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How Bank of America Covered Up Fraud by Silencing Whistleblowers

Countrywide made life hard for an internal investigator, and a court ruled that when BofA took over, she was illegally fired in retaliation.

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“I don’t care if you’re Microsoft or you’re the Golf Channel or Dupont or MSNBC: companies are going to make some mistakes,” Lumsden told iWatch News. “What you hope is that companies will deal with employees that do wrong. That’s what we did.”

The American Dream

In February 2003, Countrywide’s founder and CEO, Angelo Mozilo, gave a lecture hosted by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies titled “The American Dream of Homeownership: From Cliché to Mission.”

Mozilo, the Bronx-born son of a butcher, had started Countrywide with a partner in 1969 and built it into a home-loan empire that was now on the verge of becoming the nation’s largest home lender.

But he saw trouble on the horizon. Before his audience of academics and business people, he complained that a “regulatory mania” was hurting Countrywide and other “reputable” mortgage lenders. Overreaching predatory lending laws, he said, were threatening shut the door to homeownership for hard-working low-income and minority families. Industry and citizenry needed to work together to

prevent government from strangling the mortgage market, he said.

It wasn’t, Mozilo added, that he was against cracking down on bad apples that took advantage of vulnerable borrowers.

“These lenders,” the CEO said, “deserve unwavering scrutiny and, when found guilty, an unforgiving punishment.”

Around the time Mozilo was giving his speech back east, one of his employees was finding what she later claimed to be evidence of serious fraud at Countrywide’s Roseville, Calif., branch.

Employees were falsifying loan applicants’ salaries in mortgage paperwork and forging their names on loan documents, according to a  lawsuit [5] filed by Michele Brunelli, who was a loan processor and later a branch operations manager for Countrywide. In March 2003, Brunelli recalled, she used the company’s “ethics hotline” and lodged what she thought was a confidential complaint.

Immediately after, Brunelli claimed, her regional manager yelled at her for calling the hotline. Then, she said, her immediate supervisor called her in and reprimanded her for making the complaint.

“Not everyone’s hands are clean in this office,” the branch manager said, according to Brunelli. “Are you ready for that?”

Brunelli didn’t back down. She continued reporting evidence of fraud to the executives above her, her lawsuit said. They dismissed her concerns, she said, saying she was having “emotional outbursts” and accusing her of being “on a witch hunt.”

In court papers, the company flatly denied her allegations, accusing Brunelli of acting in “bad faith.” Her lawsuit was resolved in 2010.

Two other former Countrywide workers, Sabrina Arroyo and Linda Court, claimed they lost their jobs in 2004 after they complained supervisors were directing them to forge borrowers’ signatures on loan paperwork. After they informed Employee Relations about the forgeries, the company quickly fired them, they claimed.

“Corporate came in. We told them the story. We told them everything,” Arroyo told iWatch News. “They said don’t worry, whatever you say, you’re going to be covered. A month or so later, I was let go.”

Arroyo and Court sued [6]Countrywide in state court in Sacramento, but Countrywide won an order forcing the case into arbitration. They decided to drop their claim because the odds are stacked against workers in arbitration, their attorney, William Wright, said.

Some ex-employees say they went high up Countrywide’s chain of command to raise red flags about fraud. Mark Bonjean, a former operations unit manager in Arizona, complained to a divisional vice president, according to a  lawsuit [7] in state court in Maricopa County. Within two hours of sending the VP an email about what he believed were violations of the state’s organized crime and fraud statutes, the suit said, he was placed on administrative leave. The next day, according to the lawsuit, he was fired.

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