Seven women were arraigned Tuesday in Washington, D.C., on federal charges of “unlawful entry” stemming from last month’s homeowner sit-ins at the Department of Justice and a lawfirm called Covington and Burling. Protesters targeted Covington for its revolving-door relationship with a government that’s failed to prosecute Wall Street. When Lanny Breuer stepped down as head of DOJ’s criminal division this winter after Frontline revealed him as the primary culprit in the government’s apparent ‘too big to jail’ approach to foreclosure fraud, Covington provided him a new professional home. It’s also provided a moniker for the group formally charged on Tuesday: the “Covington Seven.”
The women face one of three different legal paths, their attorney Mark Goldstone told ThinkProgress. The charges bear a maximum penalty of six months jail time and/or a $1,250 fine. While a small fine is more likely to be the outcome, Goldstone said, that would come with a conviction on their permanent records. The women might be able to escape conviction provided they are not re-arrested and they do not return to Covington and Burling premises.
After their arraignment, members of the Covington Seven told ThinkProgress why they’d gotten involved.
Sherry Hernandez of Los Angeles told me her Countrywide mortgage ballooned after just four months, with her monthly payments jumping by $800. Her family decided to get a different loan and get out of the suddenly-unaffordable Countrywide mortgage, since they knew they had notarized paperwork showing their loan did not carry penalties for paying it back early. “But they held us to this prepayment penalty we didn’t agree to,” Hernandez said, which “raised our payment trying to get out of the predatory loan by $75,000 more.” Countrywide was the largest subprime lender, and implicated in much of the ugliest financial conduct of the housing bubble and bust. Yet a few years after it was bought by Bank of America, a firm called PennyMac sprang up, run almost entirely by Countrywide alumni. The Hernandezes sued Countrywide successfully, but meanwhile the second loan they’d taken out to replace the predatory one had been sold off…to PennyMac. “PennyMac has foreclosed,” Hernandez said. (PennyMac declined to comment on an individual case, citing privacy laws.)
Asked what she wanted to her message to be on the day she attended the sit-in, Hernandez chuckled. “Oh I have the perfect line. It’s the line they used on us when our hands were cuffed behind our backs, the seven little grandmas: ‘If you don’t arrest them, they’ll just do it again.’”
Deborah Castillo of St. Louis came home from voting on Election Day of 2012 to find an eviction notice on her front door. Castillo, 60, had seemed well positioned for her financial future just a few years earlier, with a good handle on her own mortgage and an investment property nearly paid off. “I had a two-family flat that was $3,000 from being paid for,” Castillo said, “but I had to refinance that in 2005 to help pay for the medical bills for my son, who’s schizophrenic.”
“That was my so-called nest egg, that was our security. And so I had to refinance that, unfortunately with Countrywide.” The same year, Castillo’s daughter contracted bacterial meningitis, and Castillo took 9 months away from her phone company job to care for her daughter. When the balloon payment hit, Castillo couldn’t keep up. Her husband lost his job amid the economic downturn, compounding their struggles. Just a few years on from nearly owning their “nest egg” rental property, Castillo found herself drawing down retirement savings to make ends meet.
And then, in the middle of the loan modification process, US Bank foreclosed on the Castillo family home. “[They] sat on the paperwork,” Castillo told ThinkProgress. The bank refused to accept payments while the modification was pending, yet charged Castillo penalties for missed payments. “Their lack of processing my document on time allowed them to put me in foreclosure,” she said. With eviction pending, Fannie Mae sought and won a $17,000 judgment against Castillo “for being in my home illegally.” (A representative of US Bank officially declined to comment, citing policy against discussing ongoing litigation.)
Castillo is clear-eyed about the culprits in her case. “Something can happen to you in life, no matter what, that can cause you to get into a bind,” Castillo said. “But US Bank, they’re not losing.” Thanks to bailouts, “there was no reason for the banks to settle or work with people, because the government guaranteed that they would win, that they would not be left holding the bag.” And now, with the initial crisis that sparked the government aid to the financial sector, no one in Washington was doubling back to address the paperwork rigmarole that the bailed-out companies used to boot the Castillos from their home. That’s how Castillo ended up getting handcuffed in the Covington and Burling lobby. “We wanted to get someone’s attention. And unfortunately, doing it the legal way through the court is not getting their attention,” she said.“I worked my ass off to help [President Obama] get elected,” said Castillo, whose volunteer work for the 2008 campaign earned her the photo-op at right. “And now I want him to work his ass off to keep not only me in my home, but everybody else. Because he didn’t get there on his own. I don’t think he’s forgotten, but he needs to put his foot up somebody’s ass and make them remember, we helped put them there.”
Castillo, Hernandez, and the other five, whose stories reflect the same themes of deception and bullying, have to choose how to respond to the unlawful entry charges prior to a July court date. But whichever path each decides to walk, they’ll face more punishment than any of the companies involved in these wrongful foreclosures have faced. “The charges are much harsher for those that sit in front of a doorway than those who steal billions of dollars, force people out of their homes, wreck the economy, and wreck people’s lives,” Goldstone, their lawyer, said. “It demonstrates there’s two systems of justice.”