California breaks from 50-state probe into mortgage lenders [Updated]
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris will no longer take part in a national foreclosure probe of some of the nation's biggest banks, which are accused of pervasive misconduct in dealing with troubled homeowners.
Harris removed herself from talks by a coalition of state attorneys general and federal agencies investigating abusive foreclosure practices because the nation's five largest mortgage servicers were not offering California homeowners relief commensurate to what people in the state had suffered, Harris told The Times on Friday.
The big banks were also demanding to be granted overly broad immunity from legal claims that could potentially derail further investigations into Wall Street's role in the mortgage meltdown, Harris said.
“It has been a process of negotiating and sitting at a table in good faith, but ultimately I have decided that we have to go our own course and take an independent path. And that decision is because we need to bring relief to Californians that is equal to the pain California experienced, and what is being negotiated now is insufficient," Harris told The Times in an interview.
Harris delivered the news in a letter sent Friday to Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller, who has been leading the 50-state coalition.
[Updated 5:36 p.m.: Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller, who has been leading the negotiations, vowed to press on.
“California has been an important part of our team and has made a significant contribution to this case,” Miller said in a statement. “However, the multistate effort is pressing forward and we fully expect to reach a settlement with the banks.”]
The removal of California from the discussions is a major blow to fraying efforts by the coalition, which has been trying to strike a settlement deal with the big banks for months. The move by Harris to reject the settlement talks is also a key departure from efforts by the Obama administration, which has been pushing for a fast resolution to the so-called robo-signing scandal that erupted last year.
“This whole concept of a settlement on foreclosure abuse is probably dead,” said Christopher Whalen, the founder of Institutional Risk Analytics. “Nobody in their right mind is going to opt into a settlement right now.”
For California homeowners, the move means the probable end of an opportunity for relatively quick relief stemming from revelations last year that banks improperly foreclosed on troubled borrowers. Key reforms to mortgage-servicing and foreclosure practices pushed by the attorneys general may also be delayed.
Harris has faced increasing pressure in recent weeks from inside and outside the state to reject any deal that was considered too weak, particularly as the foreclosure crisis in the Golden State appears to be worsening.
Among the states with the highest foreclosure rates, California led the pack in new foreclosure proceedings last month, with an increase of 55% over July, according to data from Irvine-based RealtyTrac. Metro areas in the inland parts of California posted big jumps in August, with Riverside and San Bernardino counties soaring 68%, Bakersfield 44% and Modesto 57%.
In rejecting the 50-state talks, California also widens the riff among law enforcement officials nationwide over the best approach to pursuing banks for mortgage misdeeds.
New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman, who was originally part of the 50-state negotiations, has launched a wide-ranging investigation into Wall Street's role in the mortgage meltdown -– focusing on the efforts to bundle low-quality mortgages into sophisticated bonds.
Schneiderman has been highly critical of the proposed 50-state settlement and expressed concern that his counterparts in other states may let the banks off too lightly and provide immunity from other efforts to bring them to account for misdeeds. Schneiderman has also won support from attorneys general in Delaware, Nevada, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Minnesota, some of whom have launched their own investigations.
A spokesman for Schneiderman, Danny Kanner, welcomed Harris's move.
“Attorney General Schneiderman looks forward to his continued work with Attorney General Harris and his other state and federal counterparts to ensure those responsible for the mortgage crisis are held accountable and homeowners who are suffering receive meaningful relief,” said Kanner.
-- Alejandro Lazo and Nathaniel Popper
Photo: California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris speaks at a news conference in May to announce the creation of the California Attorney General's Mortgage Fraud Strike Force. At left is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times