Obama Mortgage Deal Frontman Sounds Off

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller believes he is tougher on the banking industry that many news reports would have you believe.

Little known outside his home state until bank foreclosure practices became an issue of national concern, Miller led negotiations on behalf of state attorneys general with the five largest U.S. mortgage lenders over foreclosure abuses that resulted in a $25 billion dollar settlement earlier this month.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller led the negotiations with banks resulting in a $25 billion mortgage settlement and is a co-chair on the Obama Administration's national reelection committee.

A common narrative in press and bank analyst reports during the more than yearlong negotiations suggested Miller and a majority of other attorneys general were willing to settle the matter with the banks for $20 billion or less while granting them broad immunities regarding a wide range of mortgage-related abuses.

A smaller group of attorneys general, including New York's Eric Schneiderman, publicly announced they would not go along with a deal that granted those broad immunities, implying Miller and the others were willing to do so. At one point, Miller ejected Schneiderman from the group's executive committee, arguing New York's attorney general sought to "undermine" efforts of the other AGs to reach a deal.

In an interview last week, Miller wasn't ready to concede that he isn't as tough on the banking industry as Schneiderman or others, such as California's Kamala Harris, who were among the last ones to sign an agreement with the banks.

"I think Roy Cooper (N.C.) and Lisa Madigan (Il.) and George Jepsen (Conn.) and I are among the strongest and toughest on the banks," Miller said. "Eric took a position opposing the settlement for a long time, and now he's at the lead of some important investigations on securities. So I think it really has to play out if he's stronger than Lisa and Roy and George and I."

Miller also rejected the notion that he would have been willing to grant banks immunities from other mortgage-related liability if it hadn't been for Schneiderman and some of other holdouts--Delaware and Massachusetts, for example.

Miller called it "just totally false that they got the release narrowed. The release was always going to be narrowed. It was never going to include mortgage securities. The negotiations on the release took place over months and were on a clear path to where they ended with it being narrow and that there be nothing protecting banks from criminal prosecution. That was never going to be raised--never was even discussed."

In a separate matter related to the mortgage talks, Miller drew criticism after the National Institute on Money in State Politics reported that after being named to lead the foreclosure negotiations, Iowa's to attorney brought in 88 times more in campaign contributions in a single year than he had done in the prior decade.

"What happened was that during the end of the campaign there was a huge amount of money by Iowa standards--outside money through the various different outside groups spent against me--about $1.7 million," Miller explains. "Nobody had ever spent more than $400,000 for Attorney General of Iowa so I went out and had to raise a considerable amount of money to fight back and raised $800,000, or so, and that money came from largely people that I've worked with in the past and who believed in me and what I've done."

Miller admits that some "fairly large" were primarily from lawyers, but adds "also friends." "It had absolutely nothing to do with the negotiations. One person gave $5,000-- he had absolutely nothing to do with the negotiations at the time. He became involved subsequently," he says. "The report draws just totally inaccurate conclusions. I did not get a lot of money. In fact I got very little if any because I was heading this up if you go thru it contribution by contribution."

Recently, Miller was tapped by the Obama Administration as one of 35 national co-chairs to help reelect the President.

"My forte is not fundraising. I'm not very good at it. It's something that's hard for me to do. I'm not a co-chair to raise money. I'm a co-chair to work our volunteers and our registration and get out the vote in Iowa. Iowa's a battleground state. I spent a lot of time five years ago helping out the caucus effort--leading that--and that's what I'm going to be doing, not fundraising," he said.

In making the case for Obama to Iowans, Miller says he will focus on the economy.

"The President took an economy that was falling and falling fast. It was the greatest recession -- the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression -- and gradually but effectively he's taken us from that depth, back."

Republicans, on the other hand, "are advocating the same things that got us in the great downturn in the first place in terms of deregulation and tax policy and other things," Miller says.

-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.

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