The $9 Billion Witness: Meet JPMorgan Chase's Worst Nightmare
Chase whistle-blower Alayne Fleischmann risked it all.
Meet the woman JPMorgan Chase paid one of the largest fines in American history to keep from talking
By Matt Taibbi November 6, 2014
She tried to stay quiet, she really did. But after eight years of keeping a heavy secret, the day came when Alayne Fleischmann couldn't take it anymore.
"It was like watching an old lady get mugged on the street," she says. "I thought, 'I can't sit by any longer.'"
Fleischmann is a tall, thin, quick-witted securities lawyer in her late thirties, with long blond hair, pale-blue eyes and an infectious sense of humor that has survived some very tough times. She's had to struggle to find work despite some striking skills and qualifications, a common symptom of a not-so-common condition called being a whistle-blower.
Fleischmann is the central witness in one of the biggest cases of white-collar crime in American history, possessing secrets that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon late last year paid $9 billion (not $13 billion as regularly reported – more on that later) to keep the public from hearing.
Back in 2006, as a deal manager at the gigantic bank, Fleischmann first witnessed, then tried to stop, what she describes as "massive criminal securities fraud" in the bank's mortgage operations.
Thanks to a confidentiality agreement, she's kept her mouth shut since then. "My closest family and friends don't know what I've been living with," she says. "Even my brother will only find out for the first time when he sees this interview."
Six years after the crisis that cratered the global economy, it's not exactly news that the country's biggest banks stole on a grand scale. That's why the more important part of Fleischmann's story is in the pains Chase and the Justice Department took to silence her.
She was blocked at every turn: by asleep-on-the-job regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission, by a court system that allowed Chase to use its billions to bury her evidence, and, finally, by officials like outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, the chief architect of the crazily elaborate government policy of surrender, secrecy and cover-up. "Every time I had a chance to talk, something always got in the way," Fleischmann says.
This past year she watched as Holder's Justice Department struck a series of historic settlement deals with Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America. The root bargain in these deals was cash for secrecy. The banks paid big fines, without trials or even judges – only secret negotiations that typically ended with the public shown nothing but vague, quasi-official papers called "statements of facts," which were conveniently devoid of anything like actual facts.
And now, with Holder about to leave office and his Justice Department reportedly wrapping up its final settlements, the state is effectively putting the finishing touches on what will amount to a sweeping, industrywide effort to bury the facts of a whole generation of Wall Street corruption. "I could be sued into bankruptcy," she says. "I could lose my license to practice law. I could lose everything. But if we don't start speaking up, then this really is all we're going to get: the biggest financial cover-up in history."
Alayne Fleischmann grew up in Terrace, British Columbia, a snowbound valley town just a brisk 18-hour drive north of Vancouver. She excelled at school from a young age, making her way to Cornell Law School and then to Wall Street. Her decision to go into finance surprised those closest to her, as she had always had more idealistic ambitions. "I helped lead a group that wrote briefs to the Human Rights Chamber for those affected by ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina," she says. "My whole life prior to moving into securities law was human rights work."
But she had student loans to pay off, and so when Wall Street came knocking, that was that. But it wasn't like she was dragged into high finance kicking and screaming. She found she had a genuine passion for securities law and felt strongly she was doing a good thing. "There was nothing shady about the field back then," she says. "It was very respectable."
In 2006, after a few years at a white-shoe law firm, Fleischmann ended up at Chase. The mortgage market was white-hot. Banks like Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup were furiously buying up huge pools of home loans and repackaging them as mortgage securities. Like soybeans in processed food, these synthesized financial products wound up in everything, whether you knew it or not: your state's pension fund, another state's workers' compensation fund, maybe even the portfolio of the insurance company you were counting on to support your family if you got hit by a bus.
As a transaction manager, Fleischmann functioned as a kind of quality-control officer. Her main job was to help make sure the bank didn't buy spoiled merchandise before it got tossed into the meat grinder and sold out the other end.
A few months into her tenure, Fleischmann would later testify in a DOJ deposition, the bank hired a new manager for diligence, the group in charge of reviewing and clearing loans. Fleischmann quickly ran into a problem with this manager, technically one of her superiors. She says he told her and other employees to stop sending him e-mails. The department, it seemed, was wary of putting anything in writing when it came to its mortgage deals.
"I could lose everything. But if we don't start speaking up, we're going to get the biggest financial cover-up in history."
"If you sent him an e-mail, he would actually come out and yell at you," she recalls. "The whole point of having a compliance and diligence group is to have policies that are set out clearly in writing. So to have exactly the opposite of that – that was very worrisome." One former high-ranking federal prosecutor said that if he were taking a criminal case to trial, the information about this e-mail policy would be crucial. "I would begin and end my opening statement with that," he says. "It shows these people knew what they were doing and were trying not to get caught."
In late 2006, not long after the "no e-mail" policy was implemented, Fleischmann and her group were asked to evaluate a packet of home loans from a mortgage originator called GreenPoint that was collectively worth about $900 million. Almost immediately, Fleischmann and some of the diligence managers who worked alongside her began to notice serious problems with this particular package of loans.
For one thing, the dates on many of them were suspiciously old. Normally, banks tried to turn loans into securities at warp speed. The idea was to go from a homeowner signing on the dotted line to an investor buying that loan in a pool of securities within two to three months. Thus it was a huge red flag to see Chase buying loans that were already seven or eight months old.
What this meant was that many of the loans in the GreenPoint deal had either been previously rejected by Chase or another bank, or were what are known as "early payment defaults." EPDs are loans that have already been sold to another bank and have been returned after the borrowers missed multiple payments. That's why the dates on them were so old.
In other words, this was the very bottom of the mortgage barrel. They were like used cars that had been towed back to the lot after throwing a rod. The industry had its own term for this sort of loan product: scratch and dent. As Chase later admitted, it not only ended up reselling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of those crappy loans to investors, it also sold them in a mortgage pool marketed as being above subprime, a type of loan called "Alt-A." Putting scratch-and-dent loans in an Alt-A security is a little like putting a fresh coat of paint on a bunch of junkyard wrecks and selling them as new cars. "Everything that I thought was bad at the time," Fleischmann says, "turned out to be a million times worse." (Chase declined to comment for this article.)
When Fleischmann and her team reviewed random samples of the loans, they found that around 40 percent of them were based on overstated incomes – an astronomically high defect rate for any pool of mortgages; Chase's normal tolerance for error was five percent. One mortgage in particular that sticks out in Fleischmann's mind involved a manicurist who claimed to have an annual income of $117,000. Fleischmann figured that even working seven days a week, this woman would have needed to work 488 days a year to make that much. "And that's with no overhead," Fleischmann says. "It wasn't possible."
But when she and others raised objections to the toxic loans, something odd started happening. The number-crunchers who had been complaining about the loans suddenly began changing their reports. The process she describes is strikingly similar to the way police obtain false confessions: The interrogator verbally abuses the target until he starts producing the desired answers. "What happened," Fleischmann says, "is the head diligence manager started yelling at his team, berating them, making them do reports over and over, keeping them late at night." Then the loans started clearing.
As late as December 11th, 2006, diligence managers had marked a full 33 percent of one loan sample as "stated income unreasonable for profession," meaning that it was nearly inevitable that there would be a high number of defaults. Several high-ranking executives were copied on this report.
Then, on December 15th, a Chase sales executive held a lengthy meeting with reps from GreenPoint and the diligence team to examine the remaining loans in the pool. When they got to the manicurist, Fleischmann remembers, one of the diligence guys finally caved under the pressure from the sales executive. "He had his hands up and just said, 'OK,' and he cleared it," says Fleischmann, adding that he was shaking his head "no" even as he was saying yes. Soon afterward, the error rate in the pool had magically dropped below 10 percent – a threshold that itself had just been doubled to clear the way for this deal.
After that meeting, Fleischmann testified, she approached a managing director named Greg Boester and pleaded with him to reconsider. She says she told Boester that the bank could not sell the high-risk loans as low-risk securities without committing fraud. "You can't securitize these loans without special disclosure about what's wrong with them," Fleischmann told him, "and if you make that disclosure, no one will buy them."
A former Olympic ski jumper, Boester was such an important executive at Chase that when he later defected to the Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel, Dimon cut off trading with Citadel in retaliation. Boester eventually returned to Chase and is still there today despite his role in this affair.
This moment illustrates the most basic element of the case against Chase: The bank knowingly peddled products stuffed with scratch-and-dent loans to investors without disclosing the obvious defects with the underlying loans.
Years later, in its settlement with the Justice Department, Chase would admit that this conversation between Fleischmann and Boester took place (though neither was named; it was simply described as "an employee . . . told . . . a managing director") and that her warning was ignored when the bank sold those loans off to investors.
A few weeks later, in early 2007, she sent a long letter to another managing director, William Buell. In the letter, she warned Buell of the consequences of reselling these bad loans as securities and gave detailed descriptions of breakdowns in Chase's diligence process.
Fleischmann assumed this letter, which Chase lawyers would later jokingly nickname "The Howler" after the screaming missive from the Harry Potter books, would be enough to force the bank to stop selling the bad loans. "It used to be if you wrote a memo, they had to stop, because now there's proof that they knew what they were doing," she says. "But when the Justice Department doesn't do anything, that stops being a deterrent. I just didn't know that at the time."
In February 2008, less than two years after joining the bank, Fleischmann was quietly dismissed in a round of layoffs. A few months later, proof would appear that her bosses knew all along that the boom-era mortgage market was rotten. That September, as the market was crashing, Dimon boasted in a ball-washing Fortune article titled "Jamie Dimon's SWAT Team" that he knew well before the meltdown that the subprime market was toast. "We concluded that underwriting standards were deteriorating across the industry." The story tells of Dimon ordering Boester's boss, William King, to dump the bank's subprime holdings in October 2006. "Billy," Dimon says, "we need to sell a lot of our positions. . . . This stuff could go up in smoke!"
In other words, two full months before the bank rammed through the dirty GreenPoint deal over Fleischmann's objections, Chase's CEO was aware that loans like this were too dangerous for Chase itself to own. (Though Dimon was talking about subprime loans and GreenPoint was technically an Alt-A pool, the Fortune story shows that upper management had serious concerns about industry-wide underwriting problems.)
The ordinary citizen who is the target of a government investigation cannot pick up the phone, call the prosecutor and have his case dropped. But Dimon did just that.
In January 2010, when Dimon testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, he told investigators the exact opposite story, portraying the poor Chase leadership as having been duped, just like the rest of us. "In mortgage underwriting," he said, "somehow we just missed, you know, that home prices don't go up forever."
When Fleischmann found out about all of this years later, she was shocked. Her confidentiality agreement at Chase didn't bar her from reporting a crime, but the problem was that she couldn't prove that Chase had committed a crime without knowing whether those bad loans had been sold.
As it turned out, of course, Chase was selling those rotten dog-meat loans all over the place. How bad were they? A single lawsuit by a single angry litigant gives some insight. In 2011, Chase was sued over massive losses suffered by a group of credit unions. One of them had invested $135 million in one of the bank's mortgage--backed securities. About 40 percent of the loans in that deal came from the GreenPoint pool.
The lawsuit alleged that in just the first year, the security suffered $51 million in losses, nearly 50 times what had been projected. It's hard to say how much of that was due to the GreenPoint loans. But this was just one security, one year, and the losses were in the tens of millions. And Chase did deal after deal with the same methodology. So did most of the other banks. It's theft on a scale that blows the mind.
In the spring of 2012, Fleischmann, who'd moved back to Canada after leaving Chase, was working at a law firm in Calgary when the phone rang. It was an investigator from the States. "Hi, I'm from the SEC," he said. "You weren't expecting to hear from me, were you?"
A few months earlier, President Obama, giving in to pressure from the Occupy movement and other reformers, had formed the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities Working Group. At least superficially, this was a serious show of force against banks like Chase. The group would operate like a kind of regulatory Justice League, combining the superpowers of investigators from the SEC, the FBI, the IRS, HUD and a host of other federal agencies. It included noted anti-corruption- investigator and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which gave many observers reason to hope that finally something would be done about the crimes that led to the crash. That makes the fact that the bank would skate with negligible cash fines an even more extra-ordinary accomplishment
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