In California, Homeowners at Risk Struggle to Find Lawyers -

Homes at Risk, and No Help From Lawyers
In California, where foreclosures are more abundant than in any other state, homeowners trying to win a loan modification have always had a tough time.

Now they face yet another obstacle: hiring a lawyer.

Sharon Bell, a retiree who lives in Laguna Niguel, southeast of Los Angeles, needs a modification to keep her home. She says she is scared of her bank and its plentiful resources, so much so that she cannot even open its certified letters inquiring where her mortgage payments may be. Yet the half-dozen lawyers she has called have refused to represent her.

“They said they couldn’t help,” said Ms. Bell, 63. “But I’ve got to find help, because I’m dying every day.”

Lawyers throughout California say they have no choice but to reject clients like Ms. Bell because of a new state law that sharply restricts how they can be paid. Under the measure, passed overwhelmingly by the State Legislature and backed by the state bar association, lawyers who work on loan modifications cannot receive any money until the work is complete. The bar association says that under the law, clients cannot put retainers in trust accounts.

The law, which has few parallels in other states, was devised to eliminate swindles in which modification firms made promises about what their lawyers could do, charged hefty fees and then disappeared. But foreclosure specialists say there has been an unintended consequence: the honest lawyers can no longer afford to assist Ms. Bell and all the others who feel helpless before lenders that they see as elusive, unyielding and skilled at losing paperwork.

The revelations three months ago that large banks were sloppy and negligent in preparing foreclosure documents underscore just how important it is for distressed homeowners to have representation, lawyers and consumer advocates say. Homeowners whose cases were handled improperly have little way of knowing it. Even if they found out, they would be hard-pressed to challenge a lender without a lawyer.

“Consumers just don’t know what is going on,” said Walter Hackett, a former banker who is now a lawyer for a nonprofit service in Riverside. “They get a piece of paper saying they are going to lose their homes and they freak out.”

The problem for lawyers is that even a simple modification, in which the loan is restructured so the borrower can afford the monthly payments, is a marathon, putting off their payday for months if not years. If the bank refuses to come to terms, the client may file for bankruptcy. Then the lawyer will never be paid.

Alice M. Graham, a lawyer in Marina del Rey, said a homeowner in default recently tried to hire her. When Ms. Graham declined, the despairing owner begged her in vain to accept payments under the table.

“The banks have all the lawyers they want, and the consumers are helpless,” Ms. Graham said.

In some states, including New York and Florida, foreclosure proceedings are overseen by courts. In California, the process is more of a private matter between the bank and the homeowner. Through Sept. 30, lenders filed notices of default on 229,843 homes in California this year, according to the research firm MDA DataQuick.

The length of time California households spend in foreclosure, which was rising as owners pursued modifications, fell in the third quarter to 8.7 months, from 9.1 months in the second quarter. That could indicate that the absence of defense lawyers is beginning to accelerate the process.

While lawyers for nonprofits like Mr. Hackett continue to represent clients, they are too overwhelmed to help everyone. “A homeowner in California is going to have an extraordinarily difficult time finding an attorney,” he said.

That group includes Ms. Bell, who owned two properties free and clear and then gave in to a friend’s urging to “put your money to work.” That friend was an agent, and soon Ms. Bell owned two more properties and was making unsecured loans.

The loans went bad, the investments went bust, and Ms. Bell is trying to salvage her home. She wants an advocate but is reluctant to respond to any of the solicitations that fill her mailbox. “I know better,” she said.

Many people did not. Defaulting owners saw television commercials or heard radio ads where a lawyer promised relief. They handed over a few thousand dollars and heard no more.

Two years ago, the state bar association had seven complaints of misconduct in loan modifications. By March 2009, there were more than 100 complaints, and a task force was formed to deal with the problem. Soon, there were thousands of complaints.

It was a public relations disaster. The president of the bar association wrote in a column last year that “hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of California lawyers” were victimizing people “at the most vulnerable point in their lives.”

Politicians heard complaints, too. Ron Calderon, a state senator who represents several communities east of Los Angeles, sponsored a bill that prohibits advance payments for modifications and required lawyers to warn clients that they could do the job themselves without professional assistance. Lenders were supportive of the bill, Senator Calderon said.

It passed 36 to 4 in September 2009. The maximum punishment is a $10,000 fine and a year in jail.

The law is working well, Senator Calderon said. “You do not need a lawyer,” he said.

Mark Stone, a 56-year-old general contractor in Sierra Madre, feels differently. A few years ago, he got sick with hepatitis C. Unable to work full time, he began to miss mortgage payments. The drugs he was taking left him “a little confused,” he said.

Mr. Stone knew that his condition put him at a disadvantage in negotiations with his bank. So he hired Gregory Royston, a real estate lawyer in Redondo Beach. It took Mr. Royston nearly a year, but he restructured the loan.

Without the lawyer, Mr. Stone said, “I’d be living under a bridge.”

The legal bill, paid in advance, was $3,500. “Worth every penny,” said Mr. Stone, who is now back at work.

Mr. Royston said winning modifications was never easy and often impossible. “The banks stymie the borrower, and they really stymie any third party who works on behalf of the borrower,” he said.

A spokesman for the Mortgage Bankers Association said it simply wanted to protect homeowners from fraud. “Be very careful about anyone who wants you to pay them to help you get a loan modification,” said the spokesman, John Mechem.

That advice has never been more true. If any honest lawyers still do modifications, they are lost in a sea of swindles. “This law,” Mr. Royston said, “took the wrong people out of the game.”

Suzan Anderson, supervising trial counsel of the California bar’s special team on loan modification, defended the law, saying that in other types of cases, including personal injury and medical malpractice, the lawyers do not get paid until the end. She acknowledged, however, it was “a very problematical situation.”

As for the swindlers singled out by the law, they appear unfazed. The state bar is investigating 2,000 complaints of modification fraud.

“I wish the law had worked,” Ms. Anderson said.

Wells Fargo to Modify Mortgages

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Wells Fargo agreed to modify about 14,900 adjustable-rate loans made by banks it acquired, according to filings released on Monday.

The agreement with the state attorney general will result in more than $2 billion in principal write-downs, interest-rate reductions and other concessions through June 2013, said Franklin Codel, chief financial officer of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.

The deal applies to mortgages marketed as “pick-a-payment” loans by Wachovia and World Savings Bank, a subsidiary of the Golden West Financial Corporation.

Wachovia bought World Savings in 2006, and Wells Fargo bought Wachovia in 2008.

The mortgages were so named because their terms allowed borrowers to make payments at various levels each month, including a payment option that increased the loan’s principal by covering less than the monthly interest owed.
In California, Homeowners at Risk Struggle to Find Lawyers -

California Mortgage Foreclosure Case May Become Class Action Lawsuit: Hearing January 25, 2011 Los Angeles Superior Court


Media Contact:
The Wroan Law Firm, Inc.
Telephone: 310-973-4291

LOS ANGELES, CA (January 5, 2011)

One of the longest running cases involving the lending crises in California has just become more interesting and potentially even more complex.

The case is little known and has not been reported on but is unusual because it was initially filed nearly three years ago in March of 2008 but until recently had been stayed by the court. Now, on January 25th the Los Angeles Superior Court will hear a motion by the Plaintiffs to amend their complaint in order to pursue their case as a class action.

Case No. BC 386920 has all the familiar facts and allegations of other similar cases around the country including forged loan documents, misrepresentations and fraud but is noteworthy because it also includes a dispute over the interpretation of a Master Repurchase Agreement (“MRA”) between two of the defendants Accredited Home Lenders, Inc. and Wachovia Bank, N.A. These so called ‘repurchase agreements’ have recently come under scrutiny with the revelation last month by the New York State Attorney General’s office that it has filed a complaint against the accounting firm Ernst & Young for failing to properly characterize such transactions as loans rather than as ‘purchases or sales’.

In addition, the case is also significant because it calls into question the validity of a foreclosure services agreement (“FSA”) in which legal services were performed and provided by non licensed entities and individuals conducting foreclosures in the states of Washington, Nevada, Virginia and California. The claims of unauthorized practice of law, unfair competition and trade practices are the first of its kind in California but have been raised in other cases most notably In re Thorne v. Prommis Solutions Holding Corporation, Lender Processing Services, Inc., LPS Default Solutions, LLC et al. in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Mississippi Case No. 09-11763-DWH.. In that case the U.S. Department of Justice recently joined in as a plaintiff in November 2010.

For a copy of the proposed complaint see:

For a copy of the Exhibits including the MRA and ‘Foreclosure Services Agreement’ see:

Scandal-hit Calif. city near bankruptcy -

BELL, Calif., Jan. 7 (UPI) -- The small city of Bell, Calif., notorious for its officials' extravagant pay, is going broke, an audit warns.

A review by Los Angeles County, released Thursday, estimates if the city keeps spending at current rates, it will run a $2.2 million deficit by the end of the fiscal year, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The audit called for laying off employees, cutting city salaries, benefits, supplies and services, offering only "core services" and possibly disbanding the police force.

Pedro Carrillo, Bell's interim chief administrative officer, said Thursday he will present the city council with ways to balance the budget.

"All options are on the table," he responded when asked if bankruptcy was a possibility.

The city, one of the county's poorest, was engulfed in scandal last year when the Times revealed its leaders' astronomical salaries.

In September, former city manager Robert Rizzo, Mayor Oscar Hernandez, a former assistant city manager and five council members were arrested and charged with misappropriation of public funds.

Read more:
Scandal-hit Calif. city near bankruptcy -

S.E.C. Said to Be Investigating Calpers on Disclosures -

Federal regulators are investigating whether California violated securities laws and failed to provide adequate disclosure about its giant public pension fund, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation.

The Securities and Exchange Commission normally polices companies, but last year it brought its first enforcement action ever against a state, accusing New Jersey of securities fraud for misleading bond investors about the condition of its pension fund. The commission signaled, in its settlement with New Jersey, that it was going to look more broadly at the pension disclosures of states and cities.

The fund, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, known as Calpers, lost about a quarter of its total investment portfolio during the financial crisis, leaving the state responsible for replacing billions of dollars each year and contributing to its huge deficit. The question is whether California adequately disclosed in the preceding years how risky the pension investments were and how much money it might need to cover any shortfall.

But it is unclear whether investigators are focusing on those risks or on possible conflicts of interest in steering investments to related parties, the subject of a separate investigation by the attorney general of California.

S.E.C. officials declined to confirm an investigation, citing agency rules. But the person with knowledge of the investigation said it was among the agency’s top priorities. A spokeswoman for Calpers, which is America’s largest pension fund with assets of about $220 billion, said it had not been contacted by the S.E.C. about its accounting or about financial disclosures.

“The SEC has an ongoing look at pension funds in California” because of revelations about the use of placement agents who recommended investment managers, said Patricia Macht, a spokeswoman for Calpers.

Along with concerns about the use of placement agents, regulators have grown increasingly concerned about whether states may have hidden financial weaknesses, particularly in their pension portfolios, and whether investors who buy municipal bonds can fully appreciate the risks.

A spokesman for the California state treasurer’s office, which is responsible for disclosures to bondholders, said “we provided all material information about pension fund issues at all times.”

California has not defaulted on any debts and says its bonds are safe. But the state has been grappling with big, structural budget deficits every year, and cannot easily increase revenue because of voter-approved tax caps. The state’s credit has been downgraded as these financial problems have intensified, and the downgrades have in turn lowered its bonds’ value. Had investors been able to clearly see the pension risks, they might have steered clear of California’s debt or demanded a higher yield.

If federal investigators are able to make a case that California misled investors about the risk in its pension fund, it would send a powerful signal to other public funds, which almost without exception base their financial reporting on average annual investment returns of about 8 percent a year, something hard to defend in today’s markets, no matter what the investment mix.

The S.E.C.’s goal is to force public pension funds to be more open, not just about their investments but about how their risk may affect the finances of the state. It is unlikely that the S.E.C. would impose any penalty because that would force taxpayers to pay for wrongs they knew nothing about. In the New Jersey case, the S.E.C. imposed no penalty but publicized the case in hopes it would be a deterrent.

Any accusation of securities fraud could take years because public finance is a new area for the S.E.C. and any case would rely on novel legal theories. It would be a blow to Calpers, which has used its institutional clout for years to promote good corporate governance and truth in accounting. Calpers has recently pushed for boardroom reforms at JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Apple, and BP, among others. And it has sued Moody’s, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s, accusing them of giving “untrue, inaccurate and unjustifiably high” ratings to structured investment vehicles that failed in the mortgage collapse.

Its activism has served as a role model for smaller public pension funds that have also had losses, but might not have been able to challenge corporate governance practices on their own. But now the tables have turned, because S.E.C. investigators hope to use Calpers as an example in a case about of how misleading pension disclosures can amount to securities fraud, according to the person with knowledge of the investigation. Like most public plans, Calpers has maintained that its accounting methods are appropriate and that it is in full compliance.

Calpers has lately been under fire for a big benefit increase in 1999. At that time the fund ran various assumptions on how its investments might do. It discussed them in a public meeting but the state did not put them into its bond prospectus, which was the responsibility of the state treasurer, then Phil Angelides, who also sat on the board of Calpers.

In the years after that, Calpers stepped up its investments in real estate, riding the market up and then crashing when the housing bubble burst. The worst case, created by Calpers’ staff, turned out to be oddly prescient. It said the state might have to come up with $3.95 billion a year in fresh money for the pension fund by the end of 2010. In fact, the state has to contribute $3.88 billion.

Mr. Angelides, now chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, was not available to comment Thursday because the commission was finishing its report.

David Crane, an aide to then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said last year in legislative testimony that he found it “nothing short of astonishing” that Calpers had “promoted the largest nonvoter-approved debt issuance in California history” without revealing the risks or conflicts of interest involved.

“Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like the Calpers sales document, which makes even Goldman Sachs’s alleged nondisclosure look like child’s play,” said Mr. Crane, who testified at a time when the S.E.C. was suing Goldman Sachs over alleged disclosure violations in connection with mortgage-backed securities.

S.E.C. Said to Be Investigating Calpers on Disclosures -

Now That It's Out of Bankruptcy, Pasadena Playhouse to produce musical 'Twist,' directed by Debbie Allen | Culture Monster | Los Angeles Times

As the Pasadena Playhouse continues to work toward full financial recovery, leaders have been gradually announcing new main-stage productions, short of committing to a full season. On Tuesday, the company added another show to its roster -- the new musical, "Twist," based on the Charles Dickens classic, "Oliver Twist." It is set to open June 25.

"Twist" had its world premiere in 2010 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. The musical transposes Dickens' story of an orphan boy who falls in with a gang of pickpockets to New Orleans on the eve of the Great Depression. The score is by songwriters Tena Clark and Gary Prim, and the book is by Tony Award nominee William F. Brown.

Debbie Allen directed and choreographed the Atlanta production and will return for the Pasadena version. The cast for the musical will be announced at a later date.

The musical will begin preview performances on June 14 and is scheduled to run through July 24.

"Twist" has been kicking around regional theaters in various workshop forms since the 1990s, but the musical was reportedly revised for the Atlanta production. A reviewer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution praised the cast and Allen's direction, but wrote that the musical overall "feels overly politicized and unoriginal."

The Pasadena Playhouse shut down its main stage in February due to crushing debt and other financial pressures. The company emerged from bankruptcy in July and said that it has successfully raised $2 million thanks to a matching grant. Since reopening its main stage, the company has mounted productions of the solo show "FDR," starring Ed Asner, and "Uptown Downtown," starring Leslie Uggams.
In February, the Pasadena Playhouse will start performances of the new musical "Dangerous Beauty," which is based on the 1998 movie of the same name.

-- David Ng Pasadena Playhouse to produce musical 'Twist,' directed by Debbie Allen | Culture Monster | Los Angeles Times