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Fraud and Folly: The Untold Story of General Electric's Subprime Debacle

The industrial giant jumped into the subprime business in 2004, lending blue-chip respectability to the market for risky home loans.
 
 
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The following storywas first published by The Center for Public Integrity.

For General Electric Co., hawking subprime mortgages was a long way from making light bulbs and jet engines.

That didn't stop the industrial giant from jumping into the subprime business in 2004, lending blue-chip respectability to the market for risky home loans by paying roughly half a billion dollars to buy California-based WMC Mortgage Corp.

What GE got in the bargain, former WMC employees say, was a place where erstwhile shoe salesmen, ex-strippers and even a former porn actress could sign on as sales reps and make big money pushing home loans. WMC's top salespeople earned a million dollars a year or more and lived fast, swigging $1,000 bottles of Cristal and wheeling around in $100,000 Ferraris and Bentleys.

In pursuit of these riches and perks, several ex-employees claim, many WMC sales staffers embraced fraud as a tool for pushing through loans that borrowers couldn’t afford.

Dave Riedel, a former compliance manager at WMC, says sales reps intent on putting up big numbers used falsified paperwork, bogus income documentation and other tricks to get loans approved and sold off to Wall Street investors.

One WMC official, Riedel claims, went so far as to declare: “Fraud pays.”

How well did GE address WMC’s fraud problems?

GE says it did plenty to deal with the issue. Some ex-employees counter that GE officials didn’t do enough to rein in illicit practices, despite warnings from Riedel and other whistleblowers inside the lender. GE dispatched emissaries to look into the problem, the ex-employees say, but their efforts were too little, too late.

“They sent in people we thought were going to bring us back in the right direction,” Victor Argueta, a former risk analyst at WMC, says. “But it just never happened.”

By 2007, WMC was bleeding bad loans and red ink. General Electric shut the lender and reported related losses totaling more than $1 billion. 

‘Everyone knew’

How could General Electric — a corporate icon voted America’s  most admired company in 2006 and 2007 — have stumbled so badly?

The story of GE’s subprime misadventure has earned little attention from news media or public officials amid headlines about bank failures and mega-bailouts at other big companies. But now, with the aftershocks still being felt by GE and by WMC's borrowers, lawsuits and former employees have begun to shed light on what happened and why.     

It’s a tale of a 134-year-old industrial concern that’s transformed itself into a financial services juggernaut. It’s also a story about breakdowns in corporate compliance systems amid the chase to cash in on the latest innovations in high and low finance.

In interviews with  iWatch News, eight former WMC employees claim WMC’s management ignored them when they reported loans supported by falsified documents, inflated incomes or other legerdemain. Two of them say they were transferred and demoted because they pressed too hard to expose corrupt practices.

Riedel, who worked as quality-control manager for the lender’s largest production division, claims that after he informed a GE official about fraud inside the lender, WMC’s management demoted him — reorganizing him out of his job, taking away his office and his staff and forcing him to sit at a desk for months without a job title.

“I didn’t have any files,” Riedel told  iWatch News during a series of interviews. “I basically stared out a window.”

Two other former WMC employees confirm Riedel’s account of his transfer. “Everyone knew,” Argueta, the former risk analyst, says. “We all knew why he’d been moved to our section, from a nice comfy office out to the cubicles.” 

 
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