COSTA MESA, Calif. – California prosecutors sued several lawyers and call center operators for allegedly duping desperate homeowners across the country into paying thousands of dollars to join dubious lawsuits against big banks.
The complaint unsealed Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court accuses prominent foreclosure attorneys Philip Kramer and Mitchell Stein and at least 17 other individuals and businesses of ensnaring borrowers in a scheme that falsely promised a cut of future settlements.
The lawsuit portrays the defendants as the most recent in the chain of mortgage-related scammers who helped fuel the housing bubble and have cashed in on its collapse. The defendants previously worked in the fraud-ridden loan modification industry, in which lawyers offer to negotiate better mortgage terms on behalf of troubled borrowers in exchange for a fee.
They are accused of telling borrowers that they had a solid claim to being victims of predatory lending because courts had already found most lenders to have approved inappropriate mortgages.
"They essentially took advantage of what we know is a growing sentiment out there," California Attorney General Kamala Harris said Thursday. "They suggested that by joining this lawsuit, the banks would have to pay. But the only people who paid were those homeowners who were victimized for the second time."
Investigators are aware of some 2,500 California residents who have been listed as defendants in the lawsuits, but there could be many more who paid fees and were never actually added to the suits or are out of the state, Harris said.
Up to 2 million official-looking mailers advertising the lawsuits were sent to homes in at least 16 other states, including Arizona, Florida, Nevada, New York and New Jersey, Harris' office said in a release.
Some borrowers had their homes foreclosed on after paying to join the suits filed by Kramer and Stein, according to the complaint.
Defendants in the complaint are all based in California, but the investigation could eventually ensnare associates in other parts of the country.
Florida bar spokeswoman Zannah Lyle confirmed that her organization was looking into allegations of rule violations concerning Tallahassee-based lawyer and lobbyist David Ramba's work with Kramer to recruit struggling homeowners to join lawsuits against banks. Ramba did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The attorney general's complaint was unsealed a day after state bar investigators and state Department of Justice agents served defendants with copies of the complaint at 14 locations in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Officials loaded boxes of seized documents into moving vans Wednesday. Armed police guarded the entrances to emptied offices, which appeared to contain wall-to-wall cubicles for phone center workers. The Orange County raids took place in sprawling office parks with manicured lawns surrounding Irvine's airport.
Outside one office, a man in a business suit said he had worked for the raided company but refused to answer any other questions as he carried a stack of framed pictures from the building and oversaw the removal of a small refrigerator by younger apparent employees.
At another office, a manager who would only give his first name, David, said he and his colleagues had been questioned about their connection with Kramer. He said they had done business with the lawyer two years ago but not since.
Prosecutors accuse the defendants of making false representations and three counts of unfair competition. They are seeking an injunction stopping the defendants from continuing with the business in addition to unspecified monetary damages.
No criminal charges have been filed in connection with the case.
Kramer's firm and the other defendants' were placed into receivership on Monday and have had their assets seized, the attorney general's office said.
Harris said that bar association lawyers were reviewing the suits against the banks to determine whether any plaintiffs had legitimate complaints that could be pursued against the lenders.
Calls to Kramer's office were being forwarded to a state bar phone number Thursday. Calls to Stein, who refers to himself on his firm's website and other communications as "The Doberman," went straight to a busy signal.
Prosecutors accuse Kramer and Stein of exploiting an existing lawsuit known as Ronald v. Bank of America NA filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in March 2009. Stein was one of the lawyers who first filed that case, which alleged on behalf of a few dozen clients that the bank committed mortgage-related improprieties. Kramer later joined as counsel to another defendant who was added to the case.
The lawyers used the Ronald case to drum up business and have since filed separate lawsuits against JPMorgan Chase & Co, Wells Fargo Bank NA, Citibank NA and others to broaden their base of clients, the complaint alleges.
The lawyers and their associates sent mailers that looked like official class-action lawsuit notifications and stated that their recipients were potential plaintiffs in a litigation settlement. The letters claimed they could cut their mortgage to as little as 70 percent of their value, prevent foreclosure and get $75,000 in damages.
They directed people to phone supposed law offices that were actually call centers staffed by operators with no legal expertise.
In addition to using mailers, Stein used his law firm's Facebook page to make overblown claims about bank behavior and his ability to seek retribution, according to the complaint.
"Look for Patriot Act violations in your mortgage," Stein wrote in a Jan. 17 posting. "Talk to a lawyer. You might just cancel the mortgage."
Prosecutors estimated hundreds or even thousands of people paid between $5,000 and $10,000 to join the lawyers' suits.
Kramer gloated in an October 2010 e-mail to another defendant about the virtues of their new undertaking compared with the loan modification business.
"Only morons would prefer to 'sell' mods from this day forward," Kramer wrote, according the complaint.
Bank records show more than $7 million deposited in three of Kramer's accounts connected to the investigation, with millions more paid to call centers that provided answers to prospective clients responding to the mailers, the complaint said.
Those workers are accused in the complaint of overstating lawyers' progress in the lawsuits, all of which are in their earliest stages, and of misrepresenting judges' apparent disposition toward the banks.
Some salespeople are alleged to have told borrowers that the judge in the Ronald v. Bank of America has told the lender it has "no defense" and that its main argument is "absurd."
The salespeople also tell homeowners that the case's lawyers have proven banks have taken money from investors that can't be accounted for, the complaint says.
Philip Warmanen, a 71-year-old travel agent in Jacksonville, Fla., was among those who joined the lawsuit. Warmanen said he responded to a mailer that turned out to be from Kramer's law firm early this year after Bank of America failed to offer him a modification on his home that had lost about half its value since he paid $525,000 for it in 2006.
Warmanen was told he should receive a modification and other settlement benefits in just a couple months when he paid $4,000 to join the lawsuit but has heard little of the case since then.
"They said there was a strong likelihood that this would be successful and that they had a few cases where the judgment had come through positively in favor of the complainants," he said. "They led me to believe that that might be my case."
Jacob Adelman can be reached at http://twitter.com/jacobadelman