Whistleblowers ignored, punished by lenders
Ex-employees say they were fired or demoted for reporting fraud
Darcy Parmer ran into trouble soon after she started her job as a fraud analyst at Wells Fargo Bank. Her bosses, she later claimed, were upset that she was, well, finding fraud.
Company officials, she alleged in a lawsuit, berated her for reporting that sales staffers were pushing through mortgage deals based on made-up borrower incomes and other distortions, telling her that she didn't "see the big picture" and that "it is not your job to fix Wells Fargo." Management, she claimed, ordered her to stop contacting the company's ethics hotline.
In the end, she said, Wells Fargo forced her out of her job.
Parmer isn't alone in claiming she was punished for objecting to fraud in the midst of the nation's home-loan boom. iWatch News has identified 63 former employees at 20 financial institutions who say they were fired or demoted for reporting fraud or refusing to commit fraud. Their stories were disclosed in whistleblower claims with the U.S. Department of Labor, court documents or interviews with iWatch News.
"We did our jobs. We had integrity," said Ed Parker, former fraud investigations manager at now-defunct Ameriquest Mortgage Co., a leading subprime lender. "But we were not welcome because we affected the bottom line."
These ex-employees' accounts provide evidence that the muzzling of whistleblowers played an important role in allowing corruption to flourish as mortgage lenders and their patrons on Wall Street pumped up loan volume and profits. Codes of silence at many lenders, former employees claim, helped discourage media, regulators and policymakers from taking a hard look at illegal practices that ultimately harmed borrowers, investors and the economy.
Whistleblower advocates say weak federal and state laws also helped prevent finance industry workers from being heard. Congress passed tougher laws in the wake of the financial crisis, but whistleblowers and their advocates say labor-law enforcers, securities-law cops and banking regulators need to do more to ensure that banking workers can safely report fraud and other abuses.
For their part, banking industry representatives reject the idea that employees were punished for reporting problems.
In court documents, Wells Fargo denied Parmer's charges that management interfered with in-house fraud watchdogs. The bank said Parmer was never prohibited from calling the ethics line and that its internal investigation showed that no one retaliated against her and that "no fraudulent activity occurred."
A Wells Fargo spokeswoman told iWatch News that the bank has extensive protections for internal whistleblowers and that it is the responsibility of all employees to raise concerns about ethics breaches or law violations.
"We have a strict code of ethics and a no-retaliation policy," Wells Fargo spokeswoman Vickee Adams said. "We take responsibility for our actions, and when there's evidence of a mistake and there's something that's needs to be corrected, we take action."
iWatch News has reported on former employees of Countrywide Financial Corp. who claimed the company retaliated against them for objecting to falsified mortgage documents and other fraud. In September the Labor Department ruled that Bank of America Corp., which bought Countrywide in 2008, had fired Eileen Foster, the mortgage lender's fraud investigations chief, as punishment for finding widespread fraud and for trying to protect other whistleblowers within the company.
Further investigation reveals that concerns about the abuse of whistleblowers weren't limited to Countrywide.
Most of the workers who claimed they were punished for trying to fight fraud worked at giant firms such as Wells Fargo or Washington Mutual (WaMu). Others worked at smaller lenders that joined the rush to sell home loans during the boom years.
Wherever they worked, their accounts are similar. Many claim that commission-hungry workers falsified loan applicants' incomes and bank statements, pushed appraisers to exaggerate property values and, in some instances, forged consumers' signatures on documents.
In many cases, the former employees say, management encouraged the fraud and protected the fraudsters.
Parker, the former Ameriquest fraud investigations chief, claims that he had few problems when he did "ones" and "twos" — investigating cases that involved an employee or two who could cause only limited damage, he said. But things changed, he said, when he tried to fight systemic fraud by focusing on branches or regions where fraud was so prevalent, workers joked that bogus documents were being produced in the "art department."
Management instructed his unit to limit its investigations by reducing the number of loan files it pulled when it went into a branch, Parker said. He was left out of meetings and key decisions and, eventually, squeezed out of his job, he claimed.
Ameriquest later agreed to pay $325 million to settle loan-fraud allegations by authorities in 49 states and the District of Columbia. It stopped making loans in 2007.
The company said previously in a written statement that Parker was a "disgruntled former employee" who lost his wrongful dismissal claim against the company before an arbitrator. In a 2007 opinion, the arbitrator ruled Parker hadn't been able to prove that the company's treatment of him was connected to his reports about fraud, adding that it "stretches the imagination" to think a company would retaliate against a fraud investigator for "doing his job."
More generally, Ameriquest said it "had a policy of zero tolerance for fraud. When problems were discovered, the company addressed them, including immediately terminating the employee or vendor and pursuing civil and criminal action against them."
'Fraud is fraud'
At a White House press conference in October, ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper asked President Obama why his administration hadn't pursued criminal cases more aggressively in the aftermath of disasters at Lehman Brothers and other banks.
"I don't think any Wall Street executives have gone to jail, despite the rampant corruption and malfeasance that did take place," Tapper said.
Obama replied that in many instances the government might have trouble making criminal charges stick, because "a lot of that stuff wasn't necessarily illegal. It was just immoral or inappropriate or reckless."
Obama isn't alone in suggesting that criminal fraud by banks wasn't the main cause of the nation's financial disaster. Bankers have cited unpredictable market conditions, the federal government and borrowers as being among the chief culprits.
In congressional testimony, former Washington Mutual chief executive Kerry Killinger blamed borrowers for misleading WaMu about their incomes and other details in their loan applications.
"I'm certainly very disappointed to think about my customers lying to me, because that's fraud and it shouldn't happen," Killinger said. "But I think an objective look at things is that there must have been situations where people did not tell the truth on their applications."
Many whistleblowers who worked inside major banks counter that it was fraud by lenders — not borrowers — that was the driving force in the growth of toxic loans that caused the mortgage meltdown.
"Fraud is fraud," Parker said. "It's fraud if someone changes information in a loan file without the borrower's knowledge or does anything deceptive to get a loan approved and passed through. How can you say those are not criminal acts?"
Parker and other former mortgage workers say some borrowers did take part in the fraud, but they usually did so with coaching from sales representatives who knew how to work the system to get deals done. And in many cases, Parker and others say, borrowers weren't aware of the deception and were fooled by bait-and-switch salesmanship and other tactics used by the mortgage professionals who controlled the process.
A two-year U.S. Senate investigation found that senior management at Washington Mutual ignored clear evidence that bank employees were engaging in fraud.
In a report released in April, Senate investigators noted that an internal WaMu review of a high-volume loan center in Southern California found that as many as 83 percent of the loans it booked contained fraud. Despite in-house gatekeepers' warnings about fraud at that location and other loan centers, WaMu executives took "no discernable actions" to deal with problem, the Senate report said.
Top sales managers suspected of fraud, the report said, were allowed to continue to produce huge volumes of loans and win trips to Hawaii as members of WaMu's "President's Club."
WaMu collapsed in September 2008, a $300 billion institution buried in bad loans. It was the largest bank failure in American history — and one of the biggest casualties of risky practices and missed warning signs stretching back to the start of the last decade.
In the spring and summer of 2001, Matthew Lee was a busy man.
A fair-lending activist and blogger on innercitypress.org, Lee was fielding a growing number of emails and phone messages from people who worked at Citigroup's subprime lending unit, CitiFinancial. The lender, they told Lee, was using slippery methods to trap borrowers in cycles of overpriced debt.
The more he reported the whistleblowers' information on his website, the more whistleblowers contacted him. "I can't count the number of times people called me and said: 'It's actually worse than you described. Let me tell you about it,'" Lee recalled.
In all, Lee estimates, he talked with three dozen current and former CitiFinancial employees.
One continued helping Lee even after he lost his job at Citi, digging through trash bins outside CitiFinancial branches around Tennessee and rescuing internal memos and other documents that, in Lee's view, provided evidence of the lender's "pervasive lawlessness." The documents would arrive via overnight mail, often damp and smelling of used coffee grounds.
One former CitiFinancial employee, Steve Toomey, agreed to go on the record, signing a statement that said managers pushed workers to mislead borrowers about the costs of their loans and to falsify information in borrowers' files. Lee filed Toomey's affidavit and other documents with banking regulators at the Federal Reserve.
CitiFinancial immediately denied the allegations against the company, asserting, for example, that Toomey had only raised questions after "he concluded that the company would not pay him monies that he demanded to resolve an employment dispute."
With the pressure building, Citigroup went out of its way to warn other current and former employees to keep quiet about what went on at CitiFinancial, according to Reuters news service.
Citigroup, Reuters said, hired a famed litigator "to help fight allegations of illegal lending practices and prevent former employees from bad-mouthing the financial services giant." Mitchell Ettinger, one of Bill Clinton's lawyers in the Paula Jones case, met with at least 15 current or former employees, reminding the ex-employees that Citigroup would enforce the "non-disparagement clauses" in their severance agreements with the company, Reuters said.
Lee charged that this was an attempt to paper over evidence of misconduct inside CitiFinancial. Why, he argued, would Citigroup dispatch a partner from Skadden Arps, described by Forbes magazine as "Wall Street's most powerful law firm," to talk with low-level employees?
Citigroup told Reuters the bank had acted properly. It added that the standard non-disparagement clause in the bank's severance agreements wouldn't prevent ex-employees from reporting illegalities.
Ettinger did not respond to requests for comment from iWatch News. A Citigroup spokesman declined to answer specific questions from iWatch News about former employees' complaints. He said "issues from that time period" were "investigated and responded to appropriately by the company."
The Federal Reserve eventually fined CitiFinancial $70 million for regulatory violations. Lee said that the Fed focused mainly on technical issues, however, and did nothing to protect whistleblowers from intimidation by the bank.
That, Lee said, made it less likely that more employees would come forward in the future with information about misconduct at Citi — or at other financial institutions that wanted to keep misbehavior secret.
"When people do step forward and put themselves at risk, you need to aggressively say to them, 'If you've received any threats from the company, let us know,'" Lee said.
A spokeswoman said the Federal Reserve couldn't comment on issues involving individual banks.
'Their integrity … failed'
As whistleblowers were drawing scrutiny to Citigroup, then the nation's largest commercial bank, others were raising questions about Washington Mutual, the nation's largest savings and loan.
One of them was Theresa Hagman, a vice president in WaMu's custom home-construction lending division. In 2003, Hagman spotted an increase in the number of construction loans going into default. She believed this was happening because loans were being pushed through without proper documentation, in violation of federal lending laws.
But when she pressed the issue with a high-level sales manager, Hagman later testified in a Labor Department hearing, he jumped out of his chair and charged her, screaming at her as his face purpled and veins popped in his neck. (In his testimony, the manager conceded he'd had disagreements with Hagman but denied they'd had heated confrontations.)
As an internal investigation proceeded, a senior vice president wrote: "If this wasn't a good example of a need for a Fraud team, then I can't find one. This poor individual is feeling like she is getting no support from her management."
The senior executive's concerns weren't enough to protect her from more retaliation, Hagman said.
"I was being brutalized, and they knew it," Hagman testified. "I was sharing the emails with everybody, pleading for protection. … We had borrowers that were being damaged and employees that were scared and crying."
In March 2004, WaMu fired her.
Hagman filed a claim for federal whistleblower protection under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the corporate reform law passed in response to accounting frauds at Enron Corp. and other big companies.
Hagman told an administrative law judge that there were "senior-level people in this organization who are still there today who did not tell the truth. Their integrity and their honor … without question failed."
WaMu maintained that there was no retaliation, only miscommunication between Hagman and her bosses. It said she hadn't been fired, she'd simply been let go as part of a restructuring.
The judge sided with Hagman. He ordered that WaMu pay her more than $1 million.
The whistleblower affairs at Citigroup and WaMu came as the mortgage market was beginning to gain steam, recovering from a late 1990s credit crisis that had put dozens of subprime lenders out of business.
By 2004, mortgage industry production and profits were exploding. As the push to book loans grew to a near frenzy, industry insiders recall, the atmosphere at many mortgage-sales operations devolved into a cross between a "boiler room" operation and a frat-house blowout.
At Citizens Financial Mortgage Inc., a small Pennsylvania-headquartered lender, the out-of-control behavior included an ugly mix of sexual harassment and fraud, a lawsuit filed by a former loan processor at the company charged.
Gina La Vitola claimed one manager at her branch in Essex County, N.J., ranted and cursed and gambled on sports during office hours, even getting a visit from a bookie delivering a wad of cash. On several occasions, she said in her lawsuit, the manager picked her up, threw her over his shoulder and then used her "as a weight bar to see how many squats he could do."
Supervisors' behavior degenerated from vulgar to threatening, she claimed, when she started complaining about inflated property appraisals and other misconduct. Managers often forged borrowers' signatures on loan documents and made up fake verification of employment forms, her lawsuit said. One manager, the suit said, had an arrangement with a friendly business owner who was willing to falsely claim that the manager's loan customers were on his payroll.
After she reported the problems to Citizens' president, she claimed, she got "the silent treatment" from coworkers and her bosses drastically changed her work hours and duties.
Finally, she said, a manager telephoned her and explained that, since her complaint, the "vibe is not there" in the office. That was a problem, he said, because he was "big about vibe, energy."
He told her the company was letting her go, she claimed.
The company strongly denied her allegations. The case was settled on undisclosed terms. A former company official confirmed to iWatch News that Citizens was no longer in business, but said he couldn't comment on the lawsuit.
As mortgage salespeople embraced creative methods for pushing mortgages through the system, they were being stalked by a band of internal watchdogs.
Financial institutions keep fraud investigators and other gatekeepers on staff in part because they need to show regulators and investors that they have solid controls in place.
Many of these watchdogs took their jobs seriously.
In the spring of 2005, Darcy Parmer joined a team at Wells Fargo that was working on a plan to create a fraud detection report.
By doing queries within the bank's computerized mortgage-application system, Parmer said, she and other fraud sleuths found a large number of duplicate credit applications submitted to various branch offices and divisions within Wells Fargo. It appeared to Parmer that loan officers were helping borrowers who'd been turned down for loans resubmit their applications elsewhere within the bank, inflating their incomes from one application to the next by as much as 100 percent.
The report, Parmer believed, was a great tool for sniffing out fraud. In 2006, however, management terminated use of the fraud detection report, Parmer said. Nothing was put in place to replace it, she said.
It wasn't the only time that higher ups interfered with internal watchdogs' ability to do their jobs, according to Parmer's lawsuit in federal court in Colorado. Her court filings described many instances in which she claimed sales people and executives circumvented fraud controls or turned a blind eye to "acts of criminal fraud."
One case involved a borrower Parmer referred to in court papers as Ms. A. According to Parmer, a loan officer had claimed in the loan-underwriting system that Ms. A earned roughly $140,000 per year, but federal tax records indicated she earned less than half that much — barely $60,000 a year.
When she tried to stop the loan from going through, Parmer said, a manager chastised her: "This is what you do every time." He ordered her to close her investigation, she said.
After months of harassment, she said in an affidavit, she was "mentally and emotionally unable to continue working" and had to take disability leave to get treatment for distress and depression. After a time, she said, the bank informed her that her job had been filled.
Wells Fargo said in court documents that it had never fired her and that she was simply "on an unapproved leave of absence."
The bank's attorneys also said that Wells Fargo had refused to fund "nearly ever loan" that Parmer had complained about, and those that had funded had been handled "consistent with Wells Fargo protocol."
Parmer and the bank settled the case in 2009. The terms were confidential.
'In the dark'
When Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002, it raised hopes that more workers would be emboldened to come forward with information that would help prevent future corporate scandals. One legal scholar hailed the act — which gave federal labor officials the power to order companies to swiftly reinstate whistleblowers with back pay — as "the most important whistleblower protection law in the world."
Things haven't worked out as whistleblower advocates had hoped. Critics claim the Labor Department hasn't done enough to protect financial whistleblowers.
In roughly the first nine years of the law — from 2002 through May 20 of this year — the agency issued merit findings in 21 whistleblower complaints and dismissed 1,211 others.
That record is just one example, whistleblower advocates say, of the trials that corporate whistleblowers go through when they try to do the right thing.
When whistleblowers seek help from government agencies or state and federal courts, they often face long delays and find themselves outgunned by their employers' legal teams.
At the same time, employers are often successful at preventing whistleblowers from getting the word out to the wider world. When companies and employees negotiate severance contracts and legal settlements, confidentiality clauses often permanently silence whistleblowers. Companies also frequently force ex-employees with whistleblower claims into private arbitration, ensuring that many details of their cases will remain secret.
Judges in Los Angeles, for example, have booted three former WaMu employees out of court and ordered them to go before arbitrators to press their claims that the company pushed them out of their jobs in early 2008 because they refused to participate in fraud.
Some former mortgage-industry workers contacted by iWatch News declined to talk in more detail about their legal claims because they're gagged by secrecy agreements. Others said they couldn't talk on the record because they still work in banking and don't want to get in trouble with their current employers, or because they're looking for jobs and don't want to be blacklisted.
"Hell, we want to work," one mortgage fraud investigator said, explaining why he and many of his colleagues haven't gone public with what they know.
Matthew Lee, the fair lending activist who clashed with Citigroup a decade ago, believes getting whistleblowers to come forward is crucial to preventing the next financial meltdown.
Fraud thrives in secret. If regulators are serious about holding banks accountable, Lee said, they should cultivate and protect whistleblowers and serve as a counterweight to the power of big banks and their armies of lawyers.
"They need to think through how they're going to protect people in the industry who come forward with information," Lee said. "If you don't, you're going to be in the dark."
Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.