By David Dayen
You know the old joke: How do you make a killing on Wall Street and never risk a loss? Easy—use other people’s money. Jamie Dimon and his underlings at JPMorgan Chase have perfected this dark art at America’s largest bank, which boasts a balance sheet one-eighth the size of the entire US economy.
After JPMorgan’s deceitful activities in the housing market helped trigger the 2008 financial crash that cost millions of Americans their jobs, homes, and life savings, punishment was in order. Among a vast array of misconduct, JPMorgan engaged in the routine use of “robo-signing,” which allowed bank employees to automatically sign hundreds, even thousands, of foreclosure documents per day without verifying their contents. But in the United States, white-collar criminals rarely go to prison; instead, they negotiate settlements. Thus, on February 9, 2012, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced the National Mortgage Settlement, which fined JPMorgan Chase and four other mega-banks a total of $25 billion.
JPMorgan’s share of the settlement was $5.3 billion, but only $1.1 billion had to be paid in cash; the other $4.2 billion was to come in the form of financial relief for homeowners in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. The settlement called for JPMorgan to reduce the amounts owed, modify the loan terms, and take other steps to help distressed Americans keep their homes. A separate 2013 settlement against the bank for deceiving mortgage investors included another $4 billion in consumer relief.
A Nation investigation can now reveal how JPMorgan met part of its $8.2 billion settlement burden: by using other people’s money.
Here’s how the alleged scam worked. JPMorgan moved to forgive the mortgages of tens of thousands of homeowners; the feds, in turn, credited these canceled loans against the penalties due under the 2012 and 2013 settlements. But here’s the rub: In many instances, JPMorgan was forgiving loans on properties it no longer owned.
The alleged fraud is described in internal JPMorgan documents, public records, testimony from homeowners and investors burned in the scam, and other evidence presented in a blockbuster lawsuit against JPMorgan, now being heard in US District Court in New York City.
JPMorgan no longer owned the properties because it had sold the mortgages years earlier to 21 third-party investors, including three companies owned by Larry Schneider. Those companies are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit; Schneider is also aiding the federal government in a related case against the bank. In a bizarre twist, a company associated with the Church of Scientology facilitated the apparent scheme. Nationwide Title Clearing, a document-processing company with close ties to the church, produced and filed the documents that JPMorgan needed to claim ownership and cancel the loans.