Commentary: A slim hope for justice in the housing crisis

Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Dan Morain of the Sacramento Bee. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)

Before they proceed with their latest housing crisis task force, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman ought to sit down with Jose Rodriguez.

That would require that Holder and Schneiderman leave Washington and New York, and spend time in the unglamorous city of Stockton, which competes with Las Vegas for having the highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

"Never," Rodriguez answered when I asked if he had ever seen anything like it. For 16 years, Rodriguez has led El Concilio, a nonprofit in downtown Stockton, which counsels families facing crises including foreclosure. "I have never seen so many people without hope, without an expectation that things will get better."

Rodriguez watched last Tuesday as President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address in which he announced that he had directed Holder to create "a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis."

On Wednesday, the White House said Schneiderman would represent states on the task force.

The housing crisis began in 2007. It careened out of control in 2008. The president took office in 2009. More than 3 million homes have been repossessed since 2007; the number could double by next year, according to RealtyTrac Inc.

The president did create a task force in 2009, the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Top officials including Holder issued press releases about it. They held press conferences in Nevada, Fresno and Los Angeles. They promised justice.

The other day, Reuters news service reported that before becoming attorney general, Holder was a partner at the blue chip law firm Covington & Burling, which represents a variety of industries including banking in its law practice and its Washington lobbying operation.

Covington's Washington lobbyists represent the American Banking Association, among others, and have billed lobby clients $28.5 million since the start of the Obama administration in 2009, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics discloses.

"Our (lobby) practice is politically balanced and enjoys respect in the House and Senate and in both political parties," the firm says on its website. "Capitol Hill policymakers frequently turn to us for help based on our expertise and professionalism."

On behalf of the American Bankers Association, Covington lobbyists helped shape the federal Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 legislation that seeks to regulate financial institutions, the firm boasts.

There's no evidence that Covington asked anything of Holder. Partners at the firm wouldn't be that stupid, and Holder probably wouldn't listen. But they don't need a discussion. That's how the Washington-Wall Street connection works.

Speaking of the Wall Street-Washington connection, Schneiderman's appointment came as the Obama administration pressures states to join a nationwide settlement of the so-called robo-signing scandal in which mortgage servicers signed mortgage documents without reading them or verifying their accuracy.

Schneiderman had walked away from the talks last year, contending that other states were giving up too much. Now, that he's inside the Justice Department's tent, my guess is that he will be OK with the deal.

On behalf of the Obama administration, Shaun Donovan, head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, convened a meeting in Chicago on Monday of state attorneys general and their representatives to sell the deal.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris didn't attend, though she sent a representative. She, too, broke away from the robo-signing negotiations and faces pressure to rejoin. Unlike Holder or Schneiderman, however, she drove to Stockton last week to meet Rodriguez.

He introduced her to a husband and wife in their 40s who are losing their home after his construction work dried up. Another couple took a mortgage that was beyond their means based on a promise that they could refinance. A third couple in their 60s could no longer work and lost their home when they couldn't get their mortgage payments modified.

"The reality," he said, "is that for some of these folks, it is not going to get better. The number of people we see crying, I have never seen anything like this."

In his speech, the president declared that the new unit will "hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners." But years have passed since the crisis began. Evidence needed to gain convictions will be more difficult to obtain than it would have been in 2009.

We are in 2012. Obama's Justice Department hasn't brought any criminal cases against major banks or Wall Street executives related to the housing crisis. In Stockton, people will continue to come to El Concilio looking for help. Rodriguez will do what he can. But he shouldn't hold out much hope for justice.

To read more, visit www.sacbee.com.

Related stories from McClatchy DC