The Miami Herald

Excuse for broker fiasco a tough sell

The words reached up from my Miami Herald and switched on an epiphany: So that explains it.

That's why, between 2000 and 2007, the Office of Financial Regulation allowed 10,529 ex-cons to peddle mortgages in Florida: Because Florida believes so fervently in rehab.

Less-progressive states push convicted felons into tough, menial jobs. They work their way back into society's trust as construction laborers, metal fabricators, dock workers, janitors.

But Florida puts them to work in the mortgage industry. Right off. No questions asked.

The Herald's Jack Dolan, Matthew Haggman and Rob Barry documented how OFR allowed thousand of felons to become mortgage brokers. The felonious brokers lured the elderly, poor and disabled into outlandish mortgage scams. They invented wildly inflated appraisals, composed mendacious loan applications. They defrauded borrowers. They absconded with millions.

BUBBLE CREATED

Their legion of dodgy loans helped create a bubble ready to burst. They made Florida No. 1 in mortgage fraud.

Why would the agency let so many bad actors loose in a vulnerable industry? Incompetence? Laziness? Or was it laissez faire gone wild in an administration philosophically opposed to regulating business?

OFR's official answer was deep in Sunday's story. Terry Straub, director of the agency's division of finance, was explaining why his office handed out licenses to people with records ranging from fraud to cocaine conviction to murder. "We look at all the facets around, you know, whatever file, and we predicate on the fact that everybody deserves another chance, " he said.

AN EPIPHANY

Florida's determination to give convicts a second chance also came as something of an epiphany to Mark Maur, executive director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project. He tussled for years with state officials over Florida's reluctance to restore voting rights to ex-convicts. Yet, ex-cons who couldn't get voting cards in Florida had no trouble getting their mortgage broker licenses.

Admittedly, some were convicted of crimes that don't necessarily suggest they'd make lousy mortgage brokers. The Kissimmee fellow who strangled his wife and dumped her body into Tampa Bay might not be a such a great bet for a marriage license, but wifely homicide entails a different criminal bent than mortgage fraud. (The Herald found 15 convicted killers received licenses between 2000 and 2007). The same argument might apply to the 84 sex offenders, 253 drug dealers or 835 convicted of assault and battery.

TOUGHER ARGUMENT

The argument gets tougher for 922 larceny convicts, 327 burglars and 67 robbers.

But the 252 convicted of fraud and 161 for forgery just don't seem like ideal candidates for jobs with access to Social Security numbers and personal financial records.

Even Maur, who crusades for open-minded employment opportunities for former prisoners, was startled to find out Florida allows convicted frauds back into the henhouse. "We're opposed to overly broad employment restrictions, but we recognize that some restrictions should be tied to occupations, " he said.

"You don't allow pedophiles to work in a day-care center. And convicted frauds . . ." Maur's statement trailed off into a disbelieving question. "As mortgage brokers?"




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