Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard
(Photo by Carl Juste/Miami Herald)

How watchdog reporting is supposed to work

SHOWCASE | December 08, 2010

Toluse Olorunnipa, a Miami Herald reporter, gets a phone call from a distraught woman, tries to be of a little help, and in the process digs deep into the nightmare story of home foreclosures in Florida, exposing fraud on multiple levels and a court system that is hopelessly overwhelmed.

By Toluse Olorunnipa

Imogene Hall, the tragic figure featured in a Miami Herald article titled “Hellish refinancing nears bleak conclusion” called me on a Friday in tears, attempting to explain her foreclosure nightmare in a heavy Jamaican accent.

When she called, I figured the least I could do was look up her case file online, and tell her exactly what her options were – probably move out now or move out later – based on what stage in the foreclosure process she had reached.

So I hung up the phone and went online to look up her court records on the county clerk’s website. As I clicked through the court records documenting Hall’s foreclosure proceedings, I started to see some irregularities. The title of her house had been quit-claimed to a man named Kervyn Harris in 2006, and then transferred back to her name a couple months later. All of the foreclosure actions listed Harris as the main defendant, and Hall as a co-defendant. Who was Kervyn Harris?

I did a quick Google search of Harris, and came across a 2007 article that mentioned Harris in passing, describing him as a “straw buyer” used by a notorious mortgage fraud ring that had allegedly wreaked havoc on South Florida homeowners during the housing boom.

Internet searches revealed that other names on the quit-claim deed also had questionable pasts as well. The man who signed the deed and the woman who notarized it had together run an unlicensed title company that allegedly stole more than $1.5 million from home buyers during closing procedures during Florida’s housing boom. Another man who cashed in on Hall’s refinance had been charged by the attorney general for defrauding banks with fake home equity lines of credit.

I continued to search each name associated with Hall’s court documents, finding a cast of suspicious characters led by convicted mortgage fraud ringleader Johnson Cuffy.

The next week, I headed to Hall’s house to get the full story of how she became involved with such a scandalous crew of individuals.

Hall told me Cuffy showed up on her door unannounced in 2005, just as she had been struggling to pay her bills because she couldn’t find work as a home health aide. He told her his company, BlueKap Financial, could help her refinance her home and get $50,000 out of the equity she had built over 10 years.

So began her troubles, documented in detail in the Miami Herald.

Hall’s story – which also features misconduct by defense lawyers and neglect by Miami-Dade County foreclosure court judges  -- stood out to me because it tells the stories of so many different Floridians. It’s the nightmare of American homeownership in one of the darkest forms imaginable, a perfect storm of bad news centered on a single immigrant woman.

Despite all the evidence of fraud I uncovered with a few internet searches and a trip to the county courthouse, a semi-retired judge on the county’s so-called “rocket docket” allowed the bank to foreclose on Hall, shutting out her defenses in a quick hearing.

With a ballooning backlog of more than 100,000 lingering foreclosure cases, South Florida’s courthouses have become hopelessly overwhelmed, and judges are tasked with clearing out 200 court cases per day.

As a result, evidence of fraud and other irregularities are routinely pushed aside or looked over for the sake of expediency. That’s perhaps the saddest part of Hall’s story – the inability of the judicial system to protect her.

Hall’s story has received more response than any other piece I’ve written during my short stint on the Miami Herald’s real estate beat.

Readers from all over the country have chimed in with their thoughts, and many have offered to help Hall with legal aid, financial contributions and words of support. Members of the local government – including Hall’s state representative – took interest in Hall’s case. One man even offered to feature Hall’s story in a movie.

However, as of this writing, Hall remains very much in danger of losing her home and being put out on the street. Her lender, which already received a foreclosure judgment, has not responded to the article, and her house is set to be sold at auction in December.

I hope to do a follow-up on this article, when all is said and done, and narrate the final chapter of Hall’s housing malaise, which increasingly looks like it will end sadly, with a family of seven kicked out of their home.


Foreclosure and Mortgage Frauds
Posted by Barbara Ann Jackson
12/09/2010, 09:02 PM

Request for Congressional Foreclosure Panel to Examine Foreclosure Lawyers
http://www.change.org/petitions/view/request_for_c ...
"Although increasing numbers of courts are continuing to reject improper and fraudulent foreclosures, the Congressional Foreclosure Panel examination of mortgage services and foreclosure practices did not include foreclosure lawyers.
Lawyers are officers of the court; knowledge of applicable laws and civil procedure is not required from mortgage lenders, nor loan servicers. In states that require judicial foreclosures, lawyers are the ones who file lawsuits to seize and sell property; and lawyers are responsible for filing and recording foreclosure property deeds.
An investigation could prove helpful to sorting out whether improper and illegal foreclosure proceedings are linked to any self-dealing conduct disadvantaging lenders, investors, homeowners, and city governments.
Inadequate or questionable foreclosure can lead to useless property deeds that impede real estate sales. Increasing numbers of title insurance companies are refusing to cover foreclosed properties; and certain mortgage default claims, are being denied because of defective foreclosure proceedings.
http://www.change.org/petitions/view/request_for_c ...

Posted by Barbara Ann Jackson
12/15/2010, 03:52 PM

URGENT need for Lawmakers to take action! Scores of HOMEOWNERS DO NOT CONTEST FORECLOSURES BECAUSE:
1. They don't have knowledge of the law in order to recognize which aspects of foreclosure are legally challengeable or even fraudulent.
2. And even those who identify wrongdoing lack funds to pay for attorneys to represent them.
3. Homeowners are told to come to foreclosure auctions with $$$$$$$ that they do not have, SO THEY STAY AWAY from foreclosure auctions.

These homeowners are oblivious about sometimes "straw buyers" and sometimes lawyers in charge of foreclosures, obtains ILLEGAL ownership of people's homes; and pay literally nothing through "credit bids;" and that those recorded deeds from such auctions are null! For these very reasons, there needs to be a probe of lawyers who file foreclosures. http://chn.ge/eU2zAm ...

Also, the average lay person doesn't know about legal REQUIREMENTS of "standing" that prevents their homes from being repossessed via non-existent lenders or via lenders which have no ownership of promissory notes.

Yet, COURTS ARE SUPPOSED TO ENFORCE STANDING and compliance with established laws! Illegal, defective, fraudulent foreclosures are the cause of useless property deeds for real estate sales; title insurance companies refuse coverage on foreclosed properties –and more!

Further, after certain foreclosure auctions (via simulation) result in fraudulent – NOT LENDER ACQUISITIONS, by lawyers or straw buyers, the common scenario becomes property flipping, neighborhood blight, rodents, and so on!

*MORE info: Request for Congressional Foreclosure Panel to Examine Foreclosure Lawyers
http://www.change.org/petitions/view/request_for_c ...

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.