The power of ordinary Americans

I admire CREDO and its members for their desire for accountability against entrenched power. Your work serves as a great example of making manifest the American values of fair play and success through hard work. You have fought tirelessly for justice for those who invade our privacy or nearly bankrupt our economy. And you have had triumphs, however small, in building the movement to ensure that everyone in this country, no matter how rich or poor, is treated fairly and honestly. I want to tell you a story about three people who share those values.

In my book Chain of Title, I profile three Americans who played a significant role in uncovering the largest consumer fraud in American history. They didn’t work in government or law enforcement. They were not experts in real estate law or high finance. They had no history of anti-corporate activism or community organizing. They had no resources or institutional knowledge. They were a cancer nurse, a car salesman, and an insurance fraud specialist, and they were all foreclosure victims. While struggling with the shame and dislocation and financial stress that foreclosure causes, they did something extraordinary: they read their mortgage documents. And what they found was a scheme hidden in plain view, in millions of pieces of paper distributed to courts and county offices all over the country.

The financial industry regularly generated phony foreclosure documents because of their lust for profits during the housing bubble. As a by-product of melting down the credit markets and triggering a once-in-a-century recession, they fundamentally ruptured a centuries-old system of U.S. property law. The document hustle represented a cover-up of the original crime: the industry could no longer prove the true ownership of millions of mortgages.

Lisa Epstein, Michael Redman and Lynn Szymoniak exposed foreclosure fraud, and were instrumental in forcing the nation’s leading mortgage companies to stop repossessing homes. But then they witnessed the government’s unwillingness to deliver real consequences, out of a greater concern for bank balance sheets than homeowners’ fortunes.

People should know that determined people, far from the corridors of power, tried to write an alternative history of the financial crisis, one where the perpetrators of fraud face justice for their crimes. It shouldn’t fall down the memory hole, amid objections from those in power that there just weren’t any good cases to prosecute bankers, or that juries just wouldn’t understand the complexities. The larger truth is that, in our current system, who you are matters more than what you did. And we can only change that inequity through knowing that alternatives exist.

I believe Chain of Title reflects the spirit of organizations like CREDO, who brave incredible odds to raise their collective voice to hold the powerful accountable. I hope you’ll consider getting to know Lisa, Michael and Lynn, and how they did the same for all of us in those dark days of the Great Recession.