As state attorneys general across the country consider whether to settle with big banks over shoddy and illegal foreclosure practices, some Marylanders are urging Douglas F. Gansler not to sign on the dotted line.
Their efforts are part of a nationwide effort to press for investigations and lawsuits instead.
Gansler joined other Democratic attorneys general in Chicago on Monday to discuss proposed settlement terms, while their Republican counterparts talked details in a conference call. But groups and individuals angry at banks have been calling, writing and signing petitions to argue that a settlement would be a bad deal for Americans.
"I have written two letters, I have left three messages — I have pretty much been a big pain in their backside on this," said Sharon New, a food and health educator from Annapolis who doesn't want Gansler to be part of a deal that gives banks any immunity against liability for their actions.
New is not in foreclosure herself. A former paralegal, she is appalled at the thought that the clear chain of title that ownership requires was upended by banks' mortgage-servicing arms' rushing to foreclose without accurate documentation.
"This is hundreds of years of property law that has been completely dismantled in some jurisdictions," said New, who most recently called Gansler's office Friday in response to an appeal on the Naked Capitalism blog. "It's a very serious issue."
The total that banks would have to pay under the settlement is reportedly $20 billion to $25 billion — some of it in cash, most through reducing the amount of homeowners' mortgages — in exchange for an as-of-yet-unclear amount of protection from civil liability.
David Paulson, Gansler's spokesman, said the attorney general told him after the meeting ended Monday afternoon that a deal was "very close," but that he's not yet either on board or off.
"What he will do with his aides is study this, gather all of the facts and make a determination on what is the best course for Maryland and Maryland homeowners," Paulson said.
Liberal advocacy groups, including MoveOn.org and the Campaign for America's Future, are attempting a full-court press to stop a settlement. MoveOn said the groups sent petitions — urging an investigation into "the big bank fraud that caused the housing crisis" — with more than 360,000 signatures to President Barack Obama last week, and then collected about 70,000 more over the weekend.
The advocacy groups were reacting to news reports that the Obama administration is pressuring state attorneys general to wrap up a settlement soon. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was in Chicago for the Monday talks.
Local MoveOn members, who organized a petition drive aimed at Gansler, met with the attorney general in December to make a personal pitch. His spokesman put the number of calls and messages over the last few months in the "dozens."
"They've been adamant, and emotional in some cases, but routinely nice," Paulson said.
The nationwide attorneys general inquiry began in October 2010 amid revelations of widespread "robo-signing" — foreclosure court documents produced en masse with forged signatures, bogus notarizations and little attention paid to whether anything else about them was accurate.
But since then, some states have gone after the mortgage industry directly.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who has criticized the extent of the national effort, launched his own probe. Delaware's attorney general filed suit against the mortgage registrar MERS. Massachusetts' attorney general sued five banks "for their roles in allegedly pursuing illegal foreclosures." California and Nevada's attorneys general said in December that their offices have teamed up on civil and criminal investigations into mortgage misconduct.
Still, a spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who is heading the national effort, said no states can be said to have dropped out of the settlement until there's a deal on the table and they decline to sign.
The Huffington Post reported that representatives from those five states' attorney general offices and nine others — including Maryland's — met this month to discuss mortgage investigation strategies and to express frustration with the settlement negotiations.
Paulson confirmed that Gansler sent representatives but said he could not characterize or discuss the meeting because it was confidential.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who is among the most vocal members of Congress on foreclosure issues, said he was eager to see a settlement that would help homeowners, but he shares the New York attorney general's concerns that more investigation into the behavior of banks is needed before "letting them off the hook" for future liability.
"We need to proceed very cautiously," Cummings said. "I think there's still work to be done."
Daniel Mintz, MoveOn's campaign director, said local members who met with Gansler in December felt he was sympathetic to their position that "what was needed was an investigation."
"At the same time, he talked about the difficulties of a single state sort of going it alone," Mintz said.
If the Maryland attorney general's office is in the middle of any investigations of its own, it's not saying. Unlike some attorneys general, Gansler has a policy of neither confirming nor denying that probes are under way.
"You could be damaging whatever it is you're doing — if you're doing something — by discussing it beforehand," said Paulson, the spokesman.
That has fueled frustrations.
"There's absolute silence from Mr. Gansler's office," said Elvia Thompson, an Annapolis website designer who wrote a letter in December asking him not to participate in a settlement.
The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's financial regulators are a party to the attorneys general's effort. Anne Balcer Norton, the state's deputy commissioner of financial regulation, said the agency would decide whether to sign a deal after weighing what Marylanders would get under the terms versus what they could possibly get in several years through lawsuits.
"We're working towards … a settlement agreement that is going to effectively change the way that loans are serviced and the way that foreclosures are processed," Norton said. "We just have to make sure, in doing so, it is in the best interests of Maryland homeowners and it's also not forfeiting any rights that Maryland homeowners individually have."
Maryland's financial regulators are examining mortgage servicers' files with banking-oversight agencies from other states, and Norton said the conclusions are troubling. Robo-signing is just one symptom of a "dysfunctional system," she said.
The common problems examiners found: Failing to follow internal procedures. Insufficiently training and supervising employees. Missing opportunities to fix mistakes, such as moving to foreclose on homeowners after approving loan modifications. And leaving law firms and other third parties handling aspects of the foreclosures without any oversight at all.
"They've almost been paralyzed by volume," Norton said of servicers. "They've let a lot of things proceed on automatic pilot."