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HUD Proposes Framework for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, HUD Secretary Promises Increased Enforcement
On July 18, HUD released a proposed rule to refine the fair housing elements of the existing planning process that recipients of HUD funds – states, local governments, insular areas, and public housing agencies (Program Participants) – already undertake. To aid Program Participants, HUD will provide local and regional data to allow Program Participants (i) to evaluate patterns of integration and segregation in their area, (ii) to identify disparities in access to community assets by members of protected classes, (iii) to locate racial and ethnic concentrations of poverty, and disproportionate housing needs based on protected class; (iv) to uncover areas for improvement in their fair housing programs; and (v) to develop the tools, strategies, and priorities to respond to problems identified by the data.
The proposed rule also (i) defines “affirmatively furthering fair housing” to clarify that the phrase requires proactive steps to foster more inclusive communities and greater access to community assets for all groups protected by the Fair Housing Act; (ii) refines current Analysis of Impediment requirements; (iii) requires Program Participants to incorporate fair housing planning in existing planning processes, such as the consolidated plan and PHA Annual Plan; and (iv) encourages Program Participants to take regional approaches to address fair housing issues.
In a speech earlier in the week in which he previewed the proposed rule, HUD Secretary Donovan also promised increased enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, stating: “I want to send a message to all those outside these doors. There are no stones we won’t turn. There are no places we won’t go. And there are no complaints we won’t explore in order to eliminate housing discrimination. Period. . . . HUD is enhancing its enforcement techniques by initiating investigations on our own without waiting for individuals to file complaints. We have more than tripled the number of Secretary-initiated complaints that we have filed since 2008.”
FTC Obtains Settlement Regarding Marketing of Mortgage Refinancing Services to Servicemembers; Announces First Settlements in "Cardholder Services" Robocalls Sweep
On June 27, the FTC announced that a mortgage broker will pay a $7.5 million civil penalty to resolve alleged violations of the agency’s Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and Mortgage Acts and Practices – Advertising Rule (MAP Rule). The broker allegedly violated the TSR by calling more than 5.4 million telephone numbers listed on the National Do Not Call Registry to offer home loan refinancing services to current and former U.S. military consumers and by failing remove consumers from its call list upon demand. The broker also allegedly violated the MAP Rule by misleading consumers about its affiliation with the Department of Veterans Affairs and leading consumers to believe that it was offering low interest, fixed rate mortgages with no costs, when in reality it was offering adjustable rate mortgages with closing costs. In the same announcement, the FTC stated that it had obtained the first settlements in cases related to a 2012 sweep of telemarketers alleged to have placed automated calls to consumers to make deceptive “no-risk” offers to substantially reduce the consumers’ credit card interest rates in exchange for an upfront fee. According to the FTC, the telemarketers claimed to be calling from the consumers’ credit card company, or otherwise used the generic “Cardholder Services” title to suggest a relationship with a bank or credit card company.
This afternoon, the CFPB issued CFPB Bulletin 2013-6, which identifies four pillars of “responsible conduct” on the part of potential targets of enforcement action by the Bureau. The CFPB expressly states that such conduct may be rewarded with (i) resolution of an investigation with no public enforcement action; (ii) treatment of subject conduct as a less severe type of violation; (iii) reduction in the number of violations pursued; or (iv) reduction in sanctions or penalties. The Bulletin, titled “Responsible Business Conduct: Self-Policing, Self-Reporting, Remediation, and Cooperation,” states that such conduct has “concrete and substantial benefits for consumers and significantly contributes to the success of the Bureau’s mission” because it speeds detection and increases investigative and enforcement efficiency, thereby enabling the Bureau to pursue a larger number of investigations.
The Bulletin has interesting parallels to the SEC Seaboard Report and the DOJ’s Thompson and McNulty Memoranda. The four factors to be considered by the CFPB—self-policing, self-reporting, remediation, and cooperation—are discussed in further detail below.
- Self-Policing. In deciding whether to provide favorable consideration for self-policing, the Bureau will evaluate the nature of the violation (duration, pervasiveness, and significance); how it was detected (effectiveness of internal mechanisms); prior or relative performance of compliance management and audit functions; and the institution’s “culture of compliance.”
- Self-Reporting. The Bureau notes that it views self-reporting to be “special” among the four factors, and will evaluate for favorable consideration the completeness, effectiveness, and timeliness of the disclosure, as well as the degree to which the disclosure was purely proactive or a violation otherwise was likely to be discovered.
- Remediation. Remediation activity will be credited based on a review of how timely potential misconduct was addressed and how quickly it was remediated; whether responsible individuals were disciplined; whether information and extent of harm were documented and preserved promptly; and the Bureau’s confidence that misconduct is unlikely to recur.
- Cooperation. In evaluating cooperation with enforcement efforts, the Bureau will look for “substantial and material steps above and beyond what the law requires,” including cooperation from start to finish and the identification of any additional misconduct; proper steps taken to complete an objective internal investigation and share findings with the Bureau; encouragement of employee cooperation; and facilitation of enforcement actions against other potential targets.
The Bulletin should be considered carefully by any entity facing enforcement action by the CFPB because, among other things, the way in which these factors will be applied remains an open question. Despite the encouragement of self-policing, self-reporting, remediation, and cooperation, the Bulletin notes that there is no consistent formula that can be applied to the crediting of responsible conduct, and satisfaction of some or all of the factors will not bar the Bureau from bringing any enforcement action or pursuing any remedy. The Bulletin also states that there may be misconduct so egregious or harm so great that enforcement actions or penalties cannot be mitigated.
On June 20, New York announced a consent order with the New York branch of a foreign bank to resolve charges that the bank — over a five year period that ended more than five years ago — violated Bank Secrecy Act, Anti-Money Laundering and international sanctions rules by stripping from wire transfer messages information that could have been used to identify government and privately owned entities in Iran, Sudan, and Myanmar, and entities on the Specially Designated Nationals list issued by the OFAC and moving billions of dollars through New York on their behalf. The order requires the bank to pay a $250 million penalty, conduct a compliance review, and revise written compliance and management oversight plans. The compliance review must be conducted by an independent consultant that will be subject to the new DFS code of conduct for bank consultants described in a prior Byte. This is at least the second time in the last year that New York has taken a major action against a domestic branch of a foreign bank related to money laundering and international sanctions violations. In a previous instance, federal authorities followed with substantial civil and criminal penalties related to the same conduct.
On June 18, numerous media outlets reported that SEC Chair Mary Jo White indicated that the SEC will shift its policy toward extracting admissions from parties facing allegations of wrongdoing as a condition of resolving those allegations. While a majority of cases likely still will be settled under the current “neither admit nor deny” rubric, the SEC will seek admissions in cases that meet certain criteria, which likely will include “widespread harm to investors.” The shift would extend a policy adopted last year by then-SEC Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami to no longer allow defendants who are convicted of or admit guilt with regard to criminal charges to neither admit nor deny the parallel civil liability. The SEC now may seek an admission even where there is no criminal finding or admission. This change follows increasing pressure from members of Congress on federal regulators and law enforcement authorities to more vigorously pursue allegations of wrongdoing by financial institutions, including, most recently, an inquiry by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as to whether the SEC and other agencies have conducted any internal research or analysis on trade-offs to the public between settling an enforcement action without admission of guilt and going forward with litigation to obtain a judicial finding of unlawful conduct.
Eleventh Circuit Holds Bank Accounts Containing Commingled Criminal, Non-Criminal Funds Are Not Subject to Forfeiture as "Proceeds" of the Crime
On June 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that bank accounts in which funds traceable to the defendant’s criminal activity were commingled with funds unrelated to such activity were not subject to forfeiture as “proceeds” of the criminal activity. In re Rothstein, Rosenfeldt, Adler, P.A., 2013 WL 2494980, No. 11-10676 (11th Cir. June 12, 2013). The defendant pleaded guilty to violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act by using his law firm to perpetrate a Ponzi scheme over a four-year period. Funds traceable to the criminal activity were deposited in the law firm’s bank accounts, where they were commingled with funds earned from the law firm’s substantial legitimate activities. The trustee of the law firm’s bankruptcy estate appealed a trial court order granting the government’s request that the firm’s bank accounts be forfeited as the “proceeds” of the criminal activity. The Eleventh Circuit reversed, noting that the government must establish the “requisite nexus between the property and the offense,” which requires that the tainted and untainted property be distinguishable “without difficulty.” The government was unable to clearly distinguish between the tainted and untainted funds, in part because of the size and number of transactions in the bank accounts. Because the government could not establish that the bank accounts were the proceeds of the criminal activity, the court remanded to allow the government to pursue forfeiture of “substitute assets.”
On June 6, HUD announced an agreement to resolve an administrative complaint filed last year by the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and numerous individual fair housing organizations alleging that a national bank engaged in discriminatory practices with regard to real estate owned (REO) properties. The complaint was one of several that followed an investigation conducted by the fair housing groups, which allegedly revealed that REO properties in predominantly minority neighborhoods are more likely to have maintenance problems and are less likely to have a “For Sale” sign than properties in predominantly white neighborhoods. The report suggested that poor maintenance practices and other alleged neglect can result in properties being vacant for longer periods and can increase the likelihood that a property eventually will be purchased by an investor at a discounted price, as opposed to an owner-occupier. Under the conciliation agreement, the bank will invest $39 million in 45 communities to support homeownership, neighborhood stabilization, property rehabilitation, and housing development. The bank also will (i) use a revised Real Estate Broker Procedure Manual and property inspection checklist, (ii) implement an enhanced training program for real estate brokers and agents who list REO properties, and bank staff responsible for managing REO properties, and (iii) extend the amount of time that individual REO properties will be available exclusively for purchase by an owner-occupant or a non-profit organization.
On June 4, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (AG) announced a lawsuit against a major financial institution for allegedly violating state law by failing to timely file in foreclosure cases “requests for judicial intervention” (RJI), which would trigger court-supervised settlement conferences. The suit seeks to compel the financial institution to file the RJI immediately in all cases in which it has filed a proof of service, and to file an RJI simultaneously with proof of service in all future cases. The suit also seeks (i) to compel the firm to prepare an accounting of interest charges, penalties and fees that accrued beginning 60 days after the filing of proof of service on the homeowner; (ii) to toll and waive all accrued interest charges, fees and penalties that accrued, or will accrue, beginning 60 days after the filing of proof of service on the homeowner; (iii) restitution for interest charges, fees and penalties paid by the homeowner that accrued beginning 60 days after the filing of proof of service on the homeowner; and (iv) damages for homeowners injured by the alleged practices. The suit results from an AG investigation that sampled foreclosure filings in four New York counties, and the AG stated that he is committed to bringing similar actions against other lenders.
On June 5, the FTC announced that it has added a payment processor as a defendant in an existing suit against a debt relief firm that the FTC alleges operated a credit card interest rate reduction scam. The FTC claims that the debt relief firm cold-called consumers and charged them up-front fees for promises of credit card interest rate reductions that the firm never obtained. The FTC charges that the payment processor knew, or consciously avoided knowing, the supposedly illegal nature of the operation and facilitated allegedly deceptive and abusive telemarketing acts or practices in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule. The FTC also alleges that the processor ignored the “alarmingly high” chargeback rates.
On June 3, AG Schneiderman announced an agreement with a credit card issuer to resolve an investigation into alleged consumer protection concerns arising from the offering of credit cards through medical care providers. The AG cited a Health Care Bureau investigation that found the health care provider application process is often rushed and occurs when treatment is set to begin, resulting in consumers feeling pressured into applying for the card and being charged the full amount for treatment in advance of receiving services. The AG claimed that, in many instances, providers failed to inform consumers of the terms of the card and represented that the account had “no interest,” when it carried retroactive interest of 26.99% if not paid in full during a promotional period. Other consumers allegedly thought that they were signing up for an in-house, no-interest payment plan directly with their provider, or a line of credit with 0% interest. Under the agreement, the issuer will establish an appeals fund for certain card holders who disputed a claim and were denied, which could result in refunds or credits of up to $2 million to approximately 1,000 card holders. The issuer also must implement consumer protection and compliance measures, including, among others: (i) offering a three-day “cooling off” period, such that no transaction over $1,000 can be charged within three days of an initial application, (ii) adding a set of “Transparency Principles” to provider contracts to ensure that providers accurately describe card terms, and implementing other health care provider training and oversight measures, (iii) revising promotional interest rate and other disclosures, and (iv) standardizing complaint management procedures.