By Cheryl Miller
SACRAMENTO – Six plaintiffs, including Attorney General Jerry Brown, will ask a federal panel <http://www.jpml.uscourts.gov/> on Thursday to keep their individual lawsuits against Countrywide Financial Corp. untangled and out of a single federal court.
Lawyers for Brown, the state of Illinois, the city of San Diego and plaintiffs in three private class actions say their claims against the troubled mortgage lender would be better heard in local courts close to regional foreclosure hot spots.
But at least one of the plaintiffs has an additional beef with Countrywide’s request for case consolidation. San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre says he wants to remain legally untied from Brown because the attorney general isn’t pursuing the best sanctions against Countrywide’s new parent company, Bank of America Corp.
Aguirre, backed by several consumer and community groups, is seeking a quick moratorium on Countrywide home foreclosures <http://www.law.com/jsp/ca/PubArticleCA.jsp?id=1202424749425##> as well as a deal that would rework certain subprime loan terms to link borrowers’ payment rates with their net income. The city attorney said entire neighborhoods in San Diego are suffering from blight and plummeting property values because of vacant houses, abandoned by owners who were evicted or simply walked away from bad loans <http://www.law.com/jsp/ca/PubArticleCA.jsp?id=1202424749425##> .
In a separate Cook County lawsuit <http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/pressroom/2008_06/20080625.html>, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is also asking for a 90-day stay on foreclosures as well as restitution.
Brown’s complaint (.pdf) <http://ag.ca.gov/cms_attachments/press pdfs/n1582_draft_cwide_complaint2.pdf> , in contrast, asks a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to slap Countrywide, company Chairman Anthony Mozilo and company President David Sambol with what could be millions of dollars in civil penalties and an order to stop the lender’s high-risk loan practices.
Brown “didn’t actually bring a case to stop the foreclosures and in fact said that he was not seeking foreclosure relief but rather penalties,” Aguirre said. “If we focus on stopping predatory loan foreclosures, that helps to stabilize neighborhoods from falling into the abyss.”
Brown bristled at any suggestion that he isn’t focused on stopping the mortgage meltdown, calling the issue “the biggest thing on my plate right now” and noting that he and Madigan were the first state attorneys general to sue Countrywide in June.
“I was the one pushing for this,” Brown said Monday. “We’re driving this thing.”
The attorney general called the moratorium proposal an empty “buzzword” and said that ongoing negotiations between his office and Bank of America will soon produce “real reforms” that will help Californians at risk of losing their homes. By comparison, Aguirre and other critics are merely grandstanding, he said. “We’re lawyers, we’re not circus performers,” Brown said angrily.
As Brown’s deputies and other lawyers prepare for Thursday’s hearing in front of the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Massachusetts, federal leaders on Tuesday continued to negotiate a massive bailout of institutions saddled with bad-mortgage debt. As of Tuesday afternoon the panel hearing was still expected to take place as scheduled (.pdf) <http://www.jpml.uscourts.gov/Hearing_Info/HearingOrder9-25-08.pdf> .
Robert Gnaizda, general counsel of the Greenlining Institute <https://greenlining.org/> , a Berkeley-based lobby for low-income and minority communities, said Brown’s stature and legal position has enticed Bank of America to negotiate with him only and not with Aguirre or other groups that want more sweeping concessions.
“He thinks that it’s better to wait three or four years to try the case because there will be more evidence,” said Gnaizda, who once worked in Brown’s gubernatorial administration. “But there’s no benefit to the borrowers if you wait three or four years.”
Although Brown was among the first state officials to sue Countrywide – an anomaly for an attorney general who, with the exception of climate change litigation, has often taken a wait-and-see approach to plaintiff’s work – Gnaizda said he and other consumer activists had been pressuring him for months to take action more quickly.
Gnaizda provided copies of letters from the Greenlining Institute sent to Brown as early as May 2007, pleading with the attorney general to address the growing number of foreclosures in various low-income neighborhoods. The letters, he said, culminated in a December 2007 meeting between Brown and more than a dozen leaders from large churches and minority business groups.
Gnaizda said Brown listened politely to the leaders’ concerns and then “said the problem that really concerns me is global warming.” Brown continued to talk on the topic for approximately 40 minutes, Gnaizda said, and then the meeting ended.
“People left there scratching their heads,” he said.
Faith Bautista, the executive director of Mabuhay Alliance of San Diego, a Filipino-American nonprofit, said she, too, attended the meeting and corroborated Gnaizda’s version of events.
“When something was mentioned about global warming it was like suddenly [Brown] was awake,” Bautista said. “I didn’t feel like he had any concern about what we were saying.”
Brown disputed their accounts of the event – “We talked about the mortgage problem, period.” – and said Gnaizda is bitter because he hasn’t been able to secure additional meetings with the attorney general. Brown said he doesn’t need to talk to Gnaizda anymore because he’s taking action.
“I’m doing what I think is in the best interest of the people of California,” Brown said.