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Supreme Court hears oral arguments in seminal Palm Beach County foreclosure case

Thursday, May 10th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Florida Supreme Court justices hammered a lawyer representing a Royal Palm Beach homeowner this morning in a seminal foreclosure case that could have far-reaching effects on other civil litigation.

The justices heard oral arguments in the unusual case involving Roman Pino, a drywall hanger whose lawsuit has already been settled. It’s the first foreclosure case to come before the state’s high court since the housing collapse.

Pino’s case against the Bank of New York Mellon focuses on whether lenders or other plaintiffs can escape penalties after filing bogus documents with the court simply by voluntarily dismissing the lawsuits. A voluntary dismissal allows the bank to refile at a later date.

The Palm Beach County homeowner accused the bank of using false documents in its foreclosure proceedings against him. Pino and the bank have since settled the case, but his lawyers want the high court to decide whether trial court judges have the ability to overturn voluntary dismissals.

The justices peppered Amanda Lundergan, a lawyer with the Tom Ice law firm that represented Pino, with questions during oral arguments this morning. They seemed to have trouble understanding what harm Pino had suffered.

“What it seems like to me, you’re just looking for a ‘gotcha’ to get out of the mortgage. Am I wrong?” Chief Justice Charles Canady said.

“Absolutely wrong,” Lundergan said. “This is not about Mr. Pino. This is about the bank and the fraud that was committed.”

But Bruce Rogow, who represents the bank, said Pino’s lawyers are essentially asking the judges to change court rules about voluntary dismissals and that the foreclosure case could have far-reaching effects.

“We have not had problems. This is, because it’s a mortgage foreclosure case, because there are a lot of those cases, it has attracted a lot of attention. But I think we have to look at this in the universe of general civil litigation. And this has not been a problem in general civil litigation,” Rogow said.

In Pino’s foreclosure case, his lawyers challenged a document created by the Law Offices of David J. Stern and sought to question employees about its veracity. On the eve of those depositions, the bank moved to dismiss the case, blocking the court’s ability to address any sanctions.

Ice made headlines with the Pino case in 2010 when he was featured in a national magazine article about Florida’s so-called “foreclosure mills” and the discovery of allegedly fraudulent documents.

The robo-signing scandal was just breaking at the time, Florida’s foreclosure “rocket dockets” were full speed ahead, and David J. Stern’s Plantation-based firm was a foreclosure empire handling more than 100,000 cases statewide. It has since closed after losing most of its clients in the wake of the scandal.

Florida gets $8.4 billion in national foreclosure settlement

Thursday, February 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Florida will get $8.4 billion of a $26 billion nationwide foreclosure settlement reached following what U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called “disturbing practices” at the country’s biggest banks.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a top negotiator for the states involved in the lawsuit, said prosecutors and banks had reached a deal that “provides Floridians with much-needed relief and reforms the mortgage-servicing industry.”

Under the agreement:
* Florida borrowers will receive an estimated $7.6 billion in benefits from loan modifications, including principal reduction and other debt relief.

* About $170 million will be available for cash payments to Florida borrowers who lost their home to foreclosure from Jan. 1, 2008 through Dec. 31, 2011 and suffered servicing abuse.

* The value of refinanced loans to Florida’s underwater borrowers would be an estimated $309 million.

* The state will receive a direct payment of $350 million.

“This settlement will provide substantial relief to struggling Florida homeowners, and ensures that our state gets its fair share of the relief being provided nationally,” Bondi said in a statement this morning. “This agreement holds banks accountable and puts in place new protections for
homeowners in the form of strict mortgage servicing standards.”

Read more from The Palm Beach Post‘s Kimberly Miller here.

Atwater IG clears Bondi of meddling in foreclosure lawyers’ forced resignations

Friday, January 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

An inspector general late Friday cleared Attorney General Pam Bondi of wrongdoing in the forced resignations of former foreclosure lawyers Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson.

There was “no discovery of evidence of wrongdoing on the part of anyone involved in the matter,” an 85-page report written by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater‘s inspector general, asked by Bondi to look into accusations that her office mishandled the terminations, concluded.

“The report confirms the terminations had nothing to do with politics or outside influence. Rather, it was about doing the right thing, in defense of the people of Florida,” Bondi said in a press release.

The report drew criticism from two Democratic lawmakers who have asked for an independent investigation into the matter.

“From the outset, the investigation requested by Attorney General Pam Bondi raised troubling questions. There was little to no independence as she turned to a colleague, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to look into her own conduct and that of her office. Much like a close relative investigating as opposed to a distant cousin, the pronouncement by Mr. Atwater’s office of ‘guilt-free” is hardly reassuring – to me, or the thousands of Florida homeowners looking for protection from foreclosure fraud abuse,” Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said in a statement.

“Theresa Edwards and June Clarkson netted $2 million in foreclosure fraud damages for Floridians and were quickly fired thereafter. The termination of these attorneys is a violation of state policy by obstructing the prosecution of mortgage and foreclosure fraud. The inspector general’s report focuses, instead, on minutiae in order to avoid making a call on the big picture,” Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, said in press release.

Personnel problems in Bondi’s office deepen in wake of foreclosure fraud firings

Thursday, August 11th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Andrew Spark, one of Attorney General Pam Bondi’s assistants in her Tampa office, abruptly resigned Thursday – a day after releasing a 16-page memo harshly criticizing his boss’s administration.

Spark, an assistant state attorney general in the Tampa office of economic crimes, said his memo was motivated by the forced resignations of former state foreclosure investigators June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards.

Spark’s concerns include former Economic Crimes Division Director Mary Leontakianakos taking a job in June with the Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson – a firm that paid $2 million in March to settle a state investigation into its foreclosure practices. Leontakianakos resigned her director’s job in December with an effective date of Jan. 3.

Spark also mentions the resignation of former Deputy Attorney General Joe Jacquot, who went to work for Lender Processing Services – another company under investigation by the state – and concerns he has about his investigations of two companies that serve foreclosure summonses to home owners.

“The people of the State of Florida are entitled to fair and honest government, independent of personal connections and powerful interests,” wrote Spark, who has worked for the attorney general for about seven years.

After Spark’s resignation, Bondi said he was the subject of an ongoing investigation for using the services of a business he was investigating.

“It is exceptionally troubling for the people of Florida that Spark’s memo disclosed information pertaining to active investigations into foreclosure-related businesses that could compromise those cases,” Bondi said.

Read The Palm Beach Post writer Kimberly Miller’s story here.

State lawmakers expand inquiry into Bondi foreclosure fraud firings

Thursday, August 4th, 2011 by Dara Kam

From The Palm Beach Post‘s Kimberly Miller:

Two Democratic state lawmakers seeking federal assistance to investigate the ouster of state foreclosure fraud investigators have expanded their public records request of Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, say the request is in response to information they received about high-level attorney general lawyer Joe Jacquot going to work for Lender Processing Services, or LPS, as well as a former general counsel for Gov. Rick Scott’s former health care company, Solantic.

The Jacksonville-based company is under investigation by the attorney general’s office for its foreclosure-related practices. Shortly after Jacquot left Bondi’s office and went to work for LPS, Bondi fired two foreclosure fraud investigators.

“A number of troubling questions have come to our attention involving past and current employees of the Attorney General’s office and at least one mortgage processing company currently under investigation,” the two lawmakers wrote in a press release today. “In particular, we are especially concerned with the sudden departure to Lender Processing Services of your former special counsel, Joe Jacquot, and the subsequent dismissal of two apparently top notch foreclosure fraud attorneys _ June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards.”

Lender Processing Services is a former subsidiary of Fidelity National Financial. Both companies gave big donations _ to both Republicans and Democrats _ during the 2010 general election.

The Republican Party of Florida received about $19,000 from Fidelity, while the Democratic Party picked up $6,000. Fidelity also gave $2,000 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, and $1,500 to winner Rick Scott.

LPS gave $36,500 to the Republican party and an additional $12,500 to the Democratic party.

Read Kimberly Miller’s blog here.

Negron: less government interference in foreclosures

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Sen. Joe Negron jumped on some of Attorney General Pam Bondi’s staff during a presentation on investigations into the state’s foreclosure crisis at today’s Banking and Insurance Committee meeting.

Attorney General Pam Bondi is continuing an investigation launched last year by predecessor Bill McCollum that thus far has found that the foreclosure process in Florida is in total disarray.

But Negron objected to some of the AG’s presentation and questioned whether the investigation is beyond the state’s top legal eagle’s scope of responsibility.

First, Negron didn’t like the term “foreclosure mills” referring to law firms that churn out the cases and are under investigation and being sued for racketeering and other allegations.

“It could also be called a very busy law firm because you provide very good service to your clients,” suggested Negron, R-Stuart, a lawyer with the West Palm Beach-based Gunster law firm.

He also didn’t like the finding by Scott Palmer, the head of the AG’s mortgage fraud investigation, that banks aren’t using loan modifications enough to avoid foreclosure.

“Where does…the government have the right to tell the bank what’s in your best interest?” he wanted to know.

(more…)

SCOFLA recommends mediation for home foreclosures

Monday, August 17th, 2009 by Dara Kam

foreclosure-150x150A Florida Supreme Court panel recommended court-ordered mediation for all residential home foreclosures except in cases where banks and homeowners come to an agreement on their own.

The high court appointed the Task Force on Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Cases earlier this year to make suggestions on how to deal with the influx of foreclosures in the state’s courts. Florida has the second highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

The panel released its final report today, likening the impact of the increase in foreclosures on the courts to a car-jammed evacuation route during a hurricane.

The recommendations include expediting foreclosures on abandoned properties and dividing foreclosures into three categories: mortgages on homesteaded properties, abandoned properties and rental properties.

The 15-member panel of judges, lawyers and financiers acknowledged that the state’s budget crisis makes appointing more judges and clerks an unreasonable option while addressing the urgency of the situation.

“Instead, their recommendations include “the least of evils that can work on an emergency basis to immediately begin to meet the challenge of these cases. We believe it is imperative that the Florida Supreme Court address the explosion of mortgage foreclosure filings as soon as possible for the welfare of our courts, our communities, our businesses, and our state,” the panel wrote.

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