Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Winston Smith Lives!

Three years ago I wrote a post on the importance of a tamper-resistant system for government documents, and another a year ago. Governments cannot resist the temptation to re-write history to their advantage, and every so often they get caught, which is an excuse for me to repeat the message. Below the fold, this year's version of the message.

This time, Dan Froomkin tweets two URLs: one for a speech Attorney General Holder gave last October touting the governments Distressed Homeowner Initiative which currently reads:
Over the past 12 months, it has enabled the Justice Department and its partners to file federal criminal charges against 107 defendants for allegedly victimizing more than 17,185 American homeowners – and inflicting losses in excess of $95 million.  On the civil side, as part of this Initiative, Mortgage Fraud Working Group Members have filed federal civil cases against 128defendants for losses totaling at least $54 million, and involving more than 19,000 victims.
and the other for a copy the Internet Archive collected last April which reads:
Over the past 12 months, it has enabled the Justice Department and its partners to file 285 federal criminal indictments and informations against 530 defendants for allegedly victimizing more than 73,000 American homeowners – and inflicting losses in excess of $1 billion.   On the civil side, as part of this Initiative, we have filed 110 federal civil cases against over 150 defendants for losses totaling at least $37 million, and involving more than 15,000 victims.
Why would the government want to re-write this speech? Why downplay the damage by a factor of 10 and the number of homeowners by more than 4? What is the significance of $95M? David Dayen, who has been all over the fraudulent behavior of the banks in the mortgage crisis, and the pathetic inadequacy of the government's response, has the details:
Szymoniak stated in her lawsuit that, “Defendants used fraudulent mortgage assignments to conceal that over 1400 MBS trusts, each with mortgages valued at over $1 billion, are missing critical documents,” meaning that at least $1.4 trillion in mortgage-backed securities are, in fact, non-mortgage-backed securities.
Where did the $95M number come from?
Despite Szymoniak seeking a trial by jury, the government intervened in the case, and settled part of it at the beginning of 2012, extracting $95 million from the five biggest banks in the suit (Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citi and GMAC/Ally Bank). Szymoniak herself was awarded $18 million.
As Dayen says:
... the $95 million settlement was a pittance compared to the enormity of the crime. By the end of 2009, private mortgage-backed securities trusts held one-third of all residential mortgages in the U.S. That means that tens of millions of home mortgages worth trillions of dollars have no legitimate underlying owner that can establish the right to foreclose. This hasn’t stopped banks from foreclosing anyway with false documents, and they are often successful, a testament to the breakdown of law in the judicial system. But to this day, the resulting chaos in disentangling ownership harms homeowners trying to sell these properties, as well as those trying to purchase them. And it renders some properties impossible to sell.
 As usual, the re-writing was caught because there was at least one copy, this time in the Wayback Machine, outside the government's control. In the good old days of the paper Federal Depository Library Program, there were copies of government documents in libraries all across the nation. That's the model the LOCKSS program is trying to re-create with the "USDocs" Private LOCKSS Network. Only by having multiple copies under separate administration can we recover from, as opposed to merely detect, tampering with the historical record.

PS: posting will be intermittent for a while. The CLOCKSS archive is undergoing a Trusted Repository Audit & Certification (TRAC) audit by CRL, and I have been assigned to edit (and write a good deal of) the documentation that will be the basis for it.

1 comment:

David. said...

Matt Taibbi expands on the back-story and reports that the following disclaimer now appears at the head of the page:

This announcement was updated on August 9, 2013.
The initial version of these remarks inadvertently contained inaccurate numbers stating that the Distressed Homeowner Initiative netted 530 criminal defendants in cases involving more than 73,000 victims and losses of more than $1 billion, in FY 2012.
An extensive review of the reported cases concluded that the original figures included in the Distressed Homeowner Initiative included not only criminal defendants who had been charged in Fiscal Year 2012, as reported, but also a number of defendants who were the subject of other prosecutive actions – such as a conviction or sentence – in Fiscal Year 2012. In addition, the announcement included a number of defendants who were charged in mortgage fraud cases in which the victim(s) did not fit the narrow definition of distressed homeowner that the initiative targeted. While all of the cases originally reported were part of our collective efforts to ensure stability and fairness in our financial and housing markets, the remarks below reflect the accurate, up-to-date data regarding the Distressed Homeowner Initiative.

Getting caught is the best deterrent against attempts to rewrite history.