As state mortgage inquiry begins, accusations grow

The Baltimore Sun

While city, state and federal leaders held a conference yesterday announcing the new Maryland mortgage fraud task force devoted to prosecuting scam artists, Baltimore lawyers assured a federal judge that they had proof that Wells Fargo Bank was one of the bad guys.

The bank's "predatory lending" caused vacant properties and increased crime in the city's black communities, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the city last year. Wells Fargo mortgage brokers purposely steered black "prime borrowers into subprime loans," attorney John Relman said. "We have significant evidence of that, we have strong evidence of that, we know that that was the practice."

Wells Fargo vehemently denies the allegations, which are unproven.

In determining whether the potentially groundbreaking lawsuit can go forward, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Benson E. Legg had asked the city to outline its proof during a hearing yesterday in his Baltimore courtroom, but he ran out of time for it. A conference call will be scheduled for next week to discuss the evidence.

Meanwhile, across the street at the U.S. attorney's office, representatives from more than a dozen agencies met to discuss the goals of the new task force, along with the basics of mortgage fraud and investigative strategies.

They received briefings and "developed plans to hold even more con artists accountable and deter mortgage fraud in the future," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement. "We are going to seize cash, bank accounts, jewelry, artwork, houses, cars, boats and other assets that were purchased with ill-gotten gains and return the money to the victims."

Other agencies represented in the task force include the state's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation; the state attorney general's office; Insurance Administration; Department of Human Resources; police; and the state's attorneys' offices for Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties. The FBI, Social Security Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Veterans Affairs, Internal Revenue Service, Postal Inspection Service and Secret Service are also involved.

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