WASHINGTON — Crushed by huge volumes of delinquent loans, managers at Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. placed heavy pressure on staff to speed up handling of documents used to process foreclosures without a proper review, according to a set of government audits released Tuesday.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general issued five reports about foreclosure-handling practices at five major U.S. banks. The reports, which also included JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Ally Financial Inc., were published after the banks filed court documents Monday settling allegations they violated state and federal foreclosure laws and overcharged customers.
The inspector general's reports were used by federal officials as evidence of violations and served as leverage for the government during the settlement process. U.S. officials faced criticism throughout the yearlong settlement negotiations for not doing a comprehensive investigation of alleged misconduct. Officials have pointed to the audits, among other investigations that predated the robo-signing controversy, to rebut those concerns.
The HUD inspector general issued the reports because the government-run Federal Housing Administration guarantees loans made by the mortgage servicers and pays out claims when mortgages default.
"I believe the reports we just released will leave the reader asking one question — how could so many people have participated in this misconduct?," the inspector general, David Montoya, said. "The answer: simple greed."
The inspector general found overwhelmed Wells Fargo workers voiced concerns to managers about signing loan documents and informed managers they "could not handle the workload." The company's management, however, didn't correct the problem and instead cut the mandatory time frame for turning around documents from five to seven days to 24 to 48 hours, the report found.
"Due to attorney feedback and our wonderful challenging environment, this 48 hour turnaround time is critical," a Wells Fargo manager said in a March 2008 email quoted in the report. The company also hired a former pizza restaurant worker, a department store cashier and factory worker to process foreclosure documents in a Fort Mill, S.C., office, according to the report.
A Wells Fargo spokeswoman didn't immediately comment.
The report on Bank of America included statistics showing one bank official signed around 8,800 documents per month in July and August of 2010. It also included employee performance reviews showing workers were expected to process as many as 50 documents per hour. The company "evaluated employee performance based in part on metrics for processing high volumes of documents," the report said.
Bank of America spokesman Dan Frahm said the report "references activities from over a year ago that have been addressed as we do all we can to modify loans when possible and to ensure foreclosures are fair when they are unavoidable."
The inspector general found Citigroup's mortgage unit "regularly signed foreclosure documents when not in the presence" of a notary public, as required by law. The practice ended in February 2010. The report also noted Citi employees signed 60 to 200 documents per day. A Citi spokesman said the bank, at its own initiative, started working on improving its foreclosure-handling practices in fall 2009.
"Citi self-identified opportunities to improve its foreclosure processes and proactively undertook actions to enhance its policies and controls," Citi spokesman Mark Rodgers said.
The inspector general found JPMorgan Chase "failed to establish proper policies and procedures that fostered compliance with laws and regulations." The audit also reviewed 36 foreclosure cases and found only four in which the bank had documentation of the amount owed. In three out of four of those cases, the amount was inaccurate.
JPMorgan declined to comment.
The report on Ally found an employee "routinely" signed 400 foreclosure documents known as affidavits per day and 10,000 a month, without reviewing the supporting documentation. The company "did not establish an effective control environment to ensure the integrity of its foreclosure process," the report said.
"We regret that possible procedural deficiencies with respect to certain affidavits occurred," Ally spokeswoman Gina Proia said. "When senior management became aware of the issue, they took quick and decisive action to address it."