U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, were partners for years at a Washington law firm that represented a Who's Who of big banks and other companies at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud, a Reuters inquiry shows. The firm, Covington & Burling, is one of Washington's biggest white shoe law firms, and law professors and other federal ethics experts said that federal conflict of interest rules required Holder and Breuer to recuse themselves from any Justice Department decisions relating to law firm clients they personally had done work for.
Both the Justice Department and Covington declined to say if either official had personally worked on matters for the big mortgage industry clients. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Holder and Breuer had complied fully with conflict of interest regulations, but she declined to say if they had recused themselves from any matters related to the former clients.
Reuters reported in December that under Holder and Breuer, the Justice Department hasn't brought any criminal cases against big banks or other companies involved in mortgage servicing, even though copious evidence has surfaced of apparent criminal violations in foreclosure cases. The evidence, including records from federal and state courts and local clerks' offices around the country, shows widespread forgery, perjury, obstruction of justice, and illegal foreclosures on the homes of thousands of active-duty military personnel.
In recent weeks the Justice Department has come under renewed pressure from members of Congress, state and local officials and homeowners' lawyers to open a wide-ranging criminal investigation of mortgage servicers, the biggest of which have been Covington clients. So far Justice officials haven't responded publicly to any of the requests. While Holder and Breuer were partners at Covington, the firm's clients included the four largest U.S. banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co. – as well as at least one other bank that is among the 10 largest mortgage servicers.
Defender of Freddie Mac
Servicers perform routine mortgage maintenance tasks, including filing foreclosures on behalf of mortgage owners, usually groups of investors who bought mortgage-backed securities. Covington represented Freddie Mac, one of the nation's biggest issuers of mortgage backed securities, in enforcement investigations by federal financial regulators.
A particular concern by those pressing for an investigation is Covington's involvement with Virginia-based MERS Corp, which runs a vast computerized registry of mortgages. Little known before the mortgage crisis, MERS, which stands for Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, has been at the center of complaints about false or erroneous mortgage documents. Court records show that Covington, in the late 1990s, provided legal opinion letters needed to create MERS on behalf of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and several other large banks. MERS was meant to speed up registration and transfers of mortgages. By 2010, the system claimed to own about half of all mortgages in the U.S., roughly 60 million loans.
But evidence in numerous state and federal court cases around the country has shown that MERS authorized thousands of bank employees to sign their names as MERS officials. The banks allegedly drew up fake mortgage assignments, making it appear falsely that they had standing to file foreclosures, and then had their own employees sign the documents as MERS "vice presidents" or "assistant secretaries."
Covington in 2004 also wrote a crucial opinion letter commissioned by MERS, providing legal justification for its electronic registry. MERS spokeswoman Karmela Lejarde declined to comment on Covington legal work done for MERS. It isn't known to what extent if any Covington has continued to represent the banks and other mortgage firms since Holder and Breuer left. Covington declined to respond to questions from Reuters. A Covington spokeswoman said the firm had no comment.
Their failure to act on foreclosure fraud or publicly recuse themselves – "doesn't pass the smell test."