A few weeks back I wrote a piece about fraud and the effects it had on the current market. Now, today the state of New York has filed suit agains Washinton Mutual and First American for conspiring to inflate real estate appraisals.
Here's the article,
Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that he is suing one of the nation’s largest real estate appraisal management companies and its parent corporation for colluding with the largest savings and loan in the country to inflate the appraisal values of homes.
In a scheme detailed in numerous e-mails, eAppraiseIT (“EA”), a subsidiary of First American Corporation (NYSE: FAF), caved to pressure from Washington Mutual (“WaMu”) (NYSE: WM) to use a list of preferred “Proven Appraisers” who provided inflated appraisals on homes. The e-mails also show that executives at EA knew their behavior was illegal, but intentionally broke the law to secure future business with WaMu.
“The independence of the appraiser is essential to maintaining the integrity of the mortgage industry. First American and eAppraiseIT violated that independence when Washington Mutual strong-armed them into a system designed to rip off homeowners and investors alike,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “The blatant actions of First American and eAppraiseIT have contributed to the growing foreclosure crisis and turmoil in the housing market. By allowing Washington Mutual to hand-pick appraisers who inflated values, First American helped set the current mortgage crisis in motion.”
As First American acknowledged in its 2006 annual report, appraisal fraud can damage the entire housing market, including consumers and investors alike. Consumers are harmed because they are misled as to the value of their homes, increasing the risk of foreclosure and hindering their ability to make sound economic decisions. Investors are hurt by such fraud because it skews the value and risk of loans that are sold in financial markets.
In April 2006, EA began providing appraisal services for WaMu, which became EA’s biggest client. Within weeks, WaMu began complaining to EA that its appraisals were not high enough. WaMu pressured EA to employ exclusively a new panel of appraisers that WaMu hand-selected as “Proven Appraisers.” This set of appraisers was chosen by WaMu specifically because they inflated property appraisals. WaMu profited from these higher appraisals because they could close more home loans, at greater values. Over the course of their relationship, between April 2006 and October 2007, EA provided approximately 262,000 appraisals for WaMu.
Attorney General Cuomo’s investigation uncovered a series of e-mails between executives at EA, First American, and WaMu that show EA officials were willingly violating state and federal appraisal independence regulations to comply with WaMu’s demands:
On February 22, 2007, in response to a description of the WaMu “Proven Appraiser” program as one in which “we will now assign all Wamu’s work to Wamu’s ‘Proven Appraisers’… [and] Performance ratings to retain position as a Wamu Proven Appraiser will be based on how many come in on value,” eAppraiseIT’s president told senior executives at First American: “we have agreed to roll over and just do it...”
On April 4, 2007, eAppraiseIT’s executive vice president stated in an e-mail to First American: “we as an AMC [Appraisal Management Company] need to retain our independence from the lender or it will look like collusion… eAppraiseIT is clearly being directed who to select. The reasoning… is bogus for many reasons including the most obvious – the proven appraisers bring in the values.”
On April 17, 2007, eAppraiseIT’s president wrote an e-mail to First American explaining why its conduct was illegal: “We view this as a violation of the OCC, OTS, FDIC and USPAP influencing regulation.”
E-mail evidence also shows that WaMu pressured EA to inflate appraisals as a condition for doing future business together:
On September 27, 2006, First American’s vice chairman reported that a WaMu executive told him: “if the appraisal issues are resolved and things are working well he would welcome conversations about expanding our relationship…”