FORECLOSURE EVICTIONS RESUME AMID CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION
Friday, November 19, 2010— A month-long moratorium on mortgage foreclosure evictions and an internal inquiry into court filings has revealed a pattern of irregularities that may rise to criminal conduct, Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart announced Friday. As a result, he is referring several cases to his financial crimes unit to investigate whether lenders or their agents engaged in fraudulent or deceptive practices.
The moves come as the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has advised the sheriff’s office that it must attempt to enforce all foreclosure eviction orders that are signed by a judge - even if a review by sheriff’s staff reveals irregularities in the file. The state’s attorney advised that once a judge signs an eviction order, it is presumed to be valid and an attempt must be made to enforce it.
Dart halted all foreclosure evictions on Oct. 13 after employees of some of the nation’s largest lending institutions admitted to never verifying if the foreclosure was proper, even though they signed legal documents indicating it was. Dart wanted bank attorneys to sign a sworn affidavit saying they verified the foreclosure was valid before he would carry out the eviction for them.
An initial review of some of those files by sheriff’s staff found the illegal practice of “robo-signing” foreclosure documents appears to be prevalent throughout Cook County’s court system and that many other files were horribly deficient in the required documents. A sample of foreclosure fiing subjected to careful analysis by sheriff’s staff found 70 percent appear to have been “robo-signed.”
“Robo-signing” is a practice where lenders assign staff to sign documents in mass quantities, sometimes hundreds a day, swearing they have reviewed the entire foreclosure file and verified the foreclosure is proper and legal, as is required by law before an eviction can take place. A judge then validates it with a signature and an eviction order is given to the sheriff to carry out.
After a review of documents and available staff, foreclosure evictions will be added to the deputies’ schedules and could resume as early as next week.
But as they resume, Loyola University School of Law has agreed to work with Dart’s office to comb through the 2,200 awaiting foreclosure eviction orders signed by Cook County judges. The law school’s students and staff will be looking through the case files for any signs of irregularities. Anything of concern that is identified will be forwarded to Cook County Sheriff’s staff for further review and possible referral to financial crimes investigators.
In addition to those steps, Dart announced that additional documents will be provided to anyone who is mailed an initial notice of a mortgage foreclosure action.
Because many of those facing foreclosure do not know where to turn for help, Dart will include contact information for pro bono legal aid, as well as the help desk at the Cook County Circuit Court Chancery Division, which handles all foreclosure cases. Also to be provided are numbers for the Center for Disability and Elder Law, along with social service and animal care agencies, for those in need of a home for themselves or their pets.
Since this moratorium was announced, Dart has sent several notices to the Cook County Circuit Court, Cook County State’s Attorney, Illinois Attorney General and Illinois Supreme Court advising their leadership of actions already taken by courts in other states facing the same circumstances. Among the information provided was an order filed in New York the same week Dart announced he wanted bank attorneys here to sign an affidavit swearing the foreclosure was valid. There, the state’s high court unilaterally made an affidavit a requirement to file a foreclosure there.
Two years ago, Dart pushed for passage of a bill that would have addressed many of the deficiencies uncovered here. The Illinois Legislature is now considering legislation that was filed in response to this latest crisis, including one presented by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, to require banks to attach all documents to their foreclosure filing. Madigan is also one of 50 attorneys general investigating foreclosure filing practices across the country.
These steps come two years after Dart shined a light on a foreclosure scandal and halted all foreclosure evictions. Then, many renters were properly paying rent, but their landlord wasn’t paying the mortgage. Though banks were notifying the landlord of the foreclosure actions and claiming they were giving notice of an eviction to all affected parties, renters actually knew nothing about it until sheriff’s deputies showed up at the door to evict them.
That stand led to a new requirement in Cook County that bank representatives sign an affidavit swearing they provided proper notice to everyone living in the affected building. Additionally, Dart set up a new series of notices for every mortgage foreclosure eviction order, giving up to three notifications by his deputies before an eviction is actually carried out.