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Scott signs $200 million mortgage settlement bill

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013 by John Kennedy

About $200 million from a National Mortgage Settlement will be scattered across Florida, with cash going to domestic violence centers, Habitat for Humanity and housing subsidies for low-and medium-income homeowners and renters under legislation signed Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott.

“This money will help those who’ve been harmed by foreclosures in this state,” Scott said, moments before signing SB 1852. “Funding in this bill also will help various affordable housing initiatives and will help make additional affordable housing available in the Sunshine State.

“This is very great news for Florida families who are struggling to make ends meet, just like my family was when I was growing up,” he concluded.

Florida is drawing the money as part of a nationwide, $25 billion settlement reached more than a year ago between attorneys general and five big mortgage servicers. It’s taken Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Republican-controlled Legislature months to reach agreement on how to distribute the cash.

“This has been a long time coming,” Bondi said Tuesday. “We are very proud of this settlement.”

The biggest share of the money, $60 million, will go to the Florida House Finance Corp., for the state apartment incentive loan (SAIL) program, mostly to provide rentals for the elderly and developmentally disabled. Another $40 million goes to the State Housing Inititiatve Program (SHIP), also run by the FHFC, to be directed to cities and counties for renovating owner-occupied homes.

“This is a great day for Floridians and a great day for affordable housing,” said Wellington Meffert, of the FHFC.

Bondi acknowledged that the settlement didn’t steer money directly to homeowners struggling to keep homes. But she said that stemmed from the need to maintain accountability over the dollars.

“It’s hard to write checks directly out there. It needed accountability,” Bondi said. “That’s why we’re going through these various agenicies, just to make sure it’s going where it’s meant to go.”

No details yet on how bulk of $334 million foreclosure settlement will be spent

Thursday, January 24th, 2013 by Dara Kam

GOP legislative leaders vowed that $200 million from a mortgage foreclosure settlement will be spent on helping homeowners but said they do not know yet how they will divvy up the money.

“We’re not going to be spending this money on members’ favorite projects that have nothing to do with the crisis. The idea is to focus the resources on helping the people who are in the greatest needs,” House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said at a press conference Thursday with Attorney General Pam Bondi and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Weatherford pledged to work with Bondi, who wrangled with the legislative leaders for months over control of Florida’s $334 million settlement made in March as part of a national agreement between attorneys general and the nation’s five largest banks.

“You’ll be hearing from us,” Bondi, standing beside Weatherford, promised.

A legislative committee last week finalized Bondi’s request for $60 million of the settlement. More than half of the money will go to first-time homebuyers for down no-interest payment assistance. The rest is earmarked for housing counseling, legal aid and the courts to help a backlog of foreclosure cases.

Bondi and lawmakers struck a deal in November that handed her control of the $60 million and put the legislature in charge of the bulk of the funds – $200 million – to be spent on “housing-related programs.” They won’t finalize their spending plan until the end of the legislative session in May, more than a year after the settlement was reached.

Bondi, praised by both legislative leaders for her office’s work in reaching the settlement with the banks, said she’d like to see the money spent on:
_ Foreclosure prevention;
_ Neighborhood revitalization;
_ Affordable housing;
_ Home buyer or renter assistance;
_ Additional legal assistance;
_ Counseling.

Flanked by Bondi, Weatherford told reporters on Thursday that the money will not be used to replace funding already spent on housing-related items.

“There’s no intention to do a bait-and-switch on this,” Weatherford said, adding that the leaders and Bondi had developed a trust “to use these funds to help the people who were actually harmed.”

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.

Florida Trend cover curse? Petrey on way out at Collins Center

Friday, August 5th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Sports Illustrated has its famous cover curse — where sports figures featured on the front seem to tank the next season.

But Florida Trend? The public policy and feature mag never seemed to be a place to fear, until current “Floridian of the Year” Rod Petrey ran afoul of the board of trustees at the esteemed Collins Center for Public Policy.

The board is scheduled to meet next Thursday, with Petrey, the president who was hand-selected for the job by late Gov. Leroy Collins, expected to be shown the door.

The center’s finances are at the heart of Petrey’s problems. Petrey has run the center since 1992, but its venture into administering a foreclosure mediation program seems to have undermined Collins’ finances, with those close to the situation saying upfront costs have sparked a serious cashflow problem that became evident to the board last month at a retreat.

In Palm Beach County, the Bar Association runs the mediation program, ordered to be conducted in all 20 court districts by the Florida Supreme Court in 2009. The Miami-Dade circuit recently dropped its association with Collins, heightening the money woes facing the think tank.

Merrett Stierheim, a former Miami-Dade County manager, is being positioned to replace Petrey on a temporary basis. But Petrey so far has indicated he is not willing to go, perhaps forcing an ugly ouster at Thursday’s meeting.

Petrey was named ‘Floridian of the Year’ in January by Florida Trend, earning a place on the cover and a generally laudatory story about his long relationship with the late governor, and the groundbreaking work done at the Collins Center, which includes working to develop low-income communities around Lake Okeechobee, a study on the potential effects of offshore oil-drilling in Florida, the costs of prison construction and elections reform in Florida.

Under Petrey, the Collins Center called itself the ‘think tank with muddy boots.”

“He has done a fabulous job in the past for the Collins Center,” said Parker Thompson, a Miami lawyer and Collins’ board of trustee chairman. “But I don’t predict the future.”

UPDATE: Petrey agreed Friday to step down from the Collins Center immediately; Stierheim to succeed him for now.

Soto keeps heat on Bondi over firings

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

State Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat,  kept the heat on Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi on Wednesday over her firing of a couple of high-ranking investigators probing foreclosure practices by banks and law firms.

Soto, joined by state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, asked the U.S. Justice Department to look into the May dismissals of June Clarkson and Theresa Edwards.  Bondi on Tuesday said she was confident the actions were warranted, but acknowledged she was asking an “outside inspector general” to examine the case to see if any missteps were made.

Soto, who sought documents last week related to the dismissals, said that was a good move by the first-year attorney general. But it didn’t go far enough, Soto and Sobel said.

“Public records indicate that these terminations occurred while Ms. Edwards and Ms. Clarkson were in the midst of successful mortgage fraud litigation and in spite of prior successful reviews,” Soto and Sobel wrote in their letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

 ”As legislators representing areas ravaged by foreclosure fraud and in the interest of our constituents, we believe these terminations present an overwhelming public concern.”

The Democrats also asked Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to push for a probe of Bondi’s actions by ”an  investigatory agency not directly associated with the State of Florida in an effort to get the most neutral review.”

Chief Justice orders judges to open foreclosure proceedings

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Chief Justice Charles Canady ordered judges throughout the state to open up foreclosure proceedings, responding to requests from civil rights lawyers, the media and First Amendment advocates.

Florida law already requires that the foreclosure cases be open, but judges and court officials have barred the public from attending them in part because the onslaught of foreclosures has forced some judges to hear the cases in their chambers.

“I recognize that the challenge you face in assuring that these cases are resolved properly is unprecedented,” Canady wrote in his letter to chief judges throughout the state.

Florida lawmakers gave the courts extra money this year to help manage the foreclosure filings, which have skyrocketed in the past two years. Florida has the fourth highest number of foreclosures in the nation.

Special foreclosure courts would cost about $10 million but save time

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Foreclosures could be sped up if lawmakers give the court system about $9.8 million in an era when they’re looking to cut criminal and civil justice spending by up to $500 million this year.

Judge Belvin Perry of the Ninth Judicial Circuit and chairman of the state court system trial court budget committee, told a Senate committee this morning that the courts could set up an “economic default recovery” division staffed by senior judges and hourly workers to serve as case managers until the backlog of foreclosures now clogging the judicial branch is managed.

The new division could be broken up into three tracts for homesteaded, abandoned or commercial properties.

The $9.8 million for the new division would come from the court’s trust fund made up of court filing fees.

Lawmakers increased the foreclosure filing fees last year and they went from $295 to up to $1,900, depending on the value of the mortgage.

“This is a way to take the money that they’ve paid in filing fees to give them the services that they paid for.
About 80 percent of our trust fund is generated by the filing fees in mortgage foreclosures and they’ve gotten absolutely no additional services as a result in the increase in fees,” Perry said.

Perry said that a proposal floating in the legislature that would allow mortgage lenders or banks to foreclose on properties without going through the courts probably won’t have any impact on the cases clogging the courts now.

That’s because current mortgages – more than 500,000 in the foreclosure pipeline already – are based upon contract law and must be dealt with in the courts.

Mortgages would have to be written as trusts for foreclosures to avoid being processed by the courts, he said.

“I think it would be difficult to do,” Perry said.

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