The Miami Herald

Dark side of mortgage crisis; a new voice

Two elements in today's paper deserve special attention. One is a startling report on the front page about the role that convicted criminals are playing in Florida's mortgage troubles. The other is the first column by our new Metro columnist, Myriam Marquez.

Here's a glimpse at the story behind each of them:

The mortgage package examines a largely overlooked part of the real-estate crisis. While many of our woes flow from lax standards and an overheated market, a big part of the problem in Florida can be traced to the thousands of convicted felons who have slipped into the trade over the past decade.

The frustrating part, this series found, is that it could have been prevented if the state had enforced its own laws.

Work on the stories began last fall after the paper kicked up its real-estate coverage. While reporting other stories, reporters noticed an unusually high number of questionable characters among brokers who had opened shop in South Florida.

Reporter Jack Dolan and database editor Rob Barry started by collecting the list of all of the state's registered mortgage brokers and comparing them against the state's criminal-justice databases.

"We expected to find some criminal records, but on the first run we started coming up with bank robbers and racketeers, " said Jack. "We had no idea it was this bad."

The team expanded to include Matt Haggman, The Miami Herald's real-estate reporter, and then spent eight months studying how a state that prides itself on passing the nation's first brokers-licensing law 50 years ago could have so badly fumbled things.

They discovered that among the tens of thousands of brokers and loan officers who rushed into the trade in the boom times, thousands brought histories that should have barred them from the profession. Some moved to mortgage work right from jail.

"It was one of the major breakdowns that occurred in this crisis, " said Mike Sallah, The Herald's investigative editor. "Think about it. You're giving these people the most personal data in your life: Social Security numbers, credit reports, banking records."

Today's story documents the breadth of the problem. Monday's piece looks at a significant loophole in the state's rules that enables certain loan officers to avoid any kind of licensing or oversight. A third story to run two week from now will look at the state's handling of complaints. * * *

Also on today's front page, you'll find an inaugural column by Myriam Marquez, a long-time reporter, columnist and editor who brings a magnificent combination of experience and talent to the job.

Myriam knows Miami, arriving here from Cuba at age 5, growing up in a struggling immigrant family that moved every two years, and graduating from Miami High School and Miami Dade College before heading to the University of Maryland.

And she knows reporting, having covered Congress for United Press International, reported on the Maryland statehouse for the wire service, and then spending 18 years at the Orlando Sentinel as an editorial writer and columnist.

She joined The Herald three years ago as a local news editor and has directed coverage of such wide-ranging topics as immigration, education, gambling, growth and exile communities before becoming deputy Metro editor last year.

But reporting has always been her passion, and writing a local column in the town where she grew up was always a dream. So when Ana Menendez stepped down to accept a Fulbright Scholarship last month, Myriam stepped forward.

As readers in Orlando learned over the 15 years she wrote columns there, Myriam has much to say. She is drawn to a wide variety of topics, from education to politics, from ordinary people to the leaders in the community. She delivers her thoughts with an elegant, probing, thoughtful style.

"Today, there are so many voices out there yelling, " said Myriam. "I think the role of the columnist is to help explain the stories around us. There are times when you raise your voice, and you can point out the problems, but you also have to offer solutions. How do you fix things?"

You'll want to make it a habit to tune in every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday to see what she has to say.




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