What Whistle Blower and Former High Level Executive Michael Winston Knows About Bankers Crimes Will Horrify You
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You may know Michael Winston’s story from a series of articles by Gretchen Morgenson in the New York Times, or from a celebrated Frontline episode, “ The Untouchables,” about the lack of prosecutions on Wall Street. He was a Ph.D. who rose to the corporate elite, with stints at Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, Motorola and Merrill Lynch. He was recruited to mortgage originator Countrywide Financial with the promise that it wanted to become the “Goldman Sachs of the Pacific,” a full-service global financial corporation.
“They talked about the importance of ethics and principles, and they said they heard I was a high-integrity guy,” Winston tells Salon, noting his father had a vanity plate that read “HONOR.” Winston initially succeeded as enterprise chief leadership officer at Countrywide, getting promoted twice in 14 months and building a team of 200 working on corporate strategy.
But he could not ignore the rot at the heart of the company’s profitmaking approach.
So now, a successful high-level executive for 30 years, he has been embroiled in seven years of lawsuits with Countrywide and the company that bought it, Bank of America. His determination to speak out against multiple violations of law at Countrywide earned him retaliation, and eventually, he was frozen out of corporate boardrooms, unable to find a new job. He won a jury verdict in his case, but after two and a half more years of fighting, an appellate court reversed the ruling in highly unusual circumstances.
“I keep hearing about whistle-blower protections,” he tells Salon, exasperatedly. “It certainly didn’t happen for me.”
Now, Bank of America wants to gouge Michael Winston one last time, demanding an interest payment on money awarded to him that he never received.
“Thus far, the person who did the right thing got punished, and the person who did the wrong thing got rewarded,” Winston said. The chilling case shows that the greatest enemy for Wall Street is the man or woman who actually tries to expose its secrets.
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“FUND-EM.” That’s what the license plate read when Winston pulled into Countrywide headquarters at the end of 2005. It was the car of CEO Angelo Mozilo. “What does that mean?” Winston asked a colleague.
“That’s Mozilo’s growth strategy for 2006,” his colleague replied. “We fund all loans.”
“What if the borrower has no job?” Winston asked.
“What if they have no assets?”
“If they can fog a mirror, we’ll give them a loan.”
Winston relayed his fears about this doomed strategy to Drew Gissinger, head of Countrywide Home Loans, offering proposals on how to prioritize customer satisfaction and strong fundamentals over making dicey loans. “I was trying to save Countrywide from itself,” Winston said. These proposals were politely taken and discarded. Later Gissinger would say he never received them.
A separate triggering event had nothing to do with loans, but how Countrywide treated its employees. In addition to selling toxic mortgages, Countrywide also housed its staff in toxic buildings. One in particular, on Tapo Canyon Road in Simi Valley, Calif., was notorious for noxious air, exposed wiring and a generally hideous atmosphere. Winston worked in this building, and he and his team experienced shortness of breath, dizziness and headaches. One female employee, 35 weeks pregnant, said she was afraid to work there. Michael himself was struck by a toxic substance coming from an overhead air vent. “I thought I was being poisoned,” he said. This is at a company that made $2.7 billion in net revenue in 2006.