If you liked Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, you’ll love Chain of Title by David Dayen. In a sense, Dayen picks up where Lewis left off. Lewis covered the lead up to the mortgage meltdown; Dayen its aftermath – the foreclosure on the homes of millions of Americans. But whereas Lewis exposed the shocking ineptitude of Wall Street, Dayen exposes its even more shocking criminality, along with the complicity of too many judges and the corruption of the Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies.
The actions of the America’s largest banks and their affiliates are beyond stunning. Were they reported in a matter of fact fashion, the book would be well worth it. An example: In preparing assignments necessary to the foreclosure process, document preparation mills employed by the banks use a form that has a blank labeled “Bogus Assignee.” Remarkably, in their haste to churn out a massive numbers of documents, the mills fail to fill in the actual name of the purported assignee and assignments actually are recorded under the name “Bogus Assignee.”
But that’s not what makes Chain of Title the page-turner it is. Dayen tells his story through the real life stories of Florida activists. The stories of their grit and tirelessness and their personal trials and tribulations are compelling. Those stories make the book a prime candidate for a movie although the movie could never be as good as the book.
The stories of the so-called “robo-signing”, where lower level employees posing as corporate officers each claimed, under penalty of perjury, to have personal knowledge of the facts associated with thousands of documents, make the story so compelling that I lost sight of the real-life ending.
In one case, a “robo-notary” takes a job with the Florida Attorney General’s office, then gets permission to serve as a notary in her off hours for what she represents will be less than one hour per week. She leaves out the detail that she will be working with her former firm, a Florida foreclosure mill. The hour-a-week notary gig involves tens of thousands of documents, with compensation of over $100,000.
In the end, as we know, the Department of Justice engineers a global settlement that involves no criminal prosecution. It was evident to many following the negotiations leading up to that settlement that our law enforcement officials were far too eager to make a deal. But before reading Chain of Title I did not appreciate how craven and corrupt that settlement was.
In his epilogue, Dayen attempts to breathe value into the heroic efforts of the Florida activists, despite the dismal outcome. He shouldn’t have. It’s not that no such value exists. It does, and Dayen explains it well. But the real value of the stories of those Florida activists, as told in Chain of Title, is to drive home how rotten and corrupt our system of justice truly is. Dayen should have ended it there.
But that’s a small quibble. Chain of Title tells an important story. For anyone who cares, it’s a must read.