tried to write an alternative history, one where the perpetrators of fraud get rounded up and put away. But the same democracy that allows ordinary Americans to collaborate and organize and build a movement allows their deep-pocketed opponents to use the tools of entrenched power to counteract it. And we have to reckon with the fact that, in our current system of justice, who you are matters more than what you did.
Michael Redman, one of these whistleblowers, sat next to me one night as he told me his story, and said over and over again, “I don’t believe your book. I lived through it, and I don’t believe it.” I will forgive readers their skepticism, as even a protagonist in the tale shares it. It is unbelievable. That doesn’t make it untrue.
A Knock at the Door
February 17, 2009
The sun crept down over the Intracoastal Waterway, separating Palm Beach from its companion cities to the west. With the proper nautical chops, you could navigate from Norfolk, Virginia, to Key West through this shore-hugging water highway bordering open ocean, down through the Great Dismal Swamp, under the Hobucken Bridge, across the marshy lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia, and through the Mosquito Lagoon Aquatic Preserve, on the Indian River near the city of Edgewater. Eventually you would hit Palm Beach, located on a 16-mile-long barrier island of manicured lawns, ritzy mansions, and precisely fashioned grains of sand, a place where American ingenuity and truckloads of money summoned paradise out of the Atlantic. A few miles inland, amid vacationers and part-time snowbirds seeking refuge from winter winds up north, a car motored down Route 80 to tell Lisa and Alan Epstein that their bank wanted to take their home away.
Florida felt the worst of the Great Recession’s force, a financial hurricane that spared almost nobody, not even in paradise. This was one of the “sand states,” warm-weather regions of the country with economies disproportionately based on real estate. Home prices in Florida, Arizona, California, and Nevada surged more than 264 percent from 1998 to 2006. Over half of all subprime mortgages written in 2006 were issued in these four states. “Sand states” turned out to be an accurate description of the market’s feeble foundations, as prices crumbled and industries that supported and sustained the bubble washed out.
In fact, Florida suffered two waves of foreclosures. The first engulfed those who purchased or refinanced mortgages at the height of the bubble, in 2004, 2005, and 2006. While tagged as “irresponsible,” these homeowners actually suffered from inadvertent timing and susceptibility to predatory lending. When prices sank, borrowers went “underwater”—owing more on the mortgage than the homes were worth. They couldn’t sell or refinance to escape, and many couldn’t afford the payments to begin with. This led to defaults, even in Palm Beach. Then came the second wave, relentless ripple effects from unemployment in real estate, construction, and pretty soon everything else, swallowing those who paid their mortgages effortlessly for years. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of Floridians needed help, and help was slow to come.
So it was not uncommon to find cars like the four-door sedan motoring past West Palm Beach’s shiny subdivisions. Process servers contracted by “foreclosure mill” law firms, so named because they pumped out foreclosures the way a textile mill would fabrics, made their daily rounds here, unsmilingly handing homeowners legal documents and informing them that as a result of their failure to pay their mortgage promptly, their lender would place them into foreclosure.
By early 2009, one in 22 Florida homeowners had received some sort of filing like this, such as a notice of default, court summons, auction sale, or foreclosure judgment—nine times the historical average. Local sheriff’s deputies used to deliver the papers, but there were now too many to handle. So the foreclosure mills had to hire private contractors; it represented one of the few recession-era growth industries in the state.
Nobody on either side of the transaction felt particularly good about it. The process servers greeted eyes filled with tears, faces lined with desperation. The full force of post-recession fury at Wall Street malfeasance and personal tragedy refracted onto them. Though business boomed, it was shit work, the misery beat. In fact, you can almost understand why some contractors ducked the emotional tumult by resorting to “sewer service”—a popular scam where they would simply throw envelopes in front of the home, technically fulfilling their obligations while ensuring that the homeowner would not see the complaint or know to show up for court. This was illegal, but it also carried the benefit of being way faster than actually knocking on the door, increasing volume—and profits.
Sensing opportunity, some process servers and foreclosure mills even invented fake recipients of foreclosure papers. In Pasco County, Judge Susan Gardner found numerous charges for serving papers to “unknown spouses” and “unidentified tenants.” One process server in Miami listed 46 defendants on a single property, racking up $5,000 in fees. He claimed he had to serve everyone in the state with the same name as the homeowner, in case one of them was the real defendant. Every two-bit business in Florida had its own way of skirting the edges of the law to get ahead; this was a particularly crude one.
As for the homeowners, news of foreclosure tore through their front door like a wrecking ball. Taking a family’s house involved taking their spirit and snuffing it out like a candle, the bright light fading into smoke. Millions of Americans who thought they gained a foothold in the middle class, a clear pathway to wealth and economic security, absorbed the collateral damage of a fatal miscalculation on Wall Street.
This evening’s pageant of process serving would come to rest at 607 Gazetta Way, in an unincorporated area near West Palm Beach, a classic post-boom development of oversized properties on small lots. Built in 2006, the three-bedroom, two-bathroom, one-story home with a clay tile roof and yellow siding was wedged between a collection of larger properties all painted the same, as if the builder decided yellow was the optimal color to convince buyers to take the leap. Inside the house, the Epstein family had no warning of their impending visitor.
Lisa Epstein sat on a ledge in the master bathroom, hospital scrubs rolled to her knees, her daughter Jenna kept upright in the bathtub by a reclining baby seat. Lisa’s brown hair was pulled back with her trademark multicolored scarf, the kind you would see in the 1970s, maybe on Rhoda or The Bob Newhart Show. She had blue eyes, soft features, and a laugh you could hear across a crowded room. When she got excited she got very loud. But at the moment she focused on her daughter in the tub.
Blond-haired, big-eyed Jenna had been born with a mild form of spina bifida. Her spinal cord was tethered at the base, something that could generate motor control problems as she grew. The child would turn two in March; surgery had been scheduled for April. And Lisa could think of practically nothing else, ministering to Jenna at nearly every waking moment. As a cancer nurse, she worked with families coping with the stress of a sick child. Now she was experiencing the same emotions: consumed by the same yearning to keep her daughter comfortable, and at stray moments wondering how this beautiful creature could be marked for affliction.
Lisa was 43, a nurse, a wife, and a new mother. She had only lived in the house two years. And her life was about to change forever.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!
She did not hesitate for a second. “That’s about the house, Alan!” she yelled out to her husband. “They’re from the bank, and it’s not good news!”