Congress could crack down on mortgage lenders preying on troops
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 9, 2011
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers said they will consider tougher penalties, including larger fines and criminal charges, against mortgage lenders who ignored financial protections for active-duty troops and overcharged military families thousands in loan fees.
“You’ve broken the law, you’ve ruined people’s lives, and someone needs to take responsibility for that,” Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., ranking member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told officials from JPMorgan Chase. “This is not over for them. Something needs to be done.”
Last month, following news reports chronicling the problems, officials from JPMorgan Chase announced they would repay more than $2.4 million to nearly 4,500 military families who were overcharged for mortgages in recent years.
The company also acknowledged that at least 14 military families had lost their homes as a result of the mistakes. Since then at least four others have been identified, although the company has said that settlements have been reached with 12 of the 18.
At issue are violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which caps servicemembers’ interest payments on existing loans at 6 percent while they are on active duty. Plaintiffs in the class-action suit said Chase routinely charged them up to 10 percent interest despite repeated requests from troops to lower the rate.
Capt. Jonathan Rowles, a Marine Corps pilot, said the company for years has threatened to foreclose on his home despite his military status, even harassing his wife with daily phone calls while he was deployed to Iraq. The couple repeatedly pleaded with Chase officials to lower their interest rate to 6 percent as mandated by law, but quickly fell behind thousands of dollars on their loan.
“When you make a phone call home at 2 in the morning and spend your time talking about sending another letter or making another phone call to fix this, instead of telling your wife ‘I love you,’ that’s wrong,” he said, fighting back tears during his testimony.
Richard Harpootlian, an attorney handling a class-action lawsuit on troops’ behalf against Chase, told committee members while a legal judgment will be embarrassing for the company, Congress needs to tighten penalties to discourage other firms from repeating the mistakes.
“There seems to be a corporate-wide problem, and there seems to be no patriotism,” Harpootlian said. “They don’t care about the men and women fighting overseas.”
He suggested allowing troops to recoup legal fees in cases where the SCRA has been violated, raising punitive penalties to more than $500,000 for violations of the law, and allowing for criminal charges against companies in the most egregious cases. Republicans on the panel promised to look at possible updates to the law, last revised in 2003.
Democrats on the committee pushed for more. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine., called the Rowles story more than simple accounting errors, blasting the “arrogance and greed” of Chase officials. He suggested banks should be held criminally liable if any of the affected servicemembers committed suicide due to financial stress.
For their part, officials from Chase said they deeply regret the mistakes made in the troops’ mortgages. Stephanie Mudick, executive vice president for consumer practices, said already the company has set up a new SCRA office to handle all military loan issues, trained dozens of managers on the loan mistakes, and launched a company-wide audit to fix the problems.
“We did a terrible job,” she said. “I guarantee you we will get this right.”
Committee officials said they were aware of similar lawsuits for violations of SCRA provisions against at least one other major mortgage company — Deutsche Bank — but added that members will look at education of business leaders and troops on rights and protections available to active-duty servicemembers in future hearings.