From the Wall Street Journal:
Lender Lobbying Blitz Abetted Mortgage Mess
Ameriquest Pressed For Changes in Laws;
A Battle in New Jersey
By GLENN R. SIMPSON
December 31, 2007
During the housing boom, the subprime industry succeeded at more than just writing mortgages. It also shot down efforts by some states to curtail risky lending to borrowers with spotty credit.
Ameriquest Mortgage Co., until recently one of the nation’s largest subprime lenders, was at the center of those battles. Working with a husband-and-wife team of Washington lobbyists, it handed out more than $20 million in political donations and played a big role in persuading legislators in New Jersey and Georgia to relax tough new laws. Those victories, in turn, helped blunt efforts by other states to crack down on reckless lending, critics of the industry contend.
Executives at Ameriquest, based in Orange, Calif., acknowledge that the company lobbied heavily against state lending restrictions, but say that other subprime lenders did so as well. In fact, a host of subprime lenders and banking trade groups, including Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Countrywide Financial Corp. and the Mortgage Bankers Association, spent heavily on lobbying and political giving.
Data from federal and state campaign-finance records, Internal Revenue Service filings, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics show that from 2002 through 2006, Ameriquest, its executives and their spouses and business associates donated at least $20.5 million to state and federal political groups. In comparison, over the same time period, Countrywide Financial, another large subprime lender, gave about $2 million in campaign gifts, and spent an additional $6.7 million lobbying in Washington, records indicate.
Much of Ameriquest’s efforts took place below the national radar, at the state level. State legislatures wanted to crack down on so-called predatory lending, which refers to the use of deceptive or unfair practices in the sale of high-interest loans, often to low-income borrowers who can’t afford them. In New Jersey, for example, lawmakers passed a strong predatory-lending law in 2003 that made it difficult for Ameriquest to continue doing business there.
Problems were also developing for the industry in New Jersey. The state Assembly there passed a similar law against predatory lending, the Home Ownership Security Act. It too contained a tangible-net-benefit rule, but it didn’t provide much guidance on how the standard would be applied. “The New Jersey law makes it impossible for anyone to be in compliance,” Mr. Bass, the Ameriquest lawyer, complained at an industry conference.
In October 2002, Ameriquest and Mr. Andrews’s lobbying firm contributed $4,500 to five New Jersey state senators, state campaign reports indicate. The American Financial Services Association, a subprime industry group that included Ameriquest, predicted the law would cause lenders to abandon the state. Nevertheless, in the spring of 2003, the bill passed the state Senate and was signed into law.
At that point, opponents of the new law got some help. Just as it had done in Georgia, Standard & Poor’s said it wouldn’t rate some securities containing loans from the state. In addition, federal banking regulators issued a series of regulatory orders banning states from applying state consumer-protection rules to federally chartered banks and thrifts, part of a turf battle between federal and state regulators. That put pressure on states to soften predatory-lending rules so federally chartered banks didn’t have an advantage over state-chartered ones.
The subprime industry set to work trying to roll back the New Jersey law. The National Home Equity Mortgage Association, one of the subprime groups run by Mr. Andrews, released a survey predicting that the law would reduce mortgages in New Jersey by $4 billion.
Ameriquest and Mr. Andrews’s lobbying firm began handing out campaign contributions. Among the recipients were John Adler and Gerald Cardinale, two state senators who had voted for the new law. In October 2003, Mr. Cardinale, a Republican, received a $2,200 donation from Ameriquest, according to state election records. In November 2003, Mr. Adler, a Democrat, received $1,200 from the lobbying firm, the records indicate. In early December, the two senators introduced a bill to make changes sought by the industry.
That December, Neil Cohen, a state assemblyman who had voted for the new law, received a $500 donation from the lobbying firm, state records show. The Assembly’s Financial Institutions Committee, which was headed by Mr. Cohen, offered its own legislation to soften the lending law. Mr. Cohen couldn’t be reached for comment.
In 2004, as debate over the predatory-lending law dragged on, Ameriquest and Mr. Andrews’s lobbying firm together donated an additional $3,200 to Mr. Cohen, $1,100 to Mr. Cardinale and $1,300 to Mr. Adler, according to state records. Ameriquest gave $10,000 to the Democratic Party in the Assembly, $10,000 to Democrats in the Senate, and $7,000 to Senate Republicans, the records indicate.
Mr. Andrews’s wife, Lisa, then head of government affairs at Ameriquest, was also focused on New Jersey. On the Web site of her Washington public-relations firm, she says that she “built a coalition of mortgage brokers, mortgage bankers, appraisers, title companies, and others involved in home mortgage lending to create a grass-roots lobbying campaign that produced 7,000 emails and faxes to state policymakers in a six-week time frame.”
In June 2004, New Jersey’s Assembly and Senate unanimously passed bills that rolled back parts of the earlier law, including the tangible-net-benefit rule. Mr. Bass, the Ameriquest lawyer, announced that the company would “be offering a full range of loans in New Jersey.” Thousands of New Jersey homeowners subsequently refinanced existing mortgages or took out new loans with Ameriquest before the subprime market tanked. Many of those loans are now in foreclosure.