The Foreclosure Mill Scandal

| Thu Oct. 21, 2010 12:14 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, after Ally Financial halted all its foreclosure proceedings because it had discovered "important but technical defects" in its paperwork, all hell broke loose. Home foreclosures, it turned out, were routinely based on documentation that was sloppy at best and fraudulent at worst, and the stories since then have just kept getting worse and worse.

But those stories all started with an expose of "foreclosure mills" that was written last August by our own Andy Kroll. His look at this shadowy industry begins with the case of Ariane and Tom Ice, who were investigating foreclosures by one of Florida's biggest mills, run by multimillionaire attorney David J. Stern:

A Florida notary's stamp is valid for four years, and its expiration date is visible on the imprint. But here in front of Ice were dozens of assignments notarized with stamps that hadn't even existed until months—in some cases nearly a year — after the foreclosures were filed. Which meant Stern's people were foreclosing first and doing their legal paperwork later. In effect, it also meant they were lying to the court — an act that could get a lawyer disbarred or even prosecuted. "There's no question that it's pervasive," says Tom Ice of the backdated documents — nearly two dozen of which were verified by Mother Jones. "We've found tons of them."

...The Ices had uncovered what looked like a pattern, so Tom booked a deposition with Stern's top deputy, Cheryl Samons, and confronted her with the backdated documents—including two from cases her firm had filed against Ice Legal's clients. Samons insisted that the filings were just a mistake, so the Ices moved to depose the notaries and other Stern employees. On the eve of those depositions, however, the firm dropped foreclosure proceedings against the Ices' clients.

It was a bittersweet victory: The Ices had won their cases, but Stern's practices remained under wraps. "This was done to cover up fraud," Tom fumes. "It was done precisely so they could try to hit a reset button and keep us from getting the real goods."

If you want to know where it all started, read the whole thing. When you're done, you'll no longer wonder how all of this could have happened. It was baked into the cake from the start.