Florida has been ground zero for foreclosure fraud, but even with multibillion-dollar settlements and federal consent orders, the state's financial services industry may face new scrutiny from a community activist who's taken a critical look at the industry and its practices.
Lisa Epstein, who's running for clerk of court in Palm Beach County, was once an oncology nurse. For most of her career she saw her patients strike deals with their banks when they ran into debt problems, particularly with mortgage payments, once they became ill.
But when the housing crisis struck and foreclosures mounted, that changed. Banks and mortgage servicers overloaded with delinquent loans struggled with the paperwork and the complexity of linking struggling borrowers with decision-makers. To speed up the foreclosure process, reams of documentation was mishandled, signed improperly and filed at county courthouses.
In 2007, Epstein noticed her patients were no longer being helped. They were being rushed through the foreclosure system.
"That was my first hint that there was something very different," Epstein said during a HousingWire interview.
So began her advocacy work in Florida fighting against banks and third-party firms handling the foreclosure process. In June, she was placed on the ballot for clerk of court of Palm Beach County, the third largest clerk office in the state.
If elected in August, she will be in charge of many things, including managing an overloaded docket, acting as treasurer and chief financial officer of the county's funds, and most importantly, serving as the keeper of public record.
Her major focus will be on what she claims is a broken system, surrounding the cloudy chain of title flaws filed with the counties to this day. If state funding allows, she said she will perform wide-scale audits of the entire county database and develop reforms — even if that means shutting down the process entirely.
"I don't know if it is fixable," Epstein said. "But these are not truly legal instruments that convey proper property ownership. Conducting any sort of real estate transaction or sorting who really owns the loans in many cases will become an enormous legal burden because of the morass of documentation fraud."
The Florida system remains a nightmare after the collapse of the Law Offices of David J. Stern in March 2011. Several other firms came under investigation and some settled claims before being shut down. The $25 billion foreclosure settlement involving 49 states (Oklahoma didn't participate) includes language that will hold servicers accountable for any third-party firms that handle any aspect of a foreclosure filing.
Consent orders with the Office of the Comptroller and the Federal Reserve will also force servicers to monitor these firms, specifically Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems and Lender Processing Services (LPS).
New foreclosure filings in Palm Beach County increased in May by 3.6% from the previous month as servicers are looking to restart the process. The 1,356 new filings was 61% above levels seen in the year-ago period.
Both Epstein and incumbent Sharon Bock, who's held the office since 2003 and is running for re-election, are concerned with keeping up because of pending budget cuts.
"We expect that our foreclosure division is one that will be heavily affected by these budget cuts," Bock said in a statement accompanying the numbers last week. "My fear is if the trend of increased filings continues as it has in recent months, we will not have the ability to keep up with the volume. We will do our best, but it will be a challenge."
Mortgage servicers have stated they've ended past robo-signing practices and are installing new policies to reduce risk in the system. Few, if any, borrowers, they claim, were foreclosed on improperly because of past flawed practices.
But the financial industry is watching this election closely. Should Epstein prevail, her appetite for audits and new investigations could wipe out any restart to an already backlogged foreclosure process.
Some county record keepers in other states already launched investigations of their own, some founded on faulty claims, but some may have real consequences. A report in one Massachusetts county claimed 75% of mortgage assignments were invalid. Another in San Francisco attempted to show similar results through an audit but shrivels under scrutiny through California case law.
The treasurer for the clerk of courts in two Michigan counties filed lawsuits against Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to get fees levied during the recording of foreclosure property transfers. The GSEs used a government tax status to escape the fees, an exemption now being challenged.
Epstein said she would be on board with taking all of these actions and suggested the federal government go even further with a wide-scale probe. For this, Epstein is running into a lot of pushback. Her race against Bock has become one of the most heated in the local Florida elections.
"We have to solve a fraudulent process that is hurting our property value taxes, hurting our ability to do a short sale, hurting our ability to work with lenders," she said. "It's hurting the faith that there would be some protection. It's damaging our court systems and yet our court systems are allowing this go on and on."