As Wall Street Strong-Arms Consumers, Will WikiLeaks Bring One of the Biggest Banks To Its Knees?
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Wall Street has worked hard to keep its inner workings from seeing the light of day. But one of the worst offenders in the financial crisis may be about to face the kind of public disrobing that government regulators, the corporate media and transparency activists are incapable of performing. If the rumors that have been swirling around in recent months prove true, Bank of America's dirty secrets may soon be exposed for the world to see, courtesy of the whistle-blower site Wikileaks.
The banks prefer not to give out information, even when required to do so by law. Consider their potentially illegal response to a campaign by the service employees union, SEIU called, “ Where's the Note?” that helps homeowners request a copy of their mortgage-holder's proof that it actually holds the note on their properties. According to SEIU – and confirmed anecdotally by others – borrowers who take advantage of SEIU's system have faced retaliation in the form of lower credit ratings: they send in the request, and see their credit scores fall. It's a likely violation of the Fair Lending Act, and as Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal noted, it's a serious threat:
In the middle of a foreclosure fraud crisis where people aren’t sure who owns their mortgage, a simple ask of “can you show me the contract I signed with you, just to make sure it is there if there is a dispute” is being used to threaten someone’s credit score.... Since credit scores impact everything else in your life, from being able to turn on your lights and electricity to renting an apartment to purchasing things, this is a serious threat, one of the more grievous ones a private company can deliver.
David Dayen at Firedoglake adds that the heavy-handed response to SEIU's campaign “is part of a broader trend, where the servicers and big banks, having been exposed by the foreclosure fraud crisis, are now lashing out at their critics.”
The St. Petersburg Times reported that one company, Nationwide Title clearing, has taken to using legal bullying tactics to stifle its critics. The company filed an injunction against Sarasota lawyer Christopher Forrest “to remove videotaped depositions he had posted of three Nationwide Title employees describing an assembly-line process of signing mortgage-related documents.” The ACLU of Florida filed an emergency appeal of the injunction, calling it a "gag order" and a restraint of free speech.
The company then sued Matthew Weidner, a St. Petersburg lawyer who defends homeowners against wrongful foreclosures, for defamation and libel after he reposted the videos and added some commentary.
Barbara Petersen, the president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, told the Times that Weidner had played a pivotal role in exposing serious issues in the foreclosure process, “including court hearings from which the public was barred.” "I've been working with Matt on trying to open the foreclosure process and we've made great strides that have a lot to do with his activism," she said. "He's bringing a great deal of national attention to what's going on in Florida."
Nationwide Title claimed that Weidner defamed the company by including the widely used term “robo-signers” in his posts. The charge will be hard to prove, but as Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith noted, the act of suing a lawyer with a small practice “throws a wrench in their operation” as “it takes time to deal with litigation, and often money, plus the stress is also a considerable distraction.” She adds: “Of course, the hope is no doubt that this sort of risk will also deter other lawyers and critics.”