"We didn't start the fire/No we didn't light it/But we tried to fight it" Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start The Fire"
NEW YORK (MainStreet) I've been a whistleblower for nearly three years now I've learned a lot in the process. When I first blew the whistle on Bank of America back in 2011, I had a lot of anxiety about what would happen. Like most people, I had no experience with the news at that point, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Knowing that the entire financial sector of the media was paying attention to me over an email I gave to Anonymous was terrifying. I'd seen people surrounded by reporters on the news, and I thought that's how it would go down; reality is much different.
[Read: Guys, Beware: When You Touch a Bra, You Spend More]
The reality is that it took two and a half years before I finally had a chance to blow the whistle to people that mattered. On Friday, August 2, 2013, I finally completed my goal as a whistleblower. I met with Michael Price, an FHFA senior policy analyst, along with several other senior officials from the Federal Housing Finance Agency. This is a meeting I feel like I've waited my entire life for, and I played my hand to the best of my ability. Here's a rundown of how I found myself speaking to a room full of senior government officials from one of the most powerful housing regulators in the country...
Also see:Ethical Risk Management: Anonymous Reveals Its Face
The State Attorneys General Coalition
On April 8, 2011, I met with a white collar crime investigator from the Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne's office. Nearly a month prior, I leaked internal bank information to the media through Anonymous. Through that act, I met attorney Beth Findsen and an Attorney General, who agreed to represent me pro bono and set up a neutral place for us to meet, in the law office of a powerful criminal defense attorney set up nearby government buildings to stay literally under their radar.
Although the AG's office was more interested in loan modification practices than escrow and insurance, I explained to the folks there what I knew at the time. I gave them breakdowns of the bank and its subsidiaries and outlined systems, processes and procedures to allow them to find any fraud they want to look for. My information was shared with all Attorneys General involved.
[Read: One-Third of Workers in Survey Imply College Studies Are a Waste of Time ]
It wasn't until Q1 2012 that the now infamous foreclosure settlement was announced, and force-placed insurance (a.k.a. LPI) was merely a footnote in the documents. They didn't understand what I was trying to tell them, so I couldn't just walk away and keep my head down like I was advised. The state Attorneys General weren't the only regulators in town - I had already been in contact with Joy Feigenbaum at the New York Department of Financial Services.
Also see:DFS Force-Placed Insurance Legislation Is a Joke
The New York Department of Financial Services
By the time I first spoke to the DFS on the phone in January 2012, Occupy Wall Street was in full effect. I could hear the protestors in the background as I detailed for them how far-reaching LPI truly is. Not only was I working with the Occupy Movement behind the scenes, I was reaching out to attorneys and journalists with specific knowledge necessary to understand the financial and technical concepts I was explaining. I got disheartened by speaking to regulators, so I admittedly didn't give Feigenbaum and her team my best.
Despite my lack of effort and enthusiasm, the NY DFS hearings actually went really well. The investigators called out executives from Bank of America, Chase, Assurant, GMAC et al., detailing an elaborate kickback scheme the banks worked. The hearings were livecasted and made available to the public online. I thought surely people would see these banking and insurance executives lying under oath, admitting to sneaking high profits and low loss ratios past regulators for years. I assumed this would be the final straw in a society where Occupy sought a cause to stand behind. Force-placed insurance was too dry and difficult to understand, though, and I had to try elsewhere.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
[Read: What the Bank of America Intern's Death Can Teach us About Workplace Health ]
When Obama's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau threw its hat into the ring with an attempt at mortgage regulation in late 2012, I had to get involved. Cornell Law hosted an online dissection of the CFPB's proposed regulations and solicited feedback from the public. I read each section, pointing out every loophole I could find. Escrow and insurance clarification was knowingly left off the mortgage statements. Loan servicer requirements for the customer were left too loose response times are too slow for struggling borrowers, a Single-Point-of-Contact (SPOC) for mortgage matters is neither feasible nor realistic. I found myself once again disappointed.
Also see:How Force-Placed Insurance Leads to Foreclosure
FNMA and the FHFA
Around the same time the NY DFS began looking at force-placed insurance, Fannie Mae was passing around loan servicer guidelines. I was given a copy by a journalist at The Huffington Post, and I broke it down page by page. I noted the "reform" was garbage nearly a year later, the FHFA halted the reform process, to the chagrin of many industry analysts. Rather than shake my fist with everyone else, I sent an email to the FHFA thanking the organization for pulling the controversial regulations. I'd already seen too many agencies drop the ball; I couldn't watch it happen again without intervening. The other week, out of nowhere, I got a call and set up a teleconference with the FHFA to discuss my thoughts on mortgage servicing reform.
As a whistleblower, this finally felt like my shining moment. The staff at the FHFA seemed genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say I finally arrived at the table...so I brought what I bring to the table...
I outlined the issues I had with FNMA's original regulations and reiterated my stance that LPI needs to be a service instead of a product. I detailed for them why bank mergers created too many mismatched systems within each bank. I recommended the FHFA (or anyone else in the government) manage and regulate financial software systems, forcing the banks to use their systems to allow regulators to truly audit their files. I explained how LPI tracking became corrupt. I told them they don't currently have the power to regulate the banks, and I gave them the tools to do it.
Also see:Countrywide May Be a Worldcom, But BofA Is no MCIM
I told the FHFA what they needed to hear a frank and blunt discussion about what's wrong with the current system and how we can fix it. Not everyone gets a chance to give anyone in their government their personal opinion, not in a way that's taken into consideration at least. I was afforded that opportunity four times in the last three years. All I can do is continue living my life...and hope that my pleas for an honest and fair financial system didn't fall on deaf ears.
Time will tell...
Brian Penny is a former business analyst at Bank of America turned whistleblower. He documents his experiences van dwelling, working with Anonymous, training to be a yogi, and fighting the banks on his blog.