A bank run by Steven Mnuchin, President Trump’s pick for Treasury secretary, engaged in ethically questionable foreclosure practices in Washington state, including “robo-signing” of documents, records show.

Share story

A bank founded by Steven Mnuchin, President Trump’s nominee for Treasury secretary, engaged in ethically questionable foreclosure practices in Washington state — including so-called “robo-signing” of documents.

OneWest Bank employees robo-signed numerous foreclosure-related filings in the Seattle area, documents show. The bank also was sanctioned in 2013 by a Seattle federal judge for obstructionist tactics in a foreclosure lawsuit.

Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker who was the Trump campaign’s finance chairman, is scheduled for a Senate confirmation vote on Monday.

Mnuchin joined with other investors to create OneWest in 2009, purchasing assets of the bankrupt California lender IndyMac. Under Mnuchin’s watch, consumer advocates labeled OneWest a “foreclosure machine” for its aggressive moves to force defaulting homeowners out of their houses.

That included “robo-signing” — whereby company employees rapidly sign stacks of legal documents without checking them for accuracy. During Senate confirmation hearings, Mnuchin explicitly denied OneWest engaged in robo-signing.

But his denial has been picked apart by numerous media reports pointing to a 2009 deposition by OneWest vice president Erica Johnson-Seck, who testified to robo-signing hundreds of foreclosure documents a week, spending no more than 30 seconds on each.

That included paperwork in Washington. A Seattle Times review of King County Recorder’s Office filings discovered Johnson-Seck’s signature on dozens of recorded real-estate documents. The assignments of deeds of trust — generally filed to establish the lender’s legal authority to foreclose — bear her hastily scrawled “E.”

Numerous other foreclosure-related papers in King County were signed by a small group of Johnson-Seck’s colleagues operating out of a Texas office.

Such robo-signing was commonplace at the height of the mortgage crisis. In some cases, mortgage-industry employees even forged signatures and backdated documents in their rush to foreclose on homes as quickly as possible.

The practice was among the abuses called out in 2012 as part of a national $25 billion settlement with the five largest mortgage servicers. That settlement did not include the much smaller OneWest.

Mnuchin spokesman Barney Keller pushed back against the criticisms of OneWest as overblown, saying the documents signed by Johnson-Seck have withstood legal scrutiny.

“The media is picking on a hardworking bank employee whose reputation has been maligned but whose work has been upheld by numerous courts all around the country in the face of scurrilous and false allegations. It’s sad, but not surprising,” Keller said in a statement.

Mnuchin is proud of his OneWest tenure, which included saving thousands of jobs and modifying tens of thousands of mortgages so people could stay in their homes, Keller added, calling attacks on that record “nothing more than garbage that belongs in a dumpster.”

Mnuchin defended OneWest in Senate testimony, saying he’s proud of his bank’s “low error rate” in foreclosure filings.

In her 2009 deposition, Johnson-Seck said OneWest had an outside vendor check documents before they got to her.

OneWest was acquired by CIT Bank in 2015. Mnuchin stepped down from CIT’s board in December when he was announced as Trump’s Treasury pick.

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, including U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, hotly oppose Mnuchin — and boycotted his committee vote, accusing Republicans of ramming him through without adequate vetting.

In an interview, Cantwell cited Mnuchin’s conduct at OneWest at the height of the foreclosure crisis — in addition to his support for rolling back financial regulations — as a reason to oppose him leading the Treasury Department.

“You could have had somebody that learned from it (the financial crisis) and turned around and became a leader and admitted where we went wrong. I did not get that out of him,” she said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has defended Mnuchin and slammed the Democratic walkout as a “publicity stunt.”

Attorneys who have fought foreclosures in Washington acknowledge lender shortcuts such as robo-signing documents typically have not been enough to stop people who have defaulted on loans from losing their homes.

But Seattle attorney Melissa Huelsman argued that OneWest’s adoption of robo-signing and other aggressive tactics was especially egregious because the mortgage industry already was under a cloud at the time of the bank’s formation.

“They were later in the game. They acquired those assets and immediately started mirroring the stuff that was the subject of litigation,” said Huelsman, who specializes in foreclosure and mortgage-fraud cases. “That’s a reason why I think it’s somewhat more offensive with OneWest.”

When pressed on his robo-signing denial by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., Mnuchin defined the practice more narrowly as referring to fraudulent signatures or signing documents that were not verified to be accurate.

But a 2011 consent order with OneWest, the Office of Thrift Supervision — a division of the Treasury Department — defined robo-signing broadly to include employees quickly signing affidavits or other documents without any personal knowledge as to their accuracy.

The consent order labeled such practices “unsafe or unsound.”

Huelsman and other attorneys said robo-signing of foreclosure documents is particularly problematic in “nonjudicial foreclosure” states like Washington, where most foreclosures are handled outside of courts and not looked at by judges. That means shoddy paperwork or fraud can more easily go undetected unless a homeowner files a lawsuit to challenge a foreclosure.

One such lawsuit led a federal judge to sanction OneWest in 2013.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik fined OneWest for obstructionist tactics in a lawsuit brought by James McDonald, a Kirkland man fighting foreclosure of his house.

In the unusual order, Lasnik castigated OneWest for false and sloppy testimony of a bank executive and for failing to produce accurate records as required in discovery, instead relying on “dubious business practices and hearsay.”

Despite repeated demands, the bank was unable to produce clear documentation that it actually owned the rights to McDonald’s loan when it foreclosed on him, according to court filings.

Noting the bar was set “very high” for such a sanction, Lasnik ordered OneWest to pay $25,000 to McDonald to offset his legal costs, “punish unacceptable behavior, and as a deterrent to bad conduct.”

Ha Dao, an attorney who represented McDonald, said her client had started the case representing himself, which made OneWest’s stonewalling all the more difficult for him to overcome.

“In all my years of being an attorney I have never seen anything so outrageous,” said Dao, who specialized in foreclosure cases for years in the Seattle area before recently moving to Florida. “When I got involved, they still dug their heels in and they weren’t going to obey the judge’s order. I was surprised by how mad he was.”

McDonald’s lawsuit was settled before trial under confidential terms.