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New to theaters in the Poconos

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Editor’s note: GateHouse News Service provides synopses for new movies.


BEARS: Time for Disney’s annual Earth Day nature film, this one chronicling a year in the life of two mother grizzlies raising their cubs in the Alaskan wilderness.

A HAUNTED HOUSE 2: Marlon Wayans returns to again battle zany demons in his send-up of popular horror movies.

HEAVEN IS FOR REAL: Just in time for Easter comes this bit of candy corn about a little boy (Connor Corum) who claims to have visited heaven. Greg Kinnear co-stars as the boy’s supportive father.

TRANSCENDENCE: Johnny Depp plays a high-tech Frankenstein defying societal mores to engineer the perfect mix of intelligence and emotion in a robot. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany co-star in the directorial debut of “Dark Knight” cinematographer Wally Pfister.


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER: After being on ice for 70 years, Steve Rogers (Boston’s Chris Evans) finds that HYDRA is also still very much alive and threatening not just the integrity of S.H.I.E.L.D but the world at large. Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson co-star.

DIVERGENT: A girl trying to find her place in a post-apocalyptic world is so “been there, done that.” But that didn’t stop “Divergent” from happening. It’s the latest film adaptation of a dystopian-set young-adult trilogy. And despite a title that promises something atypical, there’s nothing different about this first installment culled from Veronica Roth’s smash series of books. That said, Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) kicks futuristic butt as Tris Prior, the film’s unlikely heroine. Like Katniss Everdeen, you can’t count out a beautiful teen rebel.

DRAFT DAY: Kevin Costner returns to his sports-movie niche by playing an embattled NFL executive whose life is falling apart just as he faces a make-or-break decision on drafting the college player most likely to turn around his failed team.

GOD’S NOT DEAD: The first day of philosophy class has a religiously devout student questioning his future, but not his faith, when the professor demands he deny the existence of God. He refuses, but then must prove he is correct in a debate with the professor (Kevin Sorbo) — or fail the course.

the grand budapest hotel: The incomparable Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”) expounds on his limitless imagination by checking into a renowned European hotel at the dawn of Hitler’s rule. Armed with an all-star cast led by Ralph Fiennes, Anderson incorporates a multi-layered tale involving art theft, a family fortune and the tight friendship between a concierge and a lobby boy.

THE LUNCHBOX: In this film from India, the misdelivery of a lunch leads to a much-needed relationship between a housewife and a widower.

MUPPETS MOST WANTED: The Muppets deliver more giggles, groans, pratfalls and mildly rude “poop” humor for the pint-sized set as the troupe goes on a world tour with some international espionage thrown in. There’s enough nostalgia and self-referential fun hanging around to amuse adults. Humans, played by Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell and a dozen or so celebrity cameos, mix it up well, but the sequel doesn’t have the same spark or whimsy as the 2011 hit.

MR. PEABODY SHERMAN: Traditionalists will find this cheesy, pop-culture exploitation of a Saturday-morning classic a piece of garbage. But young’uns who don’t know a Rocky from a Bullwinkle will probably eat up this time-travel adventure, never knowing how funny, clever and great the original was. The voice talent is impressive, though, led by Ty Burrell, Ariel Winter, Allison Janney, Stephen Colbert, Mel Brooks, Leslie Mann and Stanley Tucci.

NEED FOR SPEED: “Smokey and the Bandit” lives with this ode to 1960s and ’70s souped-up car movies in which the hero must outsmart the cops — and rivals — during a cross-country race to retain the farm, factory, family business, etc. It stars “Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul, who must win to save his garage from foreclosure. Dominic Cooper and Imogen Poots co-star.

NOAH: Darren Aronofsky follows up his Oscar-winning “Black Swan” with a pair of swans — and a pair of every other animal on Earth. But his version of the ark is meeting resistance from everyone from evangelists to the pope. Hath he forsaken the 11th commandment: Thou shall not rewrite the Bible? Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins co-star.

non-stop: Taking a break from rescuing his drippy daughter, Kimmy, Liam Neeson takes his over-the-top action-hero shenanigans to the sky, where he must commit mass carnage in order to root out a terrorist threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until the feds fork over $150 million. The “thriller” reunites Neeson with his “Unknown” director Jaume Collet-Serra, hopefully with far less illogical results. Julianne Moore co-stars as the mysterious woman seated next to Kimmy’s killer dad.

OCULUS: Can an antique mirror inspire a teenager to kill his parents? In writer-director Mike Flanagan’s supernatural thriller, it can.

THE RAID 2: In a sequel to the 2012 shoot’em up, Jakarta cop extraordinaire Rama (Iko Uwais) returns to unload an arsenal on a gang of vengeful mobsters looking to harm his family.

RIO 2: Exotic parrots Blu (voice of Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) return for a new adventure, taking wing to the Amazon — with their three offspring in tow — to visit Jewel’s intimidating father.

UNDER THE SKIN: A glammed-down Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien who falls to Earth in Scotland, where she encounters a succession of men. Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”) directs.

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Witness says Baldi was known as pill source

A witness in a Des Moines doctor’s manslaughter trial testified Thursday that the physician was known around town as the person to see for addictive pills.

The lawyer for Dr. Daniel Baldi immediately demanded a mistrial, saying the witness had purposely tried to prejudice jurors with a brazenly inappropriate and unfounded claim. But the judge ordered jurors to ignore the witness’s comment and allowed Baldi’s trial on nine counts of involuntary manslaughter to resume.

Jeff Thiel made the allegation about the doctor while recounting what led up to the 2011 overdose death of his brother, former Baldi patient Fred Pritchard.

Thiel said he’d been ticked off to see how easily his brother obtained prescription drugs, such as hydrocodone, to feed an obvious addiction.

“I moved back here from Maui, Hawaii, and I’d been gone for about five years, and when I came back, all over the streets, everywhere, all you’d hear is, ‘If you need pills, get a hold of Dr. Baldi,’ ” Thiel testified.

Defense lawyer Guy Cook interrupted Thiel with a forceful objection.

“I move to strike that testimony. It’s outrageous, it’s hearsay, it’s designed to inflame and prejudice this case,” Cook told Polk County District Associate Judge Gregory Brandt.

Brandt quickly instructed jurors to ignore Thiel’s comments about Baldi’s reputation. The judge then had jurors leave the courtroom so he could discuss the incident with lawyers.

Cook requested a mistrial, saying Thiel’s statement “was not unintentional, was not a mistake,” but was a conscious attempt by the witness to prejudice the jury against the doctor.

Prosecutor Jaki Livingston disagreed, saying Thiel’s statement came as he was trying to answer repetitious questions from Cook. “He pushed him until he said something he wasn’t supposed to say,” she said.

Brandt denied the mistrial request, saying his instruction to the jury should be sufficient to keep Thiel’s statement from affecting the verdict. But he reiterated to prosecutors that they should instruct witnesses not to make statements about the defendant’s character. Livingston assured him that such instructions were being made.

The conflict came during the second day of testimony in the trial. Baldi denies responsibility for the deaths of his patients.

Much of Thursday’s testimony focused on the death of Pritchard, 50, who died of a drug overdose at his Des Moines home. Cook contends that his client cannot be held responsible, because a test done on Pritchard’s body found no medications that Baldi had prescribed to him.

Related Link: Baldi trial lawyers clash over blame for patient deaths

Before his outburst about Baldi’s purported reputation, Thiel testified that he’d called the doctor’s office in the past to express concerns that Pritchard was abusing his pills. Thiel said he never believed his brother’s claims of severe back pain. He said he left a message for Baldi saying that Pritchard regularly rode a motorcycle and chopped wood, with no obvious signs of discomfort.

“I told him, I’ve never seen him wince in pain, and would you please stop giving him pills,” Thiel recalled. He said Baldi didn’t respond to the message.

Family members testified that they’d had Pritchard committed to the psychiatric unit of Iowa Lutheran Hospital shortly before he died. They testified that they took the action because the former United Parcel Service worker had been abusing drugs and talking about suicide. They said he was released from the hospital after 10 days, even though they thought he should have stayed longer. But they said he seemed to be doing better after the hospital stay.

Then his adult son found him dead on his couch.

Cook, the defense lawyer, repeatedly raised the possibility that the death was a suicide instead of an accidental overdose. He noted that Pritchard had lost his job, was about to lose his house to foreclosure and was being divorced for a second time by his wife, Andrea.

If Pritchard committed suicide, the lawyer asked Thiel, wasn’t his death his own responsibility?

“I don’t believe he committed suicide,” Thiel said.

Cook responded: “If he did commit suicide, there’s nobody to blame but Fred, right?”

“If anyone committed suicide,” Thiel said, “there’d be no one to blame but them.”

But under questioning from the prosecutor, Thiel said that his brother did not leave a suicide note and that he did not shoot himself, the way he’d threatened to in the past.

No testimony was heard Thursday afternoon, because the judge was considering a defense demand that a planned prosecution witness be excluded for legal reasons. The trial was expected to resume this morning.

Psychiatrist says he, not Baldi, prescribed drugs to patient who died

A psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution Thursday might have helped defense lawyer Guy Cook raise doubts about Dr. Daniel Baldi’s responsibility for a patient’s death.

Dr. Shehzad Kamran, a psychiatrist at Iowa Lutheran Hospital, testified about care he provided to Fred Pritchard and Brandy Stoutenberg — two patients who had both seen Baldi for pain relief. Pritchard, 50, and Stoutenberg, 24, are among the nine patients whose deaths led to the involuntary manslaughter charges against Baldi.

The psychiatrist testified that he treated Stoutenberg for several mental health conditions, including depression and attention-deficit disorder.

Cook noted that medical records show Stoutenberg had only one appointment with his client. He also said tests determined that the cause of Stoutenberg’s death was an overdose of the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam, also known as Xanax, and amphetamine, which could include the attention-deficit drug Adderall.

Cook said Baldi never prescribed those medications to Stoutenberg.

The lawyer then asked if Kamran had prescribed them to her. The psychiatrist replied: “Those were medications prescribed by me.”

A key part of Cook’s defense is his contention that none of the nine former patients died from overdosing on drugs that Baldi prescribed.

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How Miami-Dade And Palm Beach Are Trying To Dispose Of Foreclosure Cases


Administrative orders issued by foreclosure judges in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties are tipping the scales of justice in favor of banks, a leading homeowner attorney claims.

Appeals have been filed in the Third District Court of Appeal, a Florida Supreme Court advisory committee has been asked to review the orders, and a petition is being prepared for the Supreme Court.

This is in reaction to what is described in Angelo Frau and Yamileth Frau v. JPMorgan Chase, a pending Third District appeal, as a “newly minted waiver” that allegedly exceeds the trial court’s authority and has no basis in the Rules of Civil Procedure.

JPMorgan filed its response Tuesday. Bank attorney W. Aaron Daniel of Kula Samson in North Miami maintains the court should dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction because while the Fraus ask the court to reverse an order on service, its parallel intent is to attack the Miami-Dade administrative order.

Daniel argues that only the Florida Supreme Court has jurisdiction to consider that issue under its “all writs” power.

“It’s interesting how quickly (JPMorgan) came to the defense of the administrative order. I think that speaks volumes to how lopsided its application is against homeowners,” said Thomas Ice of Ice Legal in Royal Palm Beach.

Attorneys from his firm filed a second almost simultaneous appeal in the Third District on the same issue. In Barnsdale Holdings v. Deutsche Bank National Trust, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Darrin Gayles denied a motion to quash, deeming it “abandoned in accordance with the provisions of Administrative Memorandum 12-E.”


Normally, a lawsuit doesn’t get to trial or dismissed until both sides have had a full airing of pending issues. Absent that, the case is considered not “at issue,” or unripe for trial or a hearing on a motion to dismiss.

In the past two years, foreclosure judges have been pushing ahead with cases that homeowner attorneys insist are not at issue to clear a backlog of old foreclosure cases, some going back five or six years.

However, appellate courts have sent some of these cases back. On Wednesday, the Third District reversed Mattie Mae Tucker v. Bank of New York Mellon. The opinion by Judge Edwin Scales noted Tucker had a counterclaim to quiet title. The bank never filed an answer “or other responsive pleading” to Tucker’s counterclaim, he said. Despite this, the trial court set the case for trial, denied Tucker’s motion to stop the trial, conducted a nonjury trial and entered judgment in the bank’s favor.

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Billie Jean could just stay at home to find places ‘where things aren’t good’

“I’m so tired of this lie that our country is anything to look up to anymore.”

— a friend

“If the Winter Games hadn’t come to Sochi, we wouldn’t have seen or felt its paradox: a supposed Olympic truce with extraordinary underlying tensions over human rights abuses, punitive anti-gay laws and a political firestorm in Ukraine.”

So says Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins, who goes on to say the paradox was “captured perfectly by Billie Jean King, the former tennis champion and gay activist who was to headline the U.S. delegation at the closing ceremonies.”

King said, “Sometimes it’s good to go to places where things aren’t good., Sometimes you can help change by going to places where it’s difficult.”

“Where things aren’t good?” Makes me wonder when the last time Billie Jean stepped foot in her native country, the U.S. The clear implication is that America is so vastly morally superior to Russia where there are “human rights abuses.”

Sure won’t find those here in the U.S., unless, of course, you count the largest prison population in the world as a human rights abuse, where a young black man is serving a life sentence for having in his possession a bag containing the residue of crack cocaine.

Or over a million kids hungry, or thousands dying from lack of health care, or a record number of banks stealing homes in a process called foreclosure, often by fraudulent means (you won’t find a banker in prison).

Or workers toiling for $8 an hour while their owners make more in a day than they do in a year, resulting in the largest gap of income inequality in the world, where your own government spies on your every move and a whopping 80 percent of Americans live in poverty or near-poverty, it’s a crime in many cities to be homeless, torture, and our political leaders pass laws denying Americans aid so they can eat.

Arizona tried to make it illegal for gays to eat in restaurants and back home in Indiana, gays can’t get married.

As for “political firestorms,” perhaps if Billie Jean is so keen on “going to places where it’s difficult” so she can help make change, she could take another all-expenses paid trip to Iraq, or Afghanistan, to name just a couple countries the U.S. has laid waste to, with no end in sight.

Or she could visit some families whose loved ones have been executed by U.S. killer drones, loved ones committing no crime and charged with no crime.

Or she could visit some of the sweat shops bought and paid for by the U.S. and see the kids toiling for practically nothing in conditions that lead to suicide. Then she could pay a visit to the mansions the CEOs of these companies live in.

Or visit a country that treats drug addiction as a social problem, not as a crime, and see drug usage decline.

Here, many drugs are illegal, so the rich who run things can have a ready supply of customers to stock their for-profit prisons. Naturally, in a country with values like these, the threat of thinking for yourself is so great that in Louisiana the governor is abolishing all state aid to libraries.

Is it a surprise to anyone that America has the highest rate of child abuse of any industrialized country? Abusers are often given little or no prison time while their victims are made to suffer. Consider the guy who got four years in Indiana in 2004 for sexual molestation, and three more in 2007, and in 2012 in Colorado he was arrested again. But in March he’s free to murder three people and rape a young girl.

As for Sally Jenkins, I suggest she stop on her way back to Washington and visit a home in West Virginia, any one of the 300,000 people victims of a chemical spill that has left them without clean water, and settle in and quench her thirst with a glass of water. And then with the hours she has left on this earth, write a glowing tribute to the entrepreneur spirit of the billionaire Koch brothers whose company Freedom Industries (as in freedom to do what I please with no fear of punishment) is responsible for the poison in the water, and with a massive propaganda campaign, responsible for poison in our brains. For these crimes our government pays these model citizens subsidies to the tune of $88 million a year.

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School dispute in Madeira prompts parents to take action

Blake Seylhouwer and his family moved from Texas to Madeira almost two years ago and he thought his two girls, ages 3 years old and 10 months would be going to Madeira schools.

“(I) went on the Hamilton County Auditor’s site, department of taxation and even went to the Ohio Department of Education and all of those kind of pointed to Madeira School District,” Seylhouwer said.

Watch this story

Seylhouwer said some of his property sits within the Madeira School District and the other, the Cincinnati Public School District.

He said he pays taxes to both school systems and didn’t know his property was designated for the CPS district until he received a letter in the mail.

“I got a voter registration card in the mail that said, ‘You’re voting in Cincinnati Public Schools,’” Seylhouwer said.

Learning his children would be going to the lower-performing John P. Parker Elementary School in Madisonville, Seylhouwer submitted a territory transfer to CPS which was then sent to the Ohio Board of Education.

“They only hear these cases in April of even-numbered years, so that’s why I had to wait the last 18 months before this would be heard in the last couple days,” Seylhouwer said.

Seylhouwer said CPS is fighting his case but that won’t stop him.

“No parent can blame another parent for trying to do what’s best for their child. I just want the best education for them and we feel like that’s the best for them,” he said.

Seylhouwer said he would have asked the original owner about the school district, but that it was a foreclosed house and that everything on paper pointed toward the Madeira School District.

The date for his hearing has not yet been determined.


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Protestors, councilman fight eviction

Half the houses on the stretch of Durnan Street where Akhom Phetphanh lives are boarded up.

A Laotian immigrant who saved for years to buy a home of his own, Phetphanh, 65, is hoping his won’t become the sixth.

“I need another vacant house on Durnan Street like I need a hole in my head,” said City Councilman Michael Patterson, who represents the northeast district where Durnan Street sits. “They are a source of crime and degradation in my community and I will fight day in and day out against it.”

With Patterson’s support, Take Back the Land, an organization that defends people facing foreclosure-related evictions, staged its latest non-violent blockade Tuesday morning to stop Jacksonville-based EverBank from seizing Phetphanh’s long-time family home.

Around 40 neighbors and community members stood in front of Phetphanh’s home with painted signs and banners. Despite the steady sleet and frigid temperatures, protesters drummed and chanted, “Stand Up, Fight Back” with vigor.

“It shows that rain or shine, snow or sleet, people are willing to come show support for their neighbors,” said Ryan Acuff, an organizer of Take Back the Land.

Phetphanh immigrated to the United States from Laos in 1987 to escape the country’s oppressive authoritarian regime. He worked as part of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s custodial staff for 17 years to save enough money for the Durnan Street home.

“After I left my home country, this is where I built a new life,” he said. “This is the first house I’ve owned, it’s where I have raised four kids and I don’t want to leave.”

Like some of his neighbors, Phetphanh temporarily fell behind on his monthly mortgage payment but when he attempted to catch up, Everbank returned his payments and insisted on foreclosing the property.

Neighbor James Thompson, 65, of Cutler Street, said he came to stand in solidarity with Phetphanh because believes that housing is a human right.

“From a local perspective, we want our neighborhoods to thrive,” he said. “How is that going to happen if we kick out good people who are just behind on a few bills.”

Take Back the Land has been in talks with EverBank about withdrawing the eviction or allowing Phetphanh to buy the property with the help of his son.

As of Monday, Everbank said the case was under review, according to Acuff.

“We go through all the legal requirements that we need to,” said Kipin Alexander, public relations specialist for EverBank. “We’re always sympathetic to homeowners.”

She declined to comment on the specifics of the Durnan Street foreclosure.

Though no police marshals showed up to 256 Durnan Street Tuesday, Take Back the Land does not intend to drop its guard.

Community members will take shifts watching the house all week to protect the property from foreclosure.

A gesture Phetphanh is grateful for.

“I have nowhere else to turn, but Take Back the Land has given me some peace of mind,” he said. “I feel loved and taken care of — they won’t let me fall.”

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Legal Team Exodus at Mortgage Firm Said to Prompt US Review

As the rest of the housing industry
recovers, a little-known firm with a key role in U.S. mortgage
finance remains stuck in limbo, wrestling with regulators,
lawsuits and the departures of senior employees.

The turbulence feeds uncertainty about the fate of Mortgage
Electronic Registrations Systems Inc., or MERS, which documents
the ownership and resale of about half of U.S. home loans. A
breakdown could force clients such as Fannie Mae (FNMA:US) and Bank of
America Corp
. to make costly changes to their loan businesses.

Management hasn’t completed fixes promised in a broad 2011
U.S. settlement designed to stop foreclosure abuses, according
to two people briefed on MERS’ operations. Regulators rejected
one of the firm’s consultants as unqualified and are examining
why four employees hired to help with reforms — including the
chief legal officer — recently quit, said the people, speaking
on condition of anonymity because the matter is private.

The closely held Reston, Virginia-based firm, a unit of
Merscorp Holdings Inc., is also facing scores of lawsuits and
state probes that challenge its business model as well as the
legality of its filings in hundreds of county courthouses.

“Merscorp Holdings Inc. has an unwavering commitment to
work with regulators under the consent order and to take all
necessary steps to make the company and our members stronger,”
President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Beckmann said in an
e-mailed statement. He said the company can’t comment on
personnel or its communications with U.S. agencies.

The biggest customers of MERS are also owners: Fannie Mae,
Freddie Mac (FMCC:US) and Bank of America. Others with stakes include
Wells Fargo Inc., Citigroup Inc. (C:US) and the Mortgage Bankers

‘Certain Defects’

“If the use of MERS is found not to be valid, we could be
obligated to cure certain defects or in some circumstances be
subject to additional costs and expenses,” Bank of America
reported in a February filing. “Our use of MERS as nominee for
the mortgage may also create reputational risks for us.”

Fannie Mae, in its annual financial report filed in
February, also noted the potential effects if the lawsuits or
regulatory pressures force changes in MERS.

“A large portion of the loans we own or guarantee are
registered in MERS’s name and the related servicing rights are
tracked in the MERS System,” Fannie Mae’s report said, adding
that if the firm couldn’t function in the same way, lenders
could be forced to go back to time-consuming and expensive
methods of recording land transfers.

Faster Paperwork

U.S. mortgage lending contracted in the first quarter of
2014 to $226 billion, as interest rates rose and credit
standards tightened, the lowest amount of lending since 1997,
according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Still, the
housing finance industry is far healthier than it was after the
2008 credit crisis, with foreclosures and delinquent loans
abating and profits surging at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The year 1997 also happens to be when the MERS system began
operating. It was established by the industry to speed up real-estate paperwork, especially changes in ownership and servicing
rights for loans, a process previously done by hand in local
jurisdictions. Instead of firms sending representatives to each
courthouse, MERS began to stand in for them.

“There’s a kernel of a good idea in there, but it was done
so sloppily,” Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National
Association of Consumer Advocates, said of the digital registry.
“It really became quite a mess.”

Popping Bubble

Investors could buy loans more easily under the electronic
MERS system, which helped feed Wall Street’s growing appetite
for securitization — the bundling of loans into packages of
investments. That, in turn, helped inflate the housing-price
bubble that popped in 2008.

MERS quickly found itself caught between the industry that
created it and borrowers losing their homes — many of whom
hadn’t heard of MERS until they received foreclosure notices.
The crush of home seizures exposed flaws in the paper trail and
lax control over the massive list of “certifying officers”
MERS used to execute documents in its name.

U.S. investigators later accused the banks, mortgage
brokers and MERS of failing to properly track loan ownership in
many cases, and permitting “robo-signing” of documents that
threw the legality of some transactions into doubt.

‘Unacceptable’ Risks

The case led to a $10 billion federal settlement last year
in which the loan servicers agreed to send cash to borrowers
who’d been subject to flawed foreclosures.

A related probe by federal officials found that MERS
exposed its clients to “unacceptable operational, compliance,
legal and reputational risks” by having weak oversight of the
documentation, improper corporate governance and insufficient
legal expertise devoted to the system.

While the company didn’t admit wrongdoing, MERS agreed to
an order from its bank members’ regulators — the Federal
Reserve, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal
Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Housing Finance Agency -
- to fix faults that let it become a platform for robo-signing.
It promised to beef up its staff and revamp practices based on
the recommendations of consultants.

At least four of those subsequently hired by MERS — the
firm’s chief legal officer, its national litigation coordinator,
its corporate counsel and its chief internal auditor — have now
departed, the people briefed said. They exited before MERS has
been cleared from its settlement obligations, and the federal
overseers have been scrutinizing their absence, the people said.

Consultant Rejected

Beckmann, the MERS CEO, said the company couldn’t discuss
employee matters. Michael B. Skalka, the chief legal officer and
the most senior of those who left, declined to comment.

Friction between MERS and its regulators showed up again
recently when the overseers rejected a consulting firm MERS
proposed to hire in connection with the settlement. The agencies
told MERS the firm wasn’t qualified for the work, the people
said. They didn’t name the firm.

Bryan Hubbard, a spokesman for the OCC, which has been
supervising how MERS is implementing the terms of the
settlement, declined to comment. Andrew Wilson, a Fannie Mae
spokesman, declined to comment on MERS.

Beyond Washington, MERS is a target of lawsuits filed by
local governments and borrowers. Municipal and county officials
accused MERS of cheating them out of filing fees, which was
previously a reliable stream of revenue. Other suits have argued
it overstepped its authority in foreclosures. MERS has won some
victories while other cases remain unresolved. In Pennsylvania,
a federal judge has allowed county officials to gather a class-action suit against the firm.

‘Overwhelmingly Positive’

As legal challenges mounted, President and Chief Executive
Officer R.K. Arnold retired in 2011 to be replaced by Beckmann,
the former chairman of CitiMortgage Inc.

“Merscorp Holdings, Inc. has had an overwhelmingly
positive litigation record,” Beckmann said. “The core team of
dedicated lawyers who have been handling these matters is still
with the company.”

He said that he knows of no mortgages that have been
invalidated because of MERS’ involvement. The company still
operates in every U.S. county, he said, “meeting a need that no
one else does.”

Even if the company survives its legal challenges, the
government could someday pull the rug out from under it.

Corker Bill

The Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie
Mae and Freddie Mac, included in a five-year strategy published
in 2012 a plan to develop a new electronic registration system.
Denise Dunckel, an FHFA spokeswoman, declined to comment on the
plan’s progress.

In 2011, Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican,
introduced a bill that would have created a new registration
system he called “MERS 2” to be regulated by the FHFA. A
version of the idea has resurfaced in a bipartisan housing
finance bill from Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson,
a South Dakota Democrat, and Senator Mike Crapo, an Idaho
Republican. Their measure calls for studying the establishment
of a new national mortgage registry — though it also left room
for the states to handle the job.

“Reforming an archaic legal infrastructure and addressing
the mountains of paper that impose burdens on modern mortgage
finance is a daunting task, but if ever there was a time to
consider such an effort, it is now,” Stephanie Heller, deputy
general counsel and senior vice president at the Federal Reserve
Bank of New York, wrote in a paper last year.

Geoff Walsh, an attorney with the National Consumer Law
Center in Boston, said he’s not surprised MERS is still laboring
under its 2011 settlement.

“They’ll probably stay under the order until something
comes up to replace them,” Walsh said. “Hopefully it’ll be a
public system.”

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jesse Hamilton in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Maura Reynolds at
Lawrence Roberts

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Lawyers’ Committee Releases Comprehensive Report Regarding Foreclosure …

WASHINGTON, D.C. – April 16, 2014 – (RealEstateRama) — Today, during Fair Housing Month, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) issued a comprehensive national report, “Foreclosure Rescue, Inc.”, which examines the foreclosure rescue fraud epidemic, scam trends and efforts to combat these fraudulent activities. The Lawyers’ Committee and its coalition partners in the Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network (LMSPN) have been tracking the foreclosure rescue fraud crisis since March 2010. As of early 2014, the national Loan Modification Scam Database, managed by the Lawyers’ Committee, has compiled over 40,000 complaints with total reported losses of over $90 million to homeowners.

“Homeowners facing difficult financial circumstances are desperate to find help to keep their homes are vulnerable to high-pressure sales pitches and false guarantees of success made by individuals and companies posing as loan modification specialists,” said Yolanda McGill, manager of the Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network for the Lawyers’ Committee. “African-American and Latino homeowners, already victimized by targeted predatory lending, have been victimized by scams at disproportionate rates compared to their percentage of the population. Senior homeowners also are victimized at high rates and their average loss is higher than other groups. The Lawyers’ Committee and our federal, state and community partners continue to fight back and put these scammers out of business, including through litigation.”

By the summer of 2009, the United States in the midst of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Home foreclosures were in the millions with no end in sight, and equity lost by families with foreclosed properties was headed into the trillions of dollars. As foreclosures increased, a “second wave” of the foreclosure crisis emerged – fraudulent foreclosure and loan modification rescue schemes. Data collected in a 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit indicate that complaints concerning such schemes rose from about 9,000 in 2009 to more than 18,000 each year in 2010, 2011 and 2012. This report provides an overview of the LMSPN, a coalition created in 2009 by the Lawyers’ Committee, in conjunction with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, NeighborWorks America and the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (HPF) to fight these pernicious practices.

As discussed in the report, scam artists making these pitches typically extract large upfront cash payments from homeowners, and then do little or no work to obtain a loan modification. While waiting for the promised relief, homeowners not only lose the money they paid to the scam operation, but they often fall deeper into default and lose valuable time that could have been spent negotiating directly with their mortgage servicer or going to a free U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved housing counseling agency with true expertise in assisting homeowners in trying to save their homes.

Scammers commonly gain access to bank accounts and social security numbers, and tell homeowners to stop paying their mortgage – decimating their credit, and sometimes leading to foreclosure and homelessness.

“While foreclosure rescue fraud comes in various forms, it all boils down to the same result – the widespread pickpocketing of homeowners throughout the United States, when they can least afford it,” said Michael Tanglis, analyst with the Lawyers’ Committee’s Fair Housing and Community Development Project.

Information/statistics in the report include:
The average loss per homeowner is $3,248.
Overall, homeowners nationwide reported an out of state scam 64 percent of the time.
When homeowner race is taken into account, Hispanic or Latino homeowners buck the national trend-alleging an in state scam operation a stunning 69 percent of the time. This percentage is particularly high when compared to Black or African American and White homeowners.
Hispanic/Latino homeowners account for 20 percent of all complaints in the Database, but they account for 34 percent of the complaints that mention radio or television.
While White homeowners account for 47 percent of the complaints in the Database, they account for 78 percent of the homeowners nationwide. Hispanic/Latino homeowners account for 8 percent of homeowners nationwide, but account for 20 percent of all the complaints in the Database, while African-Americans account for 8 percent of homeowners nationwide and 24 percent of the complaints in the Database.
From July 2012 through December 2013, the majority of complaints received in the Database each month have alleged attorney involvement (59 percent in 2013 alone).
From 2009 to 2012, pro bono partner law firms donated legal work to this effort valued at over $12 million ($12,423,847).

The Lawyers’ Committee released two companion reports this month focusing on the domino effect of foreclosure rescue fraud and the targeting of homeowners with limited English proficiency and will soon release one detailing attorney involvement in scams.

Anyone who has fallen prey to these unscrupulous scammers is encouraged to file a complaint online here or by calling 888-995-HOPE to file a complaint and find safe, reliable and free help.

About the LMSPN
The Loan Modification Scam Prevention Network (LMSPN), launched in 2010, is a national coalition of government agencies, non-profits, and service providers using education and a centralized complaint gathering process to help stop foreclosure rescue scams. This effort is led by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Homeownership Preservation Foundation (1-888-995-HOPE), NeighborWorks America ( and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (

About the Lawyers’ Committee
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. We celebrated our 50th anniversary in 2013 and continue our quest of “Moving America Toward Justice.” The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law, particularly in the areas of fair housing and community development; employment; voting; education and environmental justice. For more information about the Lawyers’ Committee, visit



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When Homeowners Are Better Off Than Renters

Homebuying has earned a bad rap in
recent years: The subprime mortgage crisis and ensuing economic meltdown left
many homeowners underwater, unable to pay their mortgage and even facing
foreclosure. Homeownership rates fell throughout the recession and got down to
about 65 percent, compared with almost 70 percent before the recession, according
to the Census Bureau. While record low interest rates helped entice homebuyers,
the bureau reports that the homeownership rate remains relatively low, at 65.2
percent in the fourth quarter of 2013.

If you’re among those struggling
to decide whether to buy versus rent, consider these 10 reasons to take the plunge
into homeownership:

1. You can ramp up energy

Energy-efficient improvements, from
adding insulation to upgrading your air-conditioning unit, can reduce your
monthly utility bill, says Jane Hodges, author of the book “Rent vs. Own.” While renters can make
plenty of green improvements on their own, from unplugging appliances to
turning off lights, homeowners can make bigger changes, such as adding solar
panels or installing an energy-efficient roof. (Of course, a renter living in a
one-bedroom apartment likely uses far less energy than a homeowner in a
three-bedroom house, so size can trump energy improvements.)

[Read: How to Reduce Your Energy Costs This Summer.]

2. You can customize your space.

Whether you need to knock down a
wall to make a larger master bedroom or redo the bathroom to reflect your art deco tastes, owning the space you live in means you have the freedom to do
so, without worrying about losing your security deposit.

3. Homeowners buy less furniture.

“Often when you’re renting you
need custom furniture that fits the space,” Hodges says, such as room
dividers for a loft or miniature furniture to fit into a basement apartment.
“When people move a lot, they can end up buying a lot of furniture,”
she says. If you buy a home and settle in for the long haul, you can likely
purchase a few pieces that will stick around.

4. Owning a home forces you to

The so-called “forced
savings” argument is a widely-held one: Since homeowners have to pay their
mortgage every month, they are routinely putting money away (and into their
house, which they own), instead of squandering it on new shoes or fancy meals.
Then, if you eventually sell your home after the mortgage is paid off, there’s
a good chance that “you’ll walk away with a payoff,” even after
subtracting the costs of ownership, Hodges says. (Of course, homeowners who
face foreclosure or declining home values often find themselves without such
equity to show for their monthly mortgage payments.)

Homeownership allows you to build a second income stream.

From taking in a renter in a spare
bedroom to renting out driveway space to commuters, Hodges says homeowners are
increasingly finding ways to monetize their homes. In cities with scant green
space, some homeowners even rent out small patches of grass for people who want
to grow vegetables.

[See: 11 Money Moves to Make Before You Turn 40.]

6. No landlord can kick you out.

Renters can face an unexpected
eviction notice if their landlord suddenly decides to sell the home, rent to
someone else or otherwise end the lease. That’s one reason Boston University
economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff says that for older people with a fixed
income in particular, he recommends homeownership (and a paid-off mortgage).
“It’s important for older people to be in a home that they own as security
against a landlord,” he says.

7. In fact, you don’t have to speak
to a landlord, ever again.

Landlords can take ages to fix a
broken dishwasher, let the air vents fill with dust and particles, or leave
pesky messages about repairs. If you’re the homeowner, then you’re in charge – which
means you have to be home when the plumber calls, but the plumber reports to
you. (And, of course, you also have to pay the plumber.)

8. Unlike rent, a fixed mortgage can’t go up (even if inflation

Fixed mortgage rates don’t go up, even if the cost of everything else does.
To protect yourself, Jack Otter, author of “Worth It … Not Worth It?suggests
making a 20 percent down payment and taking out a 30-year fixed mortgage to
lock in today’s low interest rates. “Mortgage rates haven’t been this low
since GIs were heading home from France. Lock in a low monthly payment, and
you’ve just taken a huge step in protecting your family against
inflation,” he writes in his book.

9. Homeowners can take tax deductions.

The chief tax benefit of homeownership is the ability to deduct mortgage
interest payments, but the perks don’t stop there. Homeowners can also deduct
eligible expenses (certain energy-efficient improvements, for example) and in
some cases can avoid federal taxes on earnings from the sale of a home.

[Read: Why You Should Embrace Your Tax Refund.]

10. You can take advantage of currently low interest rates and

Despite creeping back up, interest rates remain relatively low from a
historical perspective, and at the same time, home prices in many areas remain
soft. That can make for an appealing buyer’s market. Of course, buying isn’t
for everyone. If you might move soon or you want the flexibility to upgrade
your digs with just a month’s notice or your job outlook is uncertain, then
renting can be ideal. Hodges says potential buyers should first consider the
transaction costs of homeownership, which can add up quickly, especially if a
buyer doesn’t plan to stay put for very long.

“During the bubble, people were looking at homes as a tool to make
money,” Hodges says. Now, they just see them as a place to live.

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Fannie Mae Cuts Ties With 2 Colorado Foreclosure Law Firms

DENVER (AP) — Mortgage-finance giant Fannie Mae has cut ties with Colorado’s two largest foreclosure law firms.

The Denver Post reported Saturday that the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., known as Freddie Mac, is also reviewing the possible need to take similar action.

Fannie Mae spokeswoman Keosha Burns in a statement says existing foreclosure cases at Aronowitz Mecklenburg and the Castle Law Group will be transferred to other firms. Burns also says mortgage servicers have been instructed to stop referring new cases to the firms.

Neither firm immediately responded to efforts by the Post to reach them Friday. Both firms have consistently denied any allegations in an ongoing investigation by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers.

Suthers’ inquiry into five law firms began last year and is focused primarily on bill padding.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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