Tag Archives: white collar crime

The “Friends of Angelo” — Countrywide’s Sweetheart Loans to Washington Big-Shots

The scandal involving special “sweetheart” loans to politicians and Washington insiders by Countrywide Financial is both heating up and widening.

Earlier this week, James A. Johnson was forced to step down as head of Barack Obama’s vice president selection team when it was revealed that he had profited from special deals on three home loans with Countrywide that were approved by Countrywide founder Angelo Mozilo only for his “close friends.”

At that time, we wrote that “Given its central role in the subprime mortgage debacle, it is no surprise that Countrywide Financial has become politically radioactive. The most recent evidence for the politically deadly consequences of an association with Countrywide or its corporate officers is the sudden and ungraceful exit of businessman James A. Johnson, a long time Washington insider and lobbyist, from Barack Obama’s vice-presidential selection team.”

Now it appears that Mozilo had a much larger circle of “close friends” in Congress and in recent Democrat and Republican administrations than was originally supposed, and that sweatheart loan deals were given by Countrywide to a wide array of Washington politicians and big-shots.

The “Friends of Angelo” list is now known to include Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Senator Kent Conrad (D-N. Dak.), Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson, former Clinton Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and former U.N. ambassador and Clinton Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke.

According to Portfolio.com, which broke the story:

“Most of the officials belonged to a group of V.I.P. loan recipients known in company documents and emails as “F.O.A.’s”—Friends of Angelo, a reference to Countrywide chief executive Angelo Mozilo. While the V.I.P. program also serviced friends and contacts of other Countrywide executives, the F.O.A.’s made up the biggest subset. According to company documents and emails, the V.I.P.’s received better deals than those available to ordinary borrowers. Home-loan customers can reduce their interest rates by paying “points”—one point equals 1 percent of the loan’s value.”

“For V.I.P.’s, Countrywide often waived at least half a point and eliminated fees amounting to hundreds of dollars for underwriting, processing and document preparation. If interest rates fell while a V.I.P. loan was pending, Countrywide provided a free ‘float-down’ to the lower rate, eschewing its usual charge of half a point. Some V.I.P.’s who bought or refinanced investment properties were often given the lower interest rate associated with primary residences.”

“Unless they asked, V.I.P. borrowers weren’t told exactly how many points were waived on their loans, the former employee says. However, they were typically assured that they were receiving the ‘Friends of Angelo’ discount, and that Mozilo had personally priced their loans.

“The V.I.P. loans to public officials in a position to advance Countrywide’s interests raise legal and ethical questions. Countrywide’s ethics code bars directors, officers and employees from ‘improperly influencing the decisions of government employees or contractors by offering or promising to give money, gifts, loans, rewards, favors, or anything else of value.’ Federal employees are prohibited from receiving gifts offered because of their official position, including loans on terms not generally available to the public. Senate rules prohibit members from knowingly receiving gifts worth $100 or more in a calendar year from private entities that, like Countrywide, employ a registered lobbyist.”

So far, neither Senator Dodd nor Senator Conrad have admitted any wrongdoing, and both claim that they did nothing for Mozilo or Countrywide in return for their sweetheart deals.

Dodd, who is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, claims that he never inquired or even wondered whether his special status with Countrywide might be related to his position as a senator or as Banking Committee chairman.

“Well, I don’t know we did anything wrong here,” Dodd said at a press conference. “I negotiated a mortgage at a prevailing rate, a competitive rate. If anyone had said to me, ‘We’re giving you some special treatment here,’ I would have rejected it. So no, I don’t feel at this point that I have any obligation. I did what I was supposed to do. I did what millions of other people did.”

Conrad, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, has said that he gave the money he saved on his special deal with Countrywide to charity.

We hope that Congress vigorously investigates this scandal, and that it fully exposes those who benefited from special deals with Countrywide while they were on the public payroll.

 

FBI Hits Mortgage Fraud with “Operation Malicious Mortgage” — 400+ Indictments and the Arrests of Two Bear Stearns Execs

The FBI announced today that the Justice Department’s crackdown on mortgage fraud has resulted in more than 400 indictments since March — including dozens over the last two days.

Those arrested run the gamut of players in the mortgage industry, including lenders, real estate developers, brokers, agents, lawyers, appraisers, and so-called straw buyers.

The Department of Justice’s name for the crackdown is “Operation Malicious Mortgage,” which it describes as “a massive multiagency takedown of mortgage fraud schemes.”

According to the FBI, the on-going “Operation Malicious Mortgage” focuses primarily on three types of mortgage fraud — lending fraud, foreclosure rescue schemes, and mortgage-related bankruptcy schemes.

“To persons who are involved in such schemes, we will find you, you will be investigated, and you will be prosecuted,” said Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller. “To those who would contemplate misleading, engaging in such schemes, you will spend time in jail.”

In its statement, the FBI said that “Among the 400-plus subjects of Operation Malicious Mortgage, there have been 173 convictions and 81 sentencings so far for crimes that have accounted for more than $1 billion in estimated losses. Forty-six of our 56 field offices around the country took part in the operation, which has secured more than $60 million in assets.”

While most of those indicted so far are relatively small players in the industry-wide fraud crisis, Mueller today repeated his earlier promise that federal authorities are not ignoring the major players in the mortgage industry, but are investigating some “relatively large corporations” as part of its sweeping mortgage-fraud probe, including some 19 large companies, including mortgage lenders, investment banks, hedge funds, credit-rating agencies and accounting firms.

Most of these corporate fraud investigations, said Mueller, deal with accounting fraud, insider trading, and the intentional failure to disclose the proper valuations of securitized loans and derivatives.

The FBI’s announcement of Operation Malicious Mortgage coincided with the indictment and arrest in New York on Thursday of two former Bear Stearns managers, Ralph R. Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, who are charged with nine counts of securities, mail and wire fraud resulting in $1.4 billion in losses on mortgage-related assets.

According to the New York Times,  Cioffi and Tannin “are the first senior executives from Wall Street investment banks to face criminal charges, and the investigation by federal prosecutors based in Brooklyn is likely to become a test case of the government’s ability to make successful prosecutions of arcane financial transactions.”

“This is not about mismanagement of a hedge fund investment strategy,” said Mark J. Mershon, the head of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “It’s about premeditated lies to investors and lenders. Its about the defendants prostituting their client’s trust in order to salvage their personal wealth.”

 

Don’t Get Scammed! — 10 Tips to Avoid Getting Ripped Off by Real Estate and Foreclosure Investment Scams

There are a lot of real estate scams out there and many of them are now offering the bait of making easy money in the foreclosure market.

Scammers like to run with the hot trend — and right now the hot trend in real estate is foreclosures and distressed property.

Of course, there is money to be made by investing in distressed and foreclosed real estate.

But as with any other kind of investing, making money in distressed property and foreclosures requires significant expertise and experience and adequate capitalization. 

Before you trust your money to a stranger who tells you he has a sure-fire way to make lots of cash by investing in the hot, once-in-a-lifetime foreclosure and distressed property market, make sure that he has the expertise and experience and the capital (not just yours!) to back up his claims.

Here are 10 tips to avoid being taken in by scammers who promise you quick and easy returns on your real estate investment:

1. Be very skeptical and ask lots of questions. 

2. Get the names of the people who will be running the investment fund.  In particular, get the names of the people who will be making the investment decisions.  Demand that they tell you their business and investment track record and that they provide you with documentation of their claims. 

3. Check their qualifications.  Make sure that they are licensed securities or real estate professionals and not just telemarketers. 

4. Research all the names you get.  Use the Internet.  Do a google search for the investment fund and for anyone involved in the fund or business.  Search for their names and the name of the investment fund on scam.com, the Securities Fraud Search Engine, and  other community web sites and bulletin boards, as well as the Better Business Bureau.  Also check their names with your state Attorney General and the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Carefully read the online material on telemarketing fraud put out by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

5. Find out whether the people raising the money for the investment fund are licensed securities brokers.  If not, don’t invest.  You can check their broker status here.

6. Before you invest, get the advice of people you trust.  Ask your attorney, your real estate broker, your financial advisor, and your adult children what they think about the investment.  On the other hand, avoid pressure from relatives and friends to invest in “can’t miss” schemes.

7. Get all promises or claims in writing and save copies of the paperwork. Verbal agreements don’t mean anything. Demand documents and then review them carefully.  Ask your attorney, your real estate broker, your financial advisor, and your adult children to review them as well.  Even when you get promises in writing, remain skeptical, especially regarding revenue projections.  At best, these projections are guesses; at worst, they’re outright lies.  Be particularly skeptical about projections in a business plan.  Remember that a business plan is not a legal document — you can put anything you want in a business plan and scammers always do.

8. Take your time before deciding whether to invest.  Scammers use lots of tactics to pressure you to make a decision.  Don’t let anyone rush you into an investment.  If they tell you, “only a few lucky investors can get in, so you must act right away,” it is almost certainly a scam.

9. Demand to know how much of your investment, or the total fund raise, is actually going to purchase property and how much is going to pay the people who are raising the money.  Don’t trust any investment where more than 10-15 percent of the total raise is going into the pockets of the fund-raisers. 

10. Live by the rule: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t.  If someone tells you that there is a “guaranteed return on your investment,”  it is almost certain that you should invest your money somewhere else.  Scammers play on greed and fear.  Deals that promise exceptional returns — and deals that must be done now — are the hallmarks of a scam.

 

Who is Elham Assadi Jouzani?

Last March, we wrote about the federal indictment of 19 people for mortgage fraud-related offenses under what the government called “Operation Homewrecker.”

The indictment alleged that a scam operated by Charles Head, 33, of Los Angeles, California, along with 18 others under his direction, targeted homeowners in dire financial straits, and fraudulently obtained title to over 100 homes and stole millions of dollars through fraudulently obtained loans and mortgages.

Among the alleged conspirators was Elham Assadi, aka Elham Assadi Jouzani, aka Ely Assadi, 30, of Irvine, California.

In the past two weeks, many of our readers have found this blog by searching for the name Elham Assadi Jouzani (and, somewhat less frequently, by searching for Ely Assadi and Elham Assadi).

Who is Elham Assadi Jouzani?

Jouzani is alleged by federal prosecutors to have been part of a “foreclosure rescue” scam that netted approximately $6.7 million in fraudulently obtained funds taken from 47 homeowners, nearly all located in California.

The allegations are that from January 1, 2004 to March 14, 2006, the defendants contacted desperate homeowners, offering two “options” allowing them to avoid foreclosure and obtain thousands of dollars up-front to help pay mounting bills. If the homeowner could not qualify for the “ first option,” which virtually none could, they would be offered the “second option.” An “investor” would be added to the title of the home, to whom the homeowner would make a “rental” payment of an amount allegedly less than their mortgage payment, thereby allowing the homeowner to repair their credit by having the mortgage payments made in a timely fashion.

All of this was a scam.

The defendants recruited straw buyers as the “investors” who would then replace the homeowners on the titles of the properties without the homeowners’ knowledge. Once the straw buyer had title to the home, the defendants immediately applied for a mortgage to extract the maximum available equity from the home. The defendants would then share the proceeds of the ill-gotten equity and “rent” being paid by the victim homeowner.

When the defendants ultimately would sell the home, stop making the mortgage payment, and/or pursue an eviction proceeding, the victim homeowner was left without their home, equity, or credit.

These facts explain the interest in Operation Homewrecker.

But these facts don’t explain the recent particular interest in Jouzani.

We’ve searched the Internet ourselves, and we can’t find any reference to Elham Assadi, Ely Assadi, or Elham Assadi Jouzani outside of this case.

Nor can we find anything in the news that explains the current interest in Jouzani as compared to the other Operation Homewrecker conspirators.

If you’ve come to this blog by searching for Jouzani, please tell us why there is so much special interest in this particular Homewrecker.

And why the interest at this time?

We’d love to provide more reporting on Jouzani, so if you know something, please tell us so that we can pass it on to our readers.

 

Obama and McCain Discover that Ties to Countrywide and Banking Industry are Political Kryptonite

Given its central role in the subprime mortgage debacle, it is no surprise that Countrywide Financial has become politically radioactive.

The most recent evidence for the politically deadly consequences of an association with Countrywide or its corporate officers is the sudden and ungraceful exit of businessman James A. Johnson, a long time Washington insider and lobbyist, from Barack Obama’s vice-presidential selection team.

Johnson was chosen by Obama to lead the group, which also includes Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Eric Holder, that would help him select a running mate. The appointment seemed obvious, if uninspired, since Johnson is an old Democratic Party insider who played a similar role in selecting the vice presidential choices for both Walter Mondale and John Kerry.

But last week, Johnson came under withering fire for his association and possible sweetheart deals with former Countrywide chairman Angelo Mozilo. Specifically, Johnson was charged with having profited from special sweetheart deals on three home loans, with usually preferential mortgage terms, approved by Mozilo as the head of the Countrywide only for his close friends.

Bloomberg.com reports that “Angelo Mozilo, the chief executive officer of Countrywide, the biggest U.S. home lender, may have given Johnson and other friends good deals on mortgages, the Wall Street Journal reported on June 7, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter. The newspaper didn’t provide any specifics on whether favors were granted. Since then, Johnson’s position on the search committee has drawn criticism from Republicans who noted that Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, repeatedly denounced Countrywide for its role in the subprime-mortgage crisis.”

It was soon discovered that Johnson had other political liabilities, including criticism for his role as chairman and chief executive officer of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) from 1991 to 1999, and also faced questions about his role on corporate compensation committees that awarded large payouts to corporate executives.

As New York Times columnist Gail Collins pointed out, “Johnson is the former head of Fannie Mae, which under his direction, according to regulators, engaged in accounting practices that were, at best, sloppy. At the same time, he sat on the boards of five different corporations, where he appeared to serve as cheerleader for the theory that corporate executives deserve to be paid obscene amounts of money. How does someone go up to Barack Obama, who once sponsored a bill to curb excessive executive compensation, and say — ‘You know the vice-presidential search committee? For chairman, how about Jim Johnson? Remember, the guy who tried to give the head of United Health Group $1.4 billion in stock options?'”

Although Republicans are pleased with Johnson’s departure — or at least with the embarrassment to Barack Obama caused by the Johnson episode — John McCain has his own toxic subprime-association worries.

Former Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas), now serving as John McCain’s chief economic advisor, has been called “the father of the mortgage meltdown and financial crisis.”

Gramm spearheaded sweeping changes in federal banking law, including the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, which repealed previous rules separating banking, insurance and brokerage activities, and which some analysts blame for creating the legal framework for the current mortgage meltdown and credit crisis.

In addition, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observed that “According to federal lobbying disclosure records, Gramm lobbied Congress, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department about banking and mortgage issues in 2005 and 2006. During those years, the mortgage industry pressed Congress to roll back strong state rules that sought to stem the rise of predatory tactics used by lenders and brokers to place homeowners in high-cost mortgages.”

Gramm is also under fire for his connection with Swiss investment banking giant UBS, which is the subject of a federal investigation into whether it helped wealthy clients to use offshore accounts to hide as much as $20 billion in assets from the Internal Revenue Service and dodging at least $300 million in federal taxes. Gramm is vice-chair of UBS Securities, UBS’s investment arm.

The New York Times reports that “The case could turn into an embarrassment for Marcel Rohner, the chief executive of UBS and the former head of its private bank, as well as for Phil Gramm, the former Republican senator from Texas who is now the vice chairman of UBS Securities, the Swiss bank’s investment banking arm.”

So far, McCain has rejected calls to remove Gramm from his inner circle. But our guess is that, fairly soon, Gramm will join Jim Johnson in the growing Class of 2008 Ex-Presidential Candidate Advisors Club.

UPDATE:

For more on Phil Gramm, John McCain, and UBS, click here.

Disgraced Ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer Starting Real Estate ‘Vulture’ Fund

Do you want to profit from the housing crisis and the mortgage meltdown?

Disgraced ex-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer might have just the opportunity you’ve been looking for.

Spitzer is putting together a real estate “vulture fund” to buy and flip distressed property, envisioning projects valued between $100 million and $500 million.

According to the New York Sun, “Eliot Spitzer, in his first big business venture since he was shamed out of office by a prostitution scandal, is shopping around a plan to start a vulture fund that would scoop up distressed real estate assets around the country, revamp them, and flip the properties for a profit. Late last month, the former governor of New York gathered a group of high-level Washington, D.C.-based labor union officials in a conference room at the headquarters of his father’s real estate business in Manhattan and pitched them his idea for starting such a fund, a source said.”

Eliot Spitzer’s father is multi-millionaire Manhattan real estate developer Bernard Spitzer, known for building one of New York City’s largest real estate firms (one of his properties is The Corinthian, a spectacular 55-story, 1.1 million square foot apartment building), as well as for bank-rolling his son’s political career.  The ex-Governor has been working with his father’s firm since resigning last March.

The Sun stated that “In the half-hour meeting, Mr. Spitzer told the officials that he was determined to take his ailing father’s real estate company to ‘the next level’, the source said. Mr. Spitzer said he would lay out his business plan in greater detail at a later date, and would ask the labor officials to consider investing pension fund money under their control.”

“Mr. Spitzer is moving aggressively to occupy a niche created by the credit crunch, the subprime mortgage crisis, a surge in foreclosures, and a declining real estate market. He is looking to mine for riches in projects that banks are no longer willing to finance.”

Spitzer apparently believes that the prostitution scandal that cost him the Governor’s office (and a fast-track to even higher political office) was really a blessing in disguise:

“During the meeting, Mr. Spitzer expressed relief that he was no longer burdened with the frustrations of being governor, according to the source. And, in contrast to his repentant resignation speech that he delivered beside his tearful wife, Silda Wall, he took a more relaxed view of his indiscretions. He has told friends and associates that he is consoled by passersby who stop him on the city sidewalks and tell him that sex is ‘no big deal’ and that the disclosure that he frequented prostitutes was distorted out of proportion, the source said. Europeans, the former governor has noted, have been especially supportive of him and perplexed by the fallout from the scandal.”

Spitzer’s real estate dreams may have to be put on hold, however, as federal law enforcement authorities might force him to make other plans.

The New York Post reports that ” The noose appears to be tightening around sex-crazed ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer.”

According to The Post, “The federal case against him is so strong that prosecutors had no interest in striking cooperation agreements with the ringleader of Spitzer’s hooker-supplier, Emperors Club VIP, and his second in command, sources told The Post‘s Murray Weiss. Prosecutors have records of Spitzer’s transactions, phone records and taped conversations with Emperors Club, and are confident they need little more to nail him on charges that could include violating prostitution laws and money laundering, sources said. Probers are also said to be looking into whether he used campaign funds to pay for his pleasures.”

“The case against Spitzer includes the cooperation of curvy call girl Ashley ‘Kristen’ Dupre and a second hooker. Her old boss, Mark Brener, 62, will plead guilty Thursday without the sweetheart deal he was hoping for – he’ll have to serve up to 30 months in the slammer on money-laundering and prostitution-conspiracy charges.”

In addition, Temeka Lewis, who worked for Brener at the Emperor’s Club, pled guilty in a cooperation agreement that requires her to testify about Spitzer’s involvement with the prostitution ring and his alleged attempts to conceal payments for sex.

We think that a “vulture fund” meeting with Eliot Spitzer where he pitches cashing in on the foreclosure crisis doesn’t help improve the image of labor unions or union leaders.

We also think that anyone considering investing in Spitzer’s real estate project should think about whether the fund could do without the presence of the ex-Governor for several years while he stays at the Gray Bar Hotel.

 

Why Bank of America Won’t Acquire Countrywide

The New York Times reports today that Bank of America is still firmly committed to acquiring crippled mortgage giant Countrywide Financial. 

After reading the article, we’re convinced that the deal isn’t going to happen.

According to the Times, Bank of America’s chief executive Kenneth D. Lewis “confirmed his commitment to the Countrywide buyout, which is expected to close by the end of September. When asked about the fact that home prices have plummeted and loan defaults have soared since the deal was announced, Mr. Lewis defended it as ‘compelling’, with a ‘pretty nice’ upside. ‘We don’t have our heads in the sand,’ he said.”

But the facts are that Countrywide has lost $2.5 billion in just the last three quarters. As the Times noted, in the first quarter of 2008, Countrywide’s total nonperforming assets hit $6 billion, almost five times that of the same period last year.

Countrywide has more than $95 billion in loans held for investments on its books, many of them adjustable-rate mortgages written on properties in California and Florida, where prices are still falling. Moreover, $34 billion of these loans are home equity lines of credit and second liens, which are riskier because they are more likely to generate losses when home values fall.

In addition, the Times said, “Countrywide has $15.6 billion in mortgages and related securities that it hopes to sell. Of these, $10.4 billion are so-called Level 2, and hard to value because the market for them is inactive. An additional $5.1 billion are valued on internal company models, not market prices.”

The Times quoted several analysts who think that the Countrywide deal is a bad move.

Paul J. Miller, managing director at the securities firm Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, which has published a report analysing the acquisition, called the purchase of Countrywide by Bank of America “a horrible deal.” 

Miller estimates that the deal will cost Bank of America an additional $10 billion to $15 billion above the $4 billion purchase price when a final accounting of losses is made.  Miller also said that Bank of America could face write-downs of up to $30 billion if goes ahead with buying Countrywide.

Instead, Miller think that Bank of America should  “completely walk away” from the deal.

Bloomberg News also points out the potential disaster awaiting Bank of America if it goes ahead with the Countrywide deal. 

Bloomberg observes that Bank of America stock has dropped 17 points since the deal was announced, and quotes Christopher Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics as saying that “If Ken Lewis pulls the trigger on Countrywide, he’s going to lose his job. It’s so early in the cycle of this housing downturn, you almost know that they are going to go wrong.”

Further, as the subprime mortgage industry collapsed and took much of the national economy with it, Countrywide and its executives have been hit with a barrage of criticism, investigations, and lawsuits, and could even face criminal charges. 

Even with its decision last week to jettison Countrywide COO David Sambol (who it had onced pledged to keep on board), Bank of America is likely to come under sharp criticism for its association with the Countrywide, which has become the poster-child for the greed, mismanagement, false advertising and outright fraud that led to the subprime meltdown.

As law professor Carl Tobias is quoted as saying, “there ought to be concern on Bank of America’s part as to reputation and what these bankruptcy trustees and judges are saying.”

There are some signs that the deal is falling apart even as the Federal Reserve gave the deal its blessing. Last month, Bank of America  said in a filing that it’s not promising to guarantee the debt of Countrywide.

Our guess is that the Times article is, in fact, part of an exit strategy by Bank of America, and that it will soon find a compelling reason to back out of the deal.

 UPDATE:

We were wrong here — Bank of America purchased Countrywide on July 1. 

According to Bank of America CEO Kenneth D. Lewis, “This purchase significantly increases Bank of America’s market share in consumer real estate, and as our companies combine, we believe Bank of America will benefit from excellent systems and a broad distribution network that will offer more ways to meet our customers’ credit needs.”

In a press release, Bank of America vowed to make changes in the way Countrywide operates its mortgage business and stressed a new approach meant to change the company’s image:

“Bank of America will pursue a new goal to lend and invest $1.5 trillion for community development over the next 10 years beginning in 2009. The goal will focus on affordable housing, economic development and consumer and small business lending and replace existing community development goals of both companies. Bank of America also previously announced a $35 million neighborhood preservation and foreclosure prevention package by both companies focusing on grants and low-cost loans to help local and national nonprofit organizations engaged in foreclosure prevention, and to purchase vacant single-family homes for neighborhood preservation. The combined company will modify or workout about $40 billion in troubled mortgage loans in the next two years and these efforts will keep an estimated 265,000 customers in their homes. The combined loss mitigation staffs will be maintained at the level of more than 3,900 for at least one year.”

But most analysts — and some major Bank of America shareholders — are still wondering what Lewis could be thinking in taking on Countrywide’s horrendous public image, its debt, and its expanding liability in numerous lawsuits.