June Clarkson went to Ernie's Bar-B-Q in Fort Lauderdale to have lunch with her supervisor, Bob Julian; and some coworkers. It was a Friday in May 2011, the end of a hectic workweek at the local economic crimes unit of the Office of the Attorney General.
Clarkson, a small, lively woman with glasses and blond hair, had left a private law firm to accept the sub-$60,000-a-year job. She relished the idea of being a public watchdog, of digging into the records of companies to catch them trying to cheat customers.
"It was just right up my alley: people defrauding other people, companies defrauding the public. I thought it was the best thing that had ever fallen into my lap," Clarkson recalls.
She worked closely with colleague Theresa Edwards. Their typical assignments involved consumer fraud, but in 2010, they started getting calls from hard-up homeowners. Millions of families had faced foreclosure in the wake of the housing collapse; most had capitulated under the power of giant banks and simply surrendered their homes. But more and more, Clarkson was hearing from individuals who were fighting back.
These homeowners noticed mistakes in the documents that the banks were using as the basis to seize people's homes: strange signatures, missing information, notary seals with no signature, dates in the future. Skeptics began wondering whether these were in fact not innocent mistakes but symptoms of intentional and possibly systemic fraud. Clarkson and Edwards were some of the first public officials willing to listen to these accusations.
Clarkson noticed Julian's phone ringing during lunch but didn't pay much attention. They drove back to the downtown Fort Lauderdale office building they shared with several of the area's most powerful law firms.
Clarkson returned to her desk, reading through piles of documents. Recently she had been investigating Lender Processing Services (LPS), a company that, by some estimates, helped prepare paperwork for half the foreclosures in the country. Every time she found a red flag — a suspect signature, perhaps, or an intriguing memo — she went next door to Julian's office and showed him. But since lunch, he hadn't been acting normally, she thought. Clarkson came back a couple of times, and each time she announced a discovery, it seemed to pain Julian. Eventually he closed his door, but Clarkson knocked again. Julian just looked up at her. She thought he might be sick. "What's the matter?" she asked. "I'm doing a good job!"
"I know," she remembers him saying. She left and closed the door.
Edwards came back from a morning of depositions and stopped by Julian's office. She was tall and calm-voiced with reddish-brown hair, more experienced at the AG's office than Clarkson.
"Get June and come in here," he told her.
He cut straight to the chase: "You're both done at the end of the day. It's a done deal, all the way up to Tallahassee. You can either quit or be terminated," they remembered him saying.
Clarkson and Edwards left the office, stunned. Edwards had known Julian since law school, and the three of them had worked closely together. The two investigators considered themselves the hardest-working people in the office and had recently received a commendation for their work. Julian had encouraged them to go after the foreclosure-fraud cases with all they had, and they even helped win a $2 million settlement with the foreclosure law firm of Marshall Watson, which had been accused of fudging its documents. So what happened?
The women say that, at the time, they had no idea. But over the past year, as supporters have rallied to their side, they've started to believe they were ousted for political reasons. Going after powerful law firms and banks didn't sit too well with the state's new, business-friendly Republican administration, including Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Since their ouster, the women have moved on to private practice and become heroes to some, though their power in court is a shadow of their former influence. Meanwhile, the mortgage industry has not exactly gotten its papers in order.
The complicated system of investments that underlies the industry — mortgage-backed securities, government-sponsored enterprises — may seem distant and fanciful to buyers when they sign on the dotted line and buy into the American dream of home ownership. But the demanding letters that can suddenly show up in the mail — pay now or lose your home — are undeniably real.
What if the documentation to back up the bank's claim to your house were missing or incomplete, if the bank was deriving its power from a few pieces of paper slapped together at a document mill? How would you know?
One Saturday afternoon in May 2010, Clarkson was manning the attorney general's table at a mortgage-fraud seminar at Florida International University in Miami. Much of the discussion was about two-bit scams, like companies offering too-good-to-be-true loan modifications. A woman came up to the table. "I've been trying to get in touch with you," said Lisa Epstein, a sharp-eyed brunet in her 40s.