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Oct 19, 2019

Homewreckers

Co-produced with PRX Logo

After the housing bust, a group of men profited by destroying the American dream of homeownership for hundreds of thousands of families. On Reveal, we learn how these Homewreckers — many of whom are close to President Donald Trump — did it and meet a woman who fought back. 

This episode is based on Aaron Glantz’s new book, “Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream.”

Dig Deeper

  • Read: “Homewreckers,” a new book from Reveal reporter Aaron Glantz
  • Read: Profiting off pain: Trump confidant cashed in on housing crisis 
  • Read: Kept Out: For people of color, banks are shutting the door to homeownership
  • Listen: After the bubble burst

Credits

This week’s show was produced by Katharine Mieszkowski with help from Ike Sriskandarajah and edited by Deborah George. Reported by Aaron Glantz. 

Thanks to Geoff Shandler and the whole team at Custom House books, and to Kaitlin Benz and Quinn Lewis. 

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Amy Mostafa and Najib Aminy. Hosted by Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: Hey, hey, hey. Before we get started, we have a slight favor to ask. Reveal is conducting our annual audience survey, which I know, I know, it sounds a little boring, but really, it's important because it helps us serve you better. We want to know what you like about the show, what you don't like, how much of a raise you think I deserve, big one, important things like that. Listen. Here's the even more enticing detail, tote bags. Everyone loves tote bags. Insert the gif of Oprah Winfrey screaming at the camera, "You get a tote bag, and you get a tote bag," and you, my friend, could possibly get a tote bag. You'll be entered to win one of our latest Reveal tote bags. To get started, just text the word survey to 474747. Oh, and you can text stop at any time, and standard data rates apply. Again, text survey to 474747. Thank you.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This week, we're starting the show a little different. We're taking a stroll through one of America's wealthiest neighborhoods, Manhattan's Upper East Side. In this part of the city, you'll find museums like the Guggenheim and The Met, and if you make your way up Park Avenue, two blocks over from Central Park, what you'll really notice along this tree-lined boulevard are these imposing residential buildings full of apartments bigger than most people's houses. Reveal's Aaron Glantz is in front of one of them right now. Hey, Aaron.

 

Aaron Glantz: Hi, Al. Yeah, I'm in front of 740 Park Avenue. It's known as the world's richest apartment building. It's a gorgeous art deco building built back in the 1920s. Once it was home to John D. Rockefeller Jr., and now it's home to a lot of Donald Trump's closest friends and advisors. In fact, I'm looking down the street right now, and I can see the gold of Trump Tower.

 

Al Letson: Okay. So, who exactly lives at 740 Park Avenue?

 

Aaron Glantz: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, for one. So does Steve Schwarzman, the founder of Blackstone, the giant private equity firm, mogul Tom Barrack, one of Donald Trump's closest friends. He has an apartment in the neighborhood too.

 

Al Letson: Aaron, I know you've been investigating these guys for years. They don't just have Trump and a fancy address in common though. So, what's the real story here?

 

Aaron Glantz: I'm here because the people who live in this building, they're the people who hoovered up the wealth of hundreds of thousands of people. When millions of Americans lost their wealth, who got it? These people. I call them the homewreckers.

 

Al Letson: Homewreckers, that's the title of your new book, and you've been looking into how they manipulated our economy.

 

Aaron Glantz: Right. When eight million Americans lost their homes during the Great Recession, these men stepped in and made a killing. Most of the time, these homewreckers didn't have to break the rules. They took advantage of a rigged system, and even got the government's help. Now with Trump in office, some of them are making the rules.

 

Al Letson: Now, to understand how they pulled this off, you have to understand how people who live in that building on Park Avenue are connected to a house nearly 3,000 miles away. It's in a suburb just north of Los Angeles. Aaron went there over the summer.

 

Aaron Glantz: 681 Benson Way is the sort of home that you'll find all over America. It's 1,500 square feet, built in 1965. It has a two-car garage, decorative wooden shutters, and a small patch of lawn with a lemon tree out front. I've come here because all those homewreckers made money off this simple suburban home, and it all started with an ad.

 

James Garner: Hi. This is James Garner for Financial Freedom.

 

Aaron Glantz: It was 2005, and Richard [Hickerson] was sitting in the living room of this house in his overstuffed brown easy chair, his golden retriever at his side. His wife Patricia was a few feet away, sitting on the sofa. They had lived here for decades. Now in their late 70s, they were spending a lot of time just like this, watching TV.

 

James Garner: If you're 62 or older and own your own home, I'd like to talk to you about something you should know.

 

Aaron Glantz: The pitchman was one of Dick's favorite actors from the '70s.

 

James Garner: It's called a reverse mortgage, and it's a safe, easy way to quickly turn your home equity into tax-free money. If you're a homeowner 62 or older, why not give Financial Freedom a call? Who knows? It might just change your life too.

 

Aaron Glantz: Dick and Patricia had worked and saved their whole lives. They have $300,000 in the bank, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity in the house on Benson Way. But Dick was worried about the future, so when he saw the ad, Dick dialed the number on his screen, and soon a salesman arrived at their door with a red, white and blue PowerPoint presentation. The last slide read, "So, you ask, what's the catch? None." Dick and Patricia signed on the dotted line. Now, Dick and Patricia weren't living alone. Their oldest daughter, [Sandy Jolly 00:05:17], had moved home to live with her parents.

 

Sandy Jolly: They asked me if I would come home. My dad was suffering from terminal cancer. He was on narcotic pain medication, and he was drinking heavily for the pain. My mom had Alzheimer's. She couldn't do numbers or anything.

 

Aaron Glantz: Moving home was a big change for Sandy. She was a fiercely independent woman. When she was 19, she ran off when an airline pilot and became a flight attendant, back when they used to call them stewardesses. She and the pilot had a child together, then divorced. Sandy raised her daughter as a single mother. She was working in India, managing a nonprofit, when her parents got sick, and she came home. Sandy had moved home to protect her parents, but they'd signed the reserve mortgage without even telling her, and then three weeks later, something horrible happened. Dick went into the hospital for yet another surgery.

 

Sandy Jolly: He never came out of intensive care.

 

Aaron Glantz: Dick ended up dying in the hospital.

 

Sandy Jolly: That just weighed on my heart. It was so traumatic, I can't even tell you.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy was grieving, but she still had to care for her mother, and she had to sort out the family finances, so Sandy and her sister went upstairs to her parents' home office and opened the drawers.

 

Sandy Jolly: So, we started going through all the files, the file cabinet.

 

Aaron Glantz: What she found in that file cabinet, it would spark a 10-year battle between Sandy and the homewreckers.

 

Sandy Jolly: I found 14 pages of a reverse mortgage contract. My sister and I decided we were going to find out what the heck is this.

 

Aaron Glantz: Her father had just died. Dialing this mortgage company was the last thing Sandy wanted to do, but she found herself on the phone, day after day.

 

Sandy Jolly: I started calling the reverse mortgage company and said, "This money is sitting in the bank. We have no use for it. We need our property to care for my mom, and I want to give it back," and they refused, and they refused two more times after that.

 

Aaron Glantz: A reverse mortgage allows seniors to take money out of their homes, and in exchange, when they die, the bank can take the house. At the time, the house on Benson Way was worth about half a million dollars. Financial Freedom paid what was left on Dick and Patricia's mortgage, about 120,000, and put $80,000 in their savings account, money they'd never need to pay back. But the company also charged them $20,000 in fees. Every month thereafter, there'd be more fees, and the interest would compound, and after they both died, Financial Freedom would be able to take the house. This was during the housing bubble. Home prices were skyrocketing, and banks were hellbent on making as many loans as possible, no matter how improbable. That is, until the party ended.

 

Speaker 5: Fear, anger, and high anxiety were the prevailing emotions outside branches of the failed IndyMac bank out in California. Bill Whitaker [crosstalk]

 

Aaron Glantz: That reverse mortgage company, Financial Freedom, it was part of a huge bank called IndyMac, which you might remember from its infamous downfall during the financial crisis.

 

Speaker 6: Relax, you idiot.

 

Speaker 7: Let's not fight. [crosstalk]

 

Aaron Glantz: The Federal Government, in the form of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC, stepped in to take it over. Now the government was in the unpleasant position of owning this disaster of a bank, and while customers jostled on the streets of Pasadena, bank regulators in Washington were scrambling too. At the center of the crisis was Sheila Bair, chair of the FDIC. A Republican from Kansas, she'd been appointed by George W. Bush. Now, Bair's often portrayed as a hero, one of the few federal officials who stuck up for consumers during the financial crisis. People like Warren Buffett sang her praises.

 

Warren Buffet: He got a wonderful person with Sheila Bair, but most of the viewers have never heard of Sheila Bair. It's been a magnificent job. Nobody's ever heard of her. She'll never get a golden parachute or any severance pay or anything. She's done a great job.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sheila Bair's job was to safeguard consumer deposits, when meant stabilizing the banks. The last thing she wanted was to keep IndyMac on the government's books.

 

Sheila Bair: It was one of the worst of the worst, and that says a lot because there was a lot of bad mortgage lending going around.

 

Aaron Glantz: It was the summer of 2008. The economy was teetering, and Sheila Bair was stuck with IndyMac. She put it up for auction and waited for bidders, but the entire banking industry was collapsing, and she couldn't find one that wanted to buy it.

 

Sheila Bair: I will confidently say, of the options we had, we picked the best ones we could with... They weren't always good options.

 

Aaron Glantz: Well, you had one bidder, so you picked the best option you had.

 

Sheila Bair: That's right. Yes, we did.

 

Aaron Glantz: The only bidder was an investment group headed by Steve Mnuchin. Years before he became President Trump's treasury secretary, Mnuchin was just a hedge fund guy who'd once worked for Goldman Sachs. He lived in that opulent apartment building on Park Avenue that we told you about earlier. He was mostly known as the son of Robert Mnuchin, a top executive at Goldman. This was Steve's big chance to do a deal on his own. Here's how he described it years later on CNBC.

 

Steve Mnuchin: One of the most proud aspects of my career was buying IndyMac during the financial crisis. We bought it from the government in a highly-competitive six-month auction, and we saved a lot of [crosstalk]

 

Aaron Glantz: This was a great deal for Mnuchin. His group paid the government nothing. In exchange, they got the bank headquarters in Pasadena, 33 bank branches across Southern California, and six billion dollars worth of deposits, and they got all of IndyMac's loans, including billions of dollars worth of reverse mortgages, among them the one Sandy's parents took out. Even all these years later, Sheila Bair tells me that was the best deal the government could get.

 

Aaron Glantz: But you basically sold it for zero dollars, right?

 

Sheila Bair: People like to, "Whoa, you sold it for nothing." We sold it in return for... It wasn't a check they wrote us, but they were standing behind, they were assuming all of those liabilities that otherwise we were going to have to guarantee ourself.

 

Aaron Glantz: She says IndyMac's loans were so bad that the government would've lost a fortune if it had to pay off all that bad debt itself. So, even for zero dollars, she says, Steve Mnuchin was doing us all a big favor, and she notes that while Mnuchin and his group didn't pay the government anything, they did agree to invest more than a billion dollars in the bank. But here's the thing. When Steve Mnuchin foreclosed on a family like Sandy's and lost money, the government promised to pay almost all the difference.

 

Aaron Glantz: But actually, what their agreement says is that if they lose money, then you'll subsidize that too.

 

Sheila Bair: Right, and our losses would've been even higher if we had not offered the loss share, because they probably wouldn't even have taken it.

 

Aaron Glantz: I showed her a copy of the deal. It's 38 pages long.

 

Aaron Glantz: But in this case, the government is going to pick up the loss, and not only the loss of the loan, but also, it says here the accrued interest, attorney's fees, foreclosure cost, property protection, tax and insurance, appraisal cost, inspection cost. We're subsidizing all of this.

 

Sheila Bair: So, I think it's easy years after to say, "Oh. Well, you could've done this and this and this differently."

 

Aaron Glantz: She says the government had been handling bank takeovers this way as far back as the 1980s, and Sheila Bair notes she did get Steve Mnuchin to agree to one thing, to help the people on the other end of all those bad loans. She paints this as a major victory for homeowners. The deal basically invented mortgage modification programs, which were supposed to help regular people like Sandy Jolly, who were caught in the middle of a national economic catastrophe. By this point, it had been nearly four years since Sandy's father died, and she'd taken the bank to court, but now she hoped that with new ownership and a mortgage modification deal in place, the bank might work with her. I stood outside the courthouse as she described the case.

 

Sandy Jolly: All those years, I kept holding out the hope that justice could be served.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy didn't get a mortgage modification. Instead, she got a years-long court battle. Under Mnuchin's leadership, the bank fought back hard. The central issue, whether Sandy's parents had the mental capacity to sign the loan. The bank hired an expert witness who examined Sandy's mother. When he interviewed her, Patricia couldn't remember what day of the week it was, the name of her dog, or even how many legs a cow has.

 

Sandy Jolly: The way I saw this case, maybe in my naïve way, was that it was a slam dunk.

 

Aaron Glantz: But on the stand, the bank's medical expert testified that Sandy's mother did have the mental capacity to sign a reverse mortgage. The case didn't go to trial until 2011. By that point, Sandy's mother had died, and the bank's attorneys, they painted a sinister picture of Sandy's relationship with her parents.

 

Sandy Jolly: They called me a freeloader, living off my parents, that I moved in with my parents because I lost my job, and that I was a greedy, evil child who wanted the property, and I didn't care one wit about my parents, that I didn't love them at all.

 

Aaron Glantz: The jury sided with the bank. After the trial, the foreman signed a sworn affidavit saying that although a majority of the jury members thought the bank committed fraud, it didn't matter because Sandy's father wanted the reverse mortgage. According to the bank's lawyer, her dad even hugged the salesman. The bank's attorneys had done a good job. The foreman said that by the end of the trial, most of the jury didn't like Sandy Jolly. Several said they just didn't want her to get her parents' house.

 

Al Letson: The bank had successfully put Sandy on trial. She lost in court, but her fight was just beginning.

 

Steve Barrack: He who can sustain the most pain wins. This is my investment philosophy.

 

Al Letson: When we come back, we meet another homewrecker, who also found a way to profit off the house on Benson Way. That's next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're talking about a handful of people who made a ton of money by destroying the American Dream. We're calling them homewreckers. They're close to President Trump, and live close to Trump Tower. A bunch of them even live in the same building, 740 Park Avenue. Reporter Aaron Glantz is at that building, and Aaron, earlier we mentioned that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin lives there. I should say, at least when he's not at his other homes in Scotland, Bel-Air, Washington D.C.

 

Aaron Glantz: Yeah. Steve Mnuchin lives on the eighth and ninth floor. He has a view of Central Park. I can look up at his apartment from where I'm standing. I mean, obviously I'm not inside there now, but I can tell you that his apartment is 6,000 square feet, five bedrooms, six-and-a-half bathrooms, 11-foot ceilings, marble floors, a sweeping staircase, a wood-paneled library.

 

Al Letson: That sounds pretty impressive, and as I understand it, it's on the market.

 

Aaron Glantz: Yeah. He's trying to sell it for $27 million. Mnuchin used to party here with George Clooney, but now that he's in Washington, he has another mansion in Rock Creek Park, so he doesn't need this anymore. Maybe you should buy it.

 

Al Letson: Yeah. No. I work in public radio, man. There is no way I can afford an $18,000-a-month maintenance fee.

 

Aaron Glantz: Well, maybe you need a new line of work, Al, because that hasn't been a problem for Mnuchin. Remember, he's known as the foreclosure king. The Federal Government paid his group more than a billion dollars when his bank foreclosed on tons of homes.

 

Al Letson: Yeah, and one of them is the family home of the woman we've been following, Sandy Jolly. Before the break, we heard how she lost her court battle with Steve Mnuchin's bank, but she refused to give up. Aaron picks up the story from there.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy was one of more than a hundred-thousand families, including 23,000 who had reverse mortgages that Mnuchin's bank foreclosed on. I really wanted to talk to him about this. I made a bunch of inquiries, and even sent certified letters to four of his houses. He didn't respond. After her court battle, Sandy kept living in the house on Benson Way, and on April 2nd, 2013, when the house went on the auction block, she showed up. The auction was outside the same courthouse where she'd lost the trial. This spring, we went there together. Sandy told me how she'd arrived an hour early, clutching a large packet of paperwork. A crowd of potential buyers with clipboards gathered on the patio outside the building. They were waiting for the bidding to open on her home and at least a dozen others.

 

Sandy Jolly: It was mostly men. I started talking to them, and I handed them my flier that said all the reasons why they should not purchase this house.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy's flier was titled Unlawful, Unfair, and Fraudulent Business Practices. It listed nearly 50 reasons not to buy the house. For the most part, it worked. People bid on other homes. But then a woman came walking up.

 

Sandy Jolly: She was short. I don't know, five feet, maybe less. She had a suitcase with her, and she set up her little table. I've never seen one like this. It had a bench, and it had a desk. She plugged in everything, plugged in her Bluetooth, had her cellphone, and started making calls and setting up her computer. I was intimidated by her, but I wasn't going to be put off. I came over to her, and I wanted to hand her one of my papers, and she wouldn't take it.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy kept pushing, pointing out all the irregularities she said existed in the mortgage and in the foreclosure.

 

Sandy Jolly: "I'm asking you not to purchase it," and she said, "Well, that has nothing to do with me. That's between you and the lender." I said, "Well, these things can cloud the title and make it difficult for you," and she said, "It won't make it difficult for us. We're paying cash for the property."

 

Aaron Glantz: The bidding started at $315,000.

 

Sandy Jolly: She opened the bid, and then one other person bid something, and then she bid $10,000 over it, and that was that.

 

Aaron Glantz: She bought the house for $330,000?

 

Sandy Jolly: Right. I kept asking her, "What's going to happen? Who are you? Do you have a card?" She said, "Don't worry. You'll be contacted." I stayed there while she packed it all up, her chair, her computer, her Bluetooth, all of it.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy walked back to her car and sat there for about an hour. She was too upset to drive. There was nowhere else to go but the house she no longer owned. So, when she composed herself, she drove back to Benson Way. Her daughter was waiting for her there. Here sister came over too.

 

Sandy Jolly: We just walked around the house, remembering how long my parents had been there, how much they loved that house, how proud they were of that house. I was thinking of all the memories.

 

Aaron Glantz: Her reminiscing didn't last long. The next morning, she heard a sound at the door.

 

Sandy Jolly: Came downstairs, and there was this guy there, this young guy, and he said, "We're the new owner, and we have the right to evict you."

 

Aaron Glantz: He was sticking a notice to the door with blue masking tape. Sandy saved the notice and gave it to me to read.

 

Aaron Glantz: My priority is to keep you in the home as our own tenant. The new owner did not purchase this home for resale purposes, therefore we are not asking you to move. Should you receive fliers and letters that say we are trying to forcibly evict you, please know that this is absolutely not true.

 

Aaron Glantz: But at the same time, he also delivered a three-day eviction notice.

 

Sandy Jolly: Those letters said to me, they're going to put a tenant in here, and it's either going to be you, and you're going to agree to their terms, or it's going to be somebody else, and we don't really care.

 

Aaron Glantz: The name on the eviction notice was a mouthful, Colfin AI-5 California, LLC. That's who owned the house now.

 

Sandy Jolly: Obviously, I never heard of these people, and had no idea who they were, but as soon as the guy left, I got on my computer.

 

Aaron Glantz: Her Googling took Sandy to Colony Capital, a company founded by another homewrecker, billionaire Tom Barrack. For decades, Barrack has been a close friend of Donald Trump. He chaired the president's inaugural committee, and raised more than a hundred-million dollars for it. That put him under scrutiny in Robert Mueller's investigation. Among Barrack's many homes is an apartment in one of Donald Trump's buildings on Central Park South. It's on the same floor as Trump's son Eric, and it's less than a mile from Steve Mnuchin's home on Park Avenue. And that company that bought Sandy's home, Colfin AI-5 California, LLC, we found it was one of more than 300 shell companies incorporated in Delaware that were all part of Barrack's empire. See, for decades Barrack has been known as a contrarian investor, buying when everyone else is trying to sell.

 

Steve Barrack: This is my investment philosophy.

 

Aaron Glantz: We wanted to talk to Barrack, but he didn't want to talk to us. But here he is giving a keynote at a University of Chicago real estate conference. In the middle of the housing bust, he told the crowd he was placing a big bet by snatching up thousands of foreclosed homes.

 

Steve Barrack: It's been the greatest thing I've ever done in my professional life, honestly.

 

Aaron Glantz: What he described is exactly what happened to Sandy Jolly.

 

Steve Barrack: So, you send out teams with Bluetooths, analyzing what's going on in these houses, and that afternoon, they announce a place at which they will hold this auction, all cash, hundred-dollar increments.

 

Aaron Glantz: He sounds almost gleeful talking about it.

 

Steve Barrack: All cash means you have guys walking in, honestly, with bags of cashier's checks, because you have no idea what you're going to have to bid. So, we have these little 21-year-old kids that are walking in with bags, with Bluetooths on, with cashier's checks in these denominations.

 

Aaron Glantz: All those teams armed with Bluetooths helped Barrack's companies amass more than 30,000 homes, including the one that had belonged to Sandy Jolly's family. But that wasn't the only way Barrack got houses. The government also helped.

 

Steve Barrack: Any time the government is intervening in our business, if you buy, you will be successful.

 

Aaron Glantz: Remember, the country was in a recession, and by 2011, the government owned more than 200,000 homes that it didn't want. These were homes that had government-backed mortgages. When those mortgages went back, and the homes went into foreclosure, guess who ended up with them. We did. All that real estate swamped the newly formed Federal Housing Finance Agency.

 

Julia Gordon: With foreclosure files literally piling up in rooms, rooms just full of files that someone was supposed to do something with, and they didn't know what that thing was.

 

Aaron Glantz: Enter Julia Gordon, a high-level bureaucrat with a law degree from Harvard. She saw this economic crisis as an opportunity for reform. When she arrived, the agency was in disarray.

 

Julia Gordon: You had a small band of a few hundred civil servants. We're talking accountants, bank examiners, who suddenly had to run multi-trillion-dollar businesses, essentially. They were not trained for that, and so the reaction was, how can we make things go away and get back to normal as quickly as possible?

 

Aaron Glantz: The agency did ask the public what to do with all these foreclosed homes. Thousands of people weighed in. Some said they'd use the properties to prevent blight or promote home ownership.

 

Aaron Glantz: Was there any discussion like, "Okay. What if we bundle these in bundles of 25 or 50, where a non-profit organization or a city or somebody who wasn't a giant private equity firm could conceivably bid?" Did they talk about that?

 

Julia Gordon: Zero discussion of it. Of course, it was proposed, but it was considered a nonstarter due to complexity.

 

Aaron Glantz: Here's what the government did instead.

 

Julia Gordon: So, we held a big fire sale, and we sold mortgages at pennies on the dollar to the private equity infrastructure of the country.

 

Aaron Glantz: The first deal was with Tom Barrack's company, Colony Capital. It paid $34 million to buy a controlling interest in a thousand homes across Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. The deal was a steal. An independent appraiser valued those homes at more than $150 million, but Julia Gordon's bosses said it was the best deal they could get. Now, there were a lot of people, including Julia Gordon, who argued that if these homes were going to be sold in bulk, the deal should come with conditions, say, giving former homeowners like Sandy Jolly the opportunity to buy them back.

 

Julia Gordon: The concern was the more conditions that you put on these sales, the lower the price would be for people who wanted to buy them.

 

Aaron Glantz: But I don't understand, because you told me that there was this incredible pressure to maximize the return to the government, and now you're telling me that you went on a fire sale, and you sold these things for pennies on the dollar.

 

Julia Gordon: The prevailing view inside the building was that if you put conditions on what you could do or had to do at these properties, that that number would've been even smaller. Think about the supply-and-demand curve. At this point, there's a big supply and a desperate seller. That's an awesome time to be a buyer.

 

Aaron Glantz: But the auction was only for people who wanted to bid on 1,000 homes spread across three states.

 

Julia Gordon: True that. The way all of these auctions have been set up is that they are set up so only very wealthy, moneyed interest can participate.

 

Aaron Glantz: The government had other options.

 

Franklin R.: And there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business, which too often has given to a sacred trust, the likeness of callus and selfish wrongdoing.

 

Aaron Glantz: Back in the 1930s, when America faced an even greater depression, President Franklin Roosevelt formed a government-run mortgage company. Under Roosevelt, the government issued more than a million loans that helped keep people out of foreclosure, and in the rare cases when foreclosures did happen, the government held onto the houses, rented them out, and then sold them to families one at a time after the depression ended. As a result, the nation's home ownership rate rose for decades, helping to create the modern middle class. Roosevelt's government bank even made money for the taxpayers, unlike the recent deals that handed billions to the homewreckers while President Obama was in office. Julia Gordon says officials knew about this history and discussed it after the 2008 housing bust. She says she fought for these ideas, but her bosses weren't persuaded.

 

Julia Gordon: They missed a huge opportunity there. They could have rented these out to the folks who needed to rent at the time because of a foreclosure. They weren't able to buy a home again, and as time passed by, and as folks became eligible for a mortgage or reemployed and back in a financial position to get a mortgage, they could've sold those homes back to folks. They could've kept the original owners in there, or not.

 

Aaron Glantz: Who was on the losing end of those policy debates in Washington? People like Sandy Jolly. Millions of homes were changing hands, from individual families like Sandy's, to corporate out-of-town landlords, like the homewreckers. After the foreclosure, Sandy rented the house on Benson Way from Tom Barrack's company. The rent started at $1,900. Three months later, it went up to 2,400. A year after that, the company raised it again. Barrack argued that his firm did people like Sandy a favor by not forcing them to move right away, but that's not how Sandy sees it.

 

Sandy Jolly: They stole that money from me. That's how I feel.

 

Aaron Glantz: Imagine your family owned their home for more than 30 years, and now you're paying rent to live in that same house. Now you have no equity, no wealth, and your rent keeps going up.

 

Sandy Jolly: There were some months where friends and family helped me to pay that because I was still recovering from the end of life of my mom, and paying those expenses, and trying to keep our house.

 

Aaron Glantz: The lease Sandy signed with Barrack's company, it was unusual. It made her responsible for almost all the maintenance. If she needed an exterminator, Sandy would have to pay for it. The plumbing burst, Sandy would be on the hook. Replace a broken window? She'd also eat that cost. After renting her parents' home for a year-and-a-half, she'd paid more than $42,000 in rent. This was a house that her parents had bought for less than $90,000 back in 1980. Sandy was exhausted.

 

Sandy Jolly: Anybody who hears this will understand. The stress that you're under is so debilitating. The helplessness that you feel in these situations is so debilitating. You want to give up, and it's not in my nature to give up, but I can see there were times in my life where I felt like not that I wanted to harm myself, but that I didn't want to keep living.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy knew she needed to get out. By now, her parents' belongings were packed up, so she and her daughter made the half-hour drive up the coast to Oxnard, California. As they turned around the winding roads of subdivisions that bumped up against the Pacific Ocean, Sandy saw a little for rent sign on a brown tract home. She pulled out her cellphone and dialed the number. The rent was cheaper than her parents' home. The landlord was a person, not a company like Colony. She'd found a new place to live.

 

Al Letson: Sandy had moved out, but she kept fighting.

 

David Scher: I think Sandy was a consummate whistleblower.

 

Al Letson: And we find out that she's not the only one who feels that the government helped banks at the expense of homeowners.

 

Donald Trump: This is a disaster. So, US home ownership, it's down more, I think they said 51 years, it's the lowest. Right? 51 years.

 

Al Letson: That's what Donald Trump said on the campaign trail, but he surrounds himself with homewreckers. That's next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we've been talking about a small group of businessmen who cleaned up after the housing bust at the expense of everyday Americans. Reveal reporter Aaron Glantz has written about these guys in his new book called Homewreckers. Aaron's back in front of 740 Park Avenue, the world's richest apartment building, and Aaron, where does the story go from here?

 

Aaron Glantz: Not very far. This is the story of two neighbors. First, there's Sandy Jolly's adversary, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Remember, back in 2009, he paid the government nothing to buy IndyMac. Then the government paid him when his bank foreclosed on people, but Steve Mnuchin never intended to own that bank forever. He wanted to flip it and make a ton of money, so he started to look around for a buyer, and the buyer that he found was right here in this building, 740 Park Avenue.

 

Al Letson: And who's that?

 

Aaron Glantz: His name is John Thain. He had the penthouse, which had a private elevator. It's just a really amazing apartment.

 

Al Letson: Okay. So, I remember John Thain. He's the guy who took a ton of federal bailout money, which he turned into bonuses for himself and other executives at Merrill Lynch, even as the company was failing. He spent some of that bailout money remodeling his office, the famous $35,000 toilet.

 

Aaron Glantz: Yeah, that's John Thain. He of the $35,000 toilet. That kind of behavior got Thain fired, but pretty quickly he found himself running another bank called CIT, and that's where Thain was when his neighbor came calling. So, that bank that Steve Mnuchin's group bought off the government for zero dollars, five years later, he approached John Thain, his upstairs neighbor, and they agreed on a price, $3.4 billion.

 

Al Letson: But people must have been outraged by this. I mean, didn't we just go through this whole crisis where banks were considered too big to fail, and now we're going to create another mega bank run by this guy?

 

Aaron Glantz: Yeah, and it would've been the first new mega bank since the bust.

 

Al Letson: Okay. So, what happened when the news of the deal between Mnuchin and John Thain got out, and how was Sandy Jolly involved?

 

Aaron Glantz: Well, the news set off a ton of protests. Across the country, homeowners and consumer advocates mobilized to try to stop the sale. That brings us back to Sandy Jolly. She was one of the activists who forced the Federal Reserve to hold a special hearing. She testified about what happened to her family, but in August 2015, the sale went through anyway.

 

Sandy Jolly: You want to give up, and it's not in my nature to give up.

 

Aaron Glantz: Remember, Sandy had been fighting Mnuchin's bank for years, and she still lost her family home. Then she paid tens of thousands of dollars in rent to live in that same house. As she battled Mnuchin's bank, Sandy heard from a lot of other families, hundreds of them, families who had the same problem she did. Her phone rang off the hook with desperate people seeking advice.

 

Sandy Jolly: Well, what I learn along the way in losing every step of the way was I learned how to use every step of the way to the benefit of the next person so that it wouldn't happen to them.

 

Aaron Glantz: As she talked to these families who were trying to hold onto their homes, she realized this wasn't just her problem.

 

Sandy Jolly: I was looking for a bigger solution, an alternate solution, because that's always what I'm trying to look for, what are my next options?

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy became convinced that the bank was constantly breaking the law, and she wanted to do something about it, so she went online and found David Scher, a Washington D.C. lawyer, one of the top whistleblower attorneys in the country. He specialized in a particular type of case, representing people who say they have evidence the government is being defrauded.

 

David Scher: My personal first conversation with Sandy, I remember because I remember her story as being different. She wasn't a typical insider.

 

Aaron Glantz: Scher got his firm's private investigator involved to check Sandy out, and to be sure she was telling the truth. He decided to take the case.

 

David Scher: She wasn't in the industry or something. She was someone whose parents were a victim of this fraud, and I found that fascinating.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy came armed with piles of documents she'd spent years accumulating about her own story and the other families she heard from. The fraud Sandy alleged was really complicated. There are a lot of consumer protections Mnuchin's bank was supposed to provide for families with reverse mortgages. For example, they were supposed to give the heirs a chance to keep the house when an elderly borrower died, but Scher says the bank didn't follow these rules. He says they broke the law.

 

David Scher: He basically set up a system whereby this company would as quickly as possible immediately foreclose.

 

Aaron Glantz: Mnuchin then billed the government for his costs on the foreclosures, for things like attorney's fees and appraisal costs.

 

David Scher: Because the foreclosure wasn't proper, those fees are not legitimate. So, it was a couple of thousand dollars per house, which may not sound like a lot, but it added up to $100, $200 million or something by the time that you added it all up.

 

Aaron Glantz: Like I told you earlier, the government had agreed to back up all these bad mortgages, even picking up these other costs if there was a foreclosure. But if these foreclosures weren't legitimate, then Steve Mnuchin would be breaking the law, so David Scher called a friend in the US Attorney's office, and soon Sandy was headed to Washington for a meeting at the Justice Department.

 

David Scher: Several members from HUD, from the Department of Justice, FBI agents, and they drilled her for hours. That's my recollection of the meeting.

 

Sandy Jolly: I got very intimidated.

 

Aaron Glantz: After all that grilling, the government decided to take the case, but they told Sandy it was a secret.

 

Sandy Jolly: Can't tell anyone, cannot tell a soul.

 

Aaron Glantz: That's an incredible secret.

 

Sandy Jolly: Oh, my god. There were so many times when I wanted to tell somebody, anybody, and I couldn't do it.

 

Aaron Glantz: By now, it was 2015, a decade after Sandy's parents signed that reverse mortgage, and Sandy was told to wait, again. A year passed.

 

Donald Trump: What's the great thing that everybody wants?

 

Aaron Glantz: An election got underway.

 

Donald Trump: Home ownership, right? That's the American Dream, the American Dream. We want the American Dream. We want to own our home. Right? [crosstalk]

 

Aaron Glantz: Donald Trump was running for president as an outsider on a populous platform, and part of his pitch was that President Obama had bailed out the banks and left Americans with nothing.

 

Donald Trump: [crosstalk] This is a disaster. So, US home ownership, it's down more, I think they said 51 years, it's the lowest. Right? 51 years. So, look at this. Obama, great job, Obama. I don't think so. That's not too good, right? Not too good.

 

Aaron Glantz: That's Trump campaigning in a sports arena, August 2016, shortly before the election.

 

Donald Trump: Look at that number. It's [crosstalk]

 

Aaron Glantz: But while Trump was lauded the joys of home ownership, he surrounded himself with the very homewreckers who were undermining the American Dream. Steve Mnuchin was his campaign finance chairman. Tom Barrack, who ran the company that bought Sandy's home after the foreclosure, after Trump won, he planned the inauguration, and there were others, like Wilbur Ross, who led an investment group that also bought a bank off the government for zero dollars, and got billions in subsidies. He became the commerce secretary, and Trump picked Mnuchin to run the treasury department, putting Sandy's nemesis in charge regulating every American bank.

 

Donald Trump: Americans should know that, Steven, our nation's financial system is truly in great hands. With him, we're going to have no problem, believe me.

 

Aaron Glantz: But there were problems, which Mnuchin brought with him. Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida grilled Mnuchin about them during his Senate confirmation hearing.

 

Bill Nelson: A 90-year-old Lakeland woman was foreclosed on because of a 27-cent payment error. Foreclosing on an 80-year-old Orange Park, Florida woman that your bank claimed didn't live in the home, when in fact, she did, and she happened to have the foreclosure papers served on her in the home that the bank said she didn't live in.

 

Steve Mnuchin: I can assure you that as chairman of the bank, I took these issues very seriously. It's not to say that we didn't have certain mistakes. There were mistakes. We regret those mistakes. We had hundreds of thousands of delinquent loans. So, anybody who thinks that we made more money foreclosing on a loan than modifying a loan has no understanding of this.

 

Aaron Glantz: The Senate confirmed Mnuchin anyway. They didn't know about Sandy's whistleblower complaint because it was still a secret. All the while, the Justice Department was quietly working away on Sandy's case. Then on May 17th, 2017, Sandy a received a call from her lawyer.

 

Sandy Jolly: I was so excited, because you never think it's going to come. Really, I'd been doing it since 2005. I was just so overjoyed, and I hoped that it would make a difference.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy's lawyer told her she'd won. The government would recover $89 million, a figure that included a $1.6 million whistleblower fee that would be paid to Sandy. But even as it settled, the bank didn't admit it had wrongfully foreclosed on anyone. Of course, Steve Mnuchin was gone by this time. He had sold the bank, and was now the treasury secretary.

 

Sandy Jolly: Well, it's not justice. It's not even remotely justice. I will never be able to recover from this experience.

 

Aaron Glantz: Sandy's share of the settlement, $1.6 million, it sounds like a lot, but after her lawyer took his percentage, and the IRS took its share, Sandy was left with about $500,000, after more than a decade of fighting.

 

Sandy Jolly: That house on Benson Way, which was to be our family's inheritance, we would've had $500,000 or $600,000 equity in it for our family, but I have the big win against them, making them pay anything. Even though it's a drop in the bucket to them, I have that.

 

Aaron Glantz: With the money she got, Sandy bought a new car, a Lexus, and finally got some long-delayed medical treatments.

 

Sandy Jolly: I started my nonprofit. I used some of my money to start my nonprofit.

 

Aaron Glantz: The nonprofit is called Consumer Advocates Against Reverse Mortgage Abuse, or CAARMA. It formalizes what Sandy was already doing, fighting for the people at the other end of all those bad loans. But the homewreckers are still winning, and incredibly, they're still cashing in on Sandy's family home.

 

Sandy Jolly: This is 681 Benson Way, where my parents lived here 35 years.

 

Aaron Glantz: I went back to see the house with Sandy this spring. It was raining. The house was sitting empty because it was up for rent.

 

Sandy Jolly: Now I see they've put one of those guard gates, those gates on the door.

 

Aaron Glantz: It was easy to get inside the house. We signed up online, and the corporate owner sent a code to get in. The house was completely empty, no furniture.

 

Sandy Jolly: If you can imagine this tiny kitchen, there would be 10 of us in here cooking a holiday dinner, in this little tiny place.

 

Aaron Glantz: I told Sandy what had happened to this house since she moved out. In 2017, Tom Barrack sold it, along with the rest of his single-family rental business, to Invitation Homes. Invitation is part of a huge private equity firm called Blackstone, which is run by another homewrecker, Steve Schwarzman. President Trump appointed Schwarzman chair of his strategic and policy forum, which met regularly at the White House. Schwarzman also lives at 740 Park Avenue, a few floors up from Steve Mnuchin. Now Schwarzman's firm owns 80,000 houses across 13 states, from Miami to Seattle. The house on Benson Way is just one of them. I told Sandy something else. The rent had gone up again, 3,100 a month.

 

Sandy Jolly: I mean, $3,100 for this? Really? It's crazy.

 

Aaron Glantz: We were standing in the living room, where her father had watched James Garner pitching reverse mortgages on TV so many years earlier. Then we walked up a narrow flight of stairs to the home office where Sandy first discovered those loan documents. I told Sandy that collecting rent wasn't the main way the homewreckers made money off this house now. It's like this. Collecting rent takes time, and they wanted to make a lot of money right away, so they bundled thousands of homes together and took on a ton of debt, and now it was part of a billion-dollar mortgage-backed security.

 

Sandy Jolly: That's mind-boggling to a person like me, who thinks $100,000 is a lot of money.

 

Aaron Glantz: They put that money in their pocket, that they sold it off to other investors, that debt, and that just a few months ago, they did again, and now it's a billion dollars that they pulled out of this home and thousands of other homes.

 

Aaron Glantz: You know how a family might pull $20,000 worth of equity out of their home to remodel their kitchen or fix their roof? I told Sandy the homewreckers did that on thousands of homes all at once. In fact, there was a $960 million lien on her parents' home.

 

Sandy Jolly: It seems inconceivable to me that people like that can conceive of a scheme, and now we're talking about billions of dollars like it's hundreds of dollars.

 

Aaron Glantz: It's a building block. The house that we are standing in is a building block of a fortune to be leveraged and traded and sold.

 

Sandy Jolly: Right. The big difference is that a home is a place for a family to live and grow and be happy, and gain some equity, and to them, it's not. It's that number and a property address. That's all it is, dollar signs and property address.

 

Aaron Glantz: I talked to an official at Invitation Homes. She said corporate landlords weren't doing anything wrong by leveraging the homes they own for billions of dollars in debt. She said her company wasn't responsible for killing the American Dream, and didn't have anything to do with the decline in home ownership. They're just providing options for people who want to rent. As Sandy and I walked through the house on Benson Way, with its empty rooms, Sandy realized it was the last time she would ever be here.

 

Sandy Jolly: I'm happy I came. I'm happy I came because there's nothing here for me anymore. There is not even a memory here for me anymore. Those are in my heart, and in everything I have of my parents. This just isn't ours anymore.

 

Aaron Glantz: We walked to the door and stepped outside into the rain, and drove off.

 

Al Letson: That was Reveal's Aaron Glantz. Aaron's new book, Homewreckers, is out this week from HarperCollins. To check out all of Aaron's related coverage, visit our website, revealnews.org/homewreckers. Our lead producer for this week's show is Katharine Mieszkowski. She had help this week from Ike Sriskandarajah. Deb George edited the show. Special thanks to Geoff Shandler and the whole team at Custom House Books, and the Kaitlin Benz and Quinn Lewis. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Kathryn T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 17: From PRX.