Well hello, people of Daily Kos. It’s been a long, long time. I spent many of my formative years in the political world here, but I haven’t written in this space in a while.
You see, I’ve been busy.
I’ve been writing a new book, Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud. It releases officially today. You can order it online (also in audiobook form) or wherever you buy books.
The book is about three individuals in South Florida who were instrumental in exposing the largest consumer crime in American history. They called it foreclosure fraud. Millions of families were kicked out of their homes based on false evidence submitted by mortgage companies that had no legal right to foreclose. The documents were fabricated, forged, backdated. This was systematic fraud that implicated every major bank in this country, and ruptured a 300 year-old system of well-established property records law.
And yet, Lisa Epstein, Michael Redman, and Lynn Szymoniak 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. And while struggling with their shame and isolation they committed a revolutionary act: closely reading their own mortgage documents and discovering the deceit behind them. Instead of merely using that knowledge to fight their own cases, they dug into the public records, found patterns of fraud lurking in plain view in courtrooms and county recording offices, found each other in the comment sections of websites, and founded a movement to tell the nation about this unbelievable misconduct that affected millions of lives.
It’s really about these three people, how they sacrificed everything — jobs, marriages, personal comfort — in pursuit of justice, and to comfort those experiencing the same pain. They explored every avenue, online and offline, to reach that goal. And for a moment, they brought the mortgage industry to its knees. But it was only for a moment, sadly. (I’m probably not giving away the ending by noting that Wall Street and Washington got together to ensure limited consequences for all of this.)
I wrote this book for a number of reasons. First, I wanted to recognize the work of those who contributed to the unmasking of foreclosure fraud. I wanted to explore how movements bubble up from the obsessions of a small group of people, and how modern communication tools can allow for networked, distributed research to expose fraud. I wanted to show how people can go up against the most powerful institutions in this country armed only with the truth and succeed. Because they did succeed. At the end of 2010, the leading mortgage servicing companies in this country all stopped foreclosing, because they couldn’t do it anymore without scrutiny into their practices. That was a moment when we could have arrived at an equitable solution, to punish wrongdoers and ensure that homeowners could sustainably stay in their homes.
And that brings me to the most important reason why I wrote this. There is this nagging question at the heart of our democracy, one that informs public anger and frustration as much as any other explanation. People want to know why no high-ranking Wall Street executive has gone to jail for the conduct that precipitated the financial crisis. And they keep asking the question despite assuming they know the answer: 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.
Clearly Americans don’t like the implications of a government that lets Wall Street walk. It does too much violence to the conception of the country we have in our mind, with its ideals of justice and fairness. But they want the details, to confirm their own suspicions, to rebut the arguments that what banks did in the financial crisis was unethical but not illegal, or that juries just wouldn’t understand the complexities.
Well, here were three foreclosure victims with no prior background in the subject who undertook more investigation than the whole of our state and federal governments. And they found millions of pieces of documentary evidence informing an easy-to-understand crime spree. And they gave that information to public officials who could have done something about it. And we have to reckon with why they didn’t, why they stonewalled all the promising investigations into foreclosure fraud, why prosecutors on the trail of it got fired, why witnesses describing the misconduct turned up dead (really!), why the ultimate outcome was a series of piddling settlements designed to create big headline numbers that bore no resemblance to reality, why the only person to go to jail for any of this was convicted of duping the banks instead of operating as their partner.
People need to know that there was an alternative history here, that we could have had a better outcome, that 6 million families didn’t have to lose their homes, that in our current system of justice, who you are doesn’t have to matter more than what you did.
At some level, people already know that. That’s why the aftermath of the wasted moment on foreclosure fraud has been a culture of protest, from Occupy Wall Street to the Fight for $15 to the political revolution. The seeds of that can be seen in Chain of Title. The reverberations of that gang of victimized homeowners and activists are still being felt today.
I hope you’ll consider reading their story. The preface and a little of Chapter 1 are available at The American Prospect. The book got a solid review in the Sunday New York Times. I would deeply appreciate you giving it a look.
And thanks for having me back!
UPDATE: I was prodded into pointing out that I have some events coming up for the book, including a signing at Diesel in Los Angeles this Sunday. All my events are listed at my Facebook page for Chain of Title.