How One Local Official in North Carolina Is Trying to Hold Wall Street Giants Accountable for Widespread Fraud
Jeff Thigpen shows off dozens of different signatures by "Linda Green."
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When Wall Street hustlers figured out a scheme to make a fortune trading home mortgages in the 1990s, they faced some legal obstacles. In some cases, like dealing with the Depression-era law that kept commercial and investment banking from mixing, they overcame those obstacles with tens of millions of dollars of lobbying.
But having gotten their deregulation, they simply broke other laws. What the banks and a compliant media often euphemistically refer to as a series of “paperwork errors” in transferring deeds ("robo-signing”) was in fact widespread fraud – fraud that undermined bedrock property laws dating back for centuries.
When Jeff Thigpen, the Register of Deeds in Guilford County, North Carolina, looked at his own records, he found 6,100 questionable titles that were “signed in the names of known robo-signer aliases: 'Linda Green,' 'Christie Baldwin,' 'Pat Kingston,' 'Korell Harp,' 'Jessica Ohde,' 'Rita Knowles,' 'Linda Thoresen,' and 'Brent Bagley'” – and that was in just one county in one state.
Thigpen has a strong belief in the rule of law, and thinks it should apply to everyone, including the titans of Wall Street. Earlier this month, he filed a suit against some of the nation's biggest banks, demanding that they clean up the mess they created. “For me, the question is clear,” said Thigpen, “Do we want land records in America to be governed by major banking conglomerates on Wall Street or the people and laws of the United States of America?”
This week, Thigpen joined Joshua Holland on the AlterNet Radio Hour. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity (listen to the entire show here).
Joshua Holland: Now, you’re suing some of the biggest banks in the country for basically running roughshod over the law. I want to start with some basics here. Among the defendants in your case is an entity called MERS -- the Mortgage Electronic Registration System. What is MERS, Jeff?
Jeff Thigpen: MERS was an organization that was created about 15 years ago. It was a combination of Fannie and Freddie and banks that bought into the concept of how they could record information that would allow them to expedite the securitization process and also to get around county recording offices that up until that time were where a lot of information about our land records was stored. It really became a foundational change in the way we’ve done land records in the United States.
JH: In the suit you mention that the recording for land titles in North Carolina goes all the way back to 1664, and this basic property law -- that you maintain a chain of title so that you know who has owned a property -- is really English Common Law. This is bedrock stuff. We had on economist Dean Baker a few weeks back, and he made a point about how MERS really shows the banks' hubris because they wanted to bundle up a large number of mortgages into securities and sell them off to investors. And maybe the process of dealing with all the paperwork at the county level was cumbersome -- maybe that's true and maybe it could be streamlined -- but instead of saying 'let’s change the law.' they just decided to go all the way around it.
JT: That’s part of the thing. This is an issue as far as I’m concerned related to some foundational things. It’s about democracy, it’s about the rule of law, and it’s about good fundamentals in our economy. What I mean by democracy and the rule of law is that hundreds of years ago, when our forefathers and mothers and sisters were coming from what I call the original too-big-to-fail -- the English monarchy -- they came to the United States because there were so many problems with the transfer of property because of the monarchy and everything else in England. So they decided, hey, let’s appoint a Secretary of the Register, some institution in the United States that would allow us to be able to follow these transfers, because it’s so foundational.