Mortgage regulator steps down

 

jdolan@MiamiHerald.com

TALLAHASSEE -- Embattled state mortgage regulator Don Saxon, whose agency allowed thousands of former criminals to sell loans in Florida, abruptly resigned Tuesday as the state Cabinet debated his fate.

After Saxon unveiled emergency changes to toughen the state's licensing rules for mortgage brokers, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink called for his resignation for the second time in three weeks.

This time, Gov. Charlie Crist seconded the motion.

Before they could vote, Saxon interrupted, offering to step down effective Sept. 30, signaling the end of a state government career that began 33 years ago.

The resignation comes three weeks after a Miami Herald series revealed his Office of Financial Regulation -- created to protect consumers -- permitted bank robbers, money launderers and cocaine traffickers to obtain mortgage broker licenses during the most explosive housing boom in state history.

Those ex-criminals went on to steal millions from consumers, the newspaper found.

Saxon mounted a sprited defense, issuing a 40-page rebuttal to the newspaper series, which claimed permissive state laws and a lack of resources kept his agency from doing more to protect the public.

CONFIDENCE 'SHAKEN'

After listening to a summary of that report at a Cabinet meeting two weeks ago, Crist said his confidence in Saxon was "shaken."

On Tuesday the governor said nothing he has learned since then has changed his mind.

"I think what happened today was appropriate and just, " Crist said.

Saxon had been under criticism since the newspaper began publishing its series last month showing flaws in the state's licensing system.

On Sunday, the newspaper's latest installment revealed that Saxon's agency failed to revoke licenses from brokers even after they were caught committing fraud, the most serious offense under state law.

For Sink, that was the last straw: "The bad news just kept coming."

Saxon, 57, is a career regulator who became commissioner of the OFR when it was created in 2003, overseeing the mortgage, banking and securities industries.

NO WARNING

Top state lawmakers reserved their sharpest criticism of him for failing to warn them about the problems brewing in his agency during a mortgage crisis that contributed to the state's economic decline.

The Herald series revealed that the OFR licensed more than 4,000 brokers with criminal histories, including offenses state law specifically required the agency to look for in criminal background checks.

Those brokers went on to commit at least $85 million in mortgage fraud, The Herald found. Two weeks ago, Saxon told the Cabinet his agency reviewed the criminals' applications on a "case by case" basis.

One of those cases involved Tampa broker Scott Almeida, who admitted on his application that he had just come out of federal prison for cocaine trafficking. One of his character references: his mother.

OFR granted his license in 2003, and he went on to fleece nearly $3 million from 30 people, most of them elderly and disabled.

Just before his resignation at Tuesday's meeting, Saxon proposed an emergency rule change that would ban felons convicted of financial crimes from the mortgage industry for life.

The rule, which expands on a federal law passed last month, would also impose long waiting periods on people convicted of violent crimes or financial misdemeanors.

SOME CONCERNS

Cabinet members voted 4-0 to accept the emergency rule, despite some concern about whether they could impose all of its measures without legislative approval.

Legislators don't come back to Tallahassee until next spring.

"We have the authority until someone says we don't, " Crist said after the vote. "It protects people."

While the measure addresses several problems, it doesn't tackle two key areas of concern: the licensing of loan originators and mandatory criminal background checks for mortgage brokers renewing their licenses.

Saxon, whose agency has consistently opposed licensing loan originators, said the Legislature would have to change the law to include them in the background checks. Lawmakers would also have to impose changes to mandate criminal background checks for brokers renewing their licenses.

The Herald found 20 brokers who were allowed to renew their licenses despite being found guilty of mortgage fraud.

After voting on the emergency rule, Sink turned the conversation to Saxon's future, noting "these are rules that could have been put in place years ago."

LEADERSHIP AT ISSUE

She said the OFR needed more aggressive leadership and asked her panel members to "think about all the people who haven't been protected because our board hasn't been asked to act."

Saxon said he wants to stay in his $133,000-per-year job until Crist's inspector general finishes an audit of the agency. That report is due at the next Financial Services Committee meeting on Sept. 16.

"It was always my hope that, once that audit was complete, it would show we had not acted as recklessly as The Miami Herald might suggest, " Saxon said.

After the Cabinet voted to accept his resignation, Saxon marched swiftly out of the chamber, telling reporters, "I have been contemplating this since long before the series came out, so this just seemed to be the perfect timing."

Saxon will be eligible for a lump sum payment of $198,675 from the Deferred Retirement Option Program when he leaves, according to a spokesman for the Department of Management Services.

His state pension will pay $61,000 per year.

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