Sunday, October 21, 2007

Men Of Principle, Our Leaders' Supporters

While the mortgage company he founded is in shambles and many of its customers facing foreclosure, Roland Arnall continues to enjoy a life of prosperity as the United States ambassador to the Netherlands with an estimated fortune of $l.5 billion.

"If you're building a 'Mount Rushmore' of people who should be on the face of the mortgage lending crisis, I think Roland Arnall has a distinct place in that litany," said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

Ameriquest has fired thousands of its employees and closed its sales offices after settling a lawsuit brought by 49 state attorneys general over alleged deceptive and predatory lending practices. The company has since been sold.

While admitting no wrongdoing, Ameriquest agreed to pay $325 million to resolve the legal action.

Thousands of Ameriquest customers are involved in a class-action lawsuit, alleging they were misled or deceived about the terms and rates of their mortgages. Many say they have lost their homes as a result.

"Mr. Arnall knew, or should have known, that the practices he put in place would result in this kind of conduct," said Jill Bowman, one of the attorneys in the lawsuit. "He just got to sit at the top and collect the profits," she said.

The profits were huge. At its height, Ameriquest bought the naming rights to the Texas Rangers baseball stadium, sponsored a Rolling Stones summer tour, and Arnall and his wife became the single biggest Republican contributors during the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004.

Arnall was later appointed U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.

At his confirmation hearing, Arnall denied being involved in the day-to-day operations at Ameriquest and said the problems were the result of "rogue" employees.

"When we found out, they were let go and action was taken so that it wouldn't happen again," Arnall testified.

"That's completely laughable," said consumer advocate Rheingold. "I mean I think what you had at Ameriquest was a corporate culture of corruption."

Many of Ameriquest's customers are being forced out of their homes, including the Anderson family of New Hampshire, stuck with monthly payments they cannot afford.

The Andersons say Ameriquest promised them a low, fixed-rate mortgage, never telling them the mortgage would be switched to an adjustable-rate mortgage two years later.

"The gentleman...promised me everything was going to be great," Doug Anderson told ABC News. "This is the best move."

But then the Andersons' house payments increased from $760 to $1400, and they were forced into default, becoming victims, they say, of Ameriquest's tactics and Arnall's greed.

"I can't even imagine being able to sleep at night with all that money, knowing where it came from," said Leighlon Anderson.

A number of former Ameriquest employees say that deceiving customers about their rates was a common practice, part of a culture to close the deal at any cost.

"It was to get the customer to feel comfortable with the fact that they were in a loan that they thought was going to be stable, but, in reality, it wasn't," Tyson Russum, a former Ameriquest employee who worked in a Florida office, told ABC News.

Russum says other loan officers would falsify customers' job or financial information so they could qualify for mortgages.

"The people that were doing stuff like that were doing it because they felt like it was okay," he said.

For example, Teresa McCulloch's mortgage application says she had a $45,000 retirement plan, making it appear she could afford her monthly payments.

But Teresa says she doesn't have a 401k plan and "never had a 401k plan at that time" and that the loan officer added it without her knowledge. She is now part of the class-action lawsuit against Ameriquest.

And another fellow predator of Ameriquest:
Thousands of homeowners devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are accusing their mortgage lender of recanting on its promise to suspend their mortgage payments in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes.

In what they now consider a deal too good to be true, homeowners say Countrywide Home Loans promised they wouldn't have to make payments on their mortgages for three to six months.

From its corporate headquarters in California, the country's largest mortgage lender issued a press release about the offer and put it in writing to homeowners, adding, "Late charges will not be assessed."

"There would basically be a freeze on our payment, and our payments would be put on the back end," Donna Hellmer of Hammond, La., told ABC News.

Donna and her husband Andrew didn't make the payments. But then Countrywide sent them a notice of default, demanding the missed payments plus late fees in a lump sum, a total of $4,300 due in 30 days.

"They basically told me this was the deal, 'You pay the lump sum, or you're going to be foreclosed on,'" recalled Hellmer, who, along with her husband Andrew, had to take out a new loan to pay Countrywide and keep their home.

The story is one Chad and Rebecca Goodwin of Houston, Texas, know all too well.

They too faced foreclosure and are now suing Countrywide after capturing on tape what their lawyers say is an important admission by a Countrywide representative:

"What they promised me was that it would be tacked on to the end of my loan," Chad says on the call, according to the recording.

"A lot of people were told that, but it wasn't the case," the Countrywide employee says. "Unfortunately, what happened is we were hoping our banks would let us do it, and they wouldn't."

According to the Goodwins' lawyer, Jill Bowman, that is just a cover-up. "Quite frankly what happened is they decided not to keep this promise," she told ABC News. "I think because it was going to cost them money."

For the Hellmers in Louisiana, Countrywide's broken promise means paying $200 more a month than they were before Hurricane Katrina.

"They took advantage of people while they were down," she said. "They created more of a financial hardship for us than the hurricane did."

Countrywide has denied the allegations, and in a statement to ABC News, says it "has been diligently working with customers to develop individual repayment plans."

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