WASHINGTON — Call it the ultimate in mystery shopping.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a nine-term Democrat from California, one of the states hit hardest by the mortgage crisis, is personally calling servicers to help her constituents get a lower rate, a longer maturity, or some other modification that will help them meet their payments and avoid foreclosure.
The chairwoman of the House Financial Services' housing subcommittee said she is unconcerned that she may be leaning on companies she oversees, potentially creating a conflict of interest and violating House ethics rules.
"The Ethics Committee said we are not to get involved — it's a third party and contracts between citizens," Rep. Waters said in an interview this week. "I don't care. Throw the book at me. Put me in jail. Do whatever you have to do. I am defying them."
So far Rep. Waters and her staff, including an employee who works full time calling servicers to rework loans for constituents, have succeeded in helping seven borrowers avoid foreclosure, and another 30 cases are in the works.
She concedes servicers respond differently to her because she is a member of Congress. "One of the reasons why I think we are able to kind of be successful at what we are doing is it's kind of the threat of the member of Congress calling you and working on this," she said.
On Oct. 25, after sitting on hold for an hour with American Servicing Co., a Wells Fargo & Co. unit, Rep. Waters decided to take the problem directly to John Stumpf, Wells' chief executive. In response, Rep. Waters' office said Mr. Stumpf has pledged to conduct a top-to-bottom assessment of the unit's operation. A Wells spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Rep. Waters began handling constituent complaints directly in October, after a housing conference she hosted this summer and subsequent meetings with counselors convinced her not enough was getting done. Rep. Waters said many servicers are often ill-equipped to achieve loan modifications.
"I have sat on my phone for an hour at a time waiting on servicers to answer me because most of them are understaffed," she said. "They put on a recording that discourages people from continuing with it, but I stick right with it."
Constituents must sign a waiver allowing her office to deal with servicers directly. She has allocated one staffer full-time to focus on helping constituents win loan modifications, and gets personally involved in cases where the foreclosure sale is days or weeks away.
"We have to move on those pretty quickly," she said. "Sometimes you have to just get an extension of the foreclosure sale, so it gives you time to work on it."
The House Financial Services Committee has held several hearings on the rise in foreclosures, and Democrats have attempted to bully servicers to step up efforts and pushed the Bush administration to adopt a foreclosure prevention plan. But many, including Rep. Waters, argue progress has been insufficient.
She has lambasted the Treasury Department for its failure to adopt a plan developed by Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair to provide a government guarantee for servicers that agree to systematically modify loans.
"I went ahead and introduced legislation that would basically adopt the Sheila Bair proposal for doing modifications," she said. "We need to adopt a program that is much more systematic and much more comprehensive, and I think that Sheila Bair's would go a long way for giving incentives to the servicers to do these modifications."
In the meantime, she plans to continue her work. "We are trying to do that so we can make sure that no one's home is sold during this holiday season."