Nevada AG is latest to balk at foreclosure deal

Concerns raised over protections for lenders

By David McLaughlin
Bloomberg News / August 17, 2011

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NEW YORK - A possible settlement of a 50-state probe of foreclosure practices drew more state scrutiny as Nevada’s attorney general joined three other states in voicing concern about a deal that protects banks from continuing mortgage investigations.

Catherine Cortez Masto, whose office sued Bank of America and is conducting civil and criminal foreclosure investigations, said she will be “very cautious’’ about agreeing to a settlement that hinders those inquiries.

“If it’s impacting my ongoing litigation and any other future litigation or current investigation, I’m going to be cautious about whether to sign on or not,’’ the Nevada attorney general said by phone Monday.

State and federal officials are negotiating a settlement with the five largest mortgage servicers, including Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., and JPMorgan Chase in New York, over their servicing and foreclosure practices.

A person familiar with the matter said last month that banks want liability releases that cover other areas of their mortgage operations besides servicing, including the bundling of loans into securities.

Dan Frahm, a spokesman for Bank of America, said the bank shares Masto’s goal of helping homeowners.

“Bank of America has been a cooperative partner with the attorney general, and has worked with state leaders to evolve programs and resources to broaden assistance to distressed customers,’’ he said in a statement.

Tom Kelly, a JPMorgan spokesman, declined to comment.

Masto joined New York, Delaware, and Massachusetts in resisting broad releases for the banks in any settlement. Those states are conducting their own investigations into mortgage practices of banks.

Attorney General Martha Coakley of Massachusetts said in a letter last month that she will not sign on to an agreement if it includes “a comprehensive liability release’’ for mortgage securitization or conduct related to a mortgage database called MERS.

State attorneys general and federal agencies, including the Justice Department, have not reached an agreement with the banks about the releases, said Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for Attorney General Tom Miller of Iowa, who is leading negotiations for the states in the nationwide probe. Greenwood declined to comment about how individual state investigations may be affected.

“We’re working with state attorney generals, our federal partners, and the banks on resolving the liability issue,’’ he said.

Masto said her office is conducting inquiries into various areas of mortgage fraud. She declined to provide details or say which companies are under investigation. The office has a civil investigation into mortgage securitization, she said.

In its lawsuit against Bank of America, the state accused the bank of misleading homeowners about modifying their mortgage loans to reduce their payments. The case was filed in December in state court in Las Vegas and moved to federal court in Reno.

Nevada claimed that the bank violated the state’s deceptive trade practices act by misleading consumers with false assurances that their homes would not be foreclosed on while requests for modifications were pending, inaccurate and deceptive reasons for denying modifications, and false promises that modifications would be made permanent if homeowners successfully completed trial modification periods.

Masto said she wants to continue to investigate her claims and pursue the lawsuit.

“At the end of the day, whether we’ll be part of it or not will be based on what’s in the best interests of the people here in Nevada,’’ she said about a nationwide settlement over foreclosure practices.

Like Masto, Eric Schneiderman, New York attorney general, and Beau Biden, Delaware attorney general, are investigating mortgage securitization. Biden said in an interview last month that he has strong reservations about a deal that provides releases beyond servicing because servicing is the focus of the nationwide settlement talks.

“I hesitate to release those claims and those potential liabilities mostly because we’re still in the midst of investigating many of the other related issues,’’ he said.