The foreclosure mill, Law Firm of Marshall Watson, has been shut down after the owner, Marshall Watson, pled guilty to unlawful and unethical practices at his firm. It appears that the firm hopes to have a smooth transition to a new law office, Choice Legal Group, headed by Marshall Watson’s brother, John Watson. In 2010, John Watson, apparently playing both sides of the crisis, in more than one instance represented a property owner against the very same financial institution that he also represented, in at least some capacity, in other foreclosure cases.
In March 2011, Marshall Watson paid two million dollars to settle a Florida Attorney General investigation into questionable foreclosure practices and suspicious document execution policies. However, that settlement didn’t clean up Watson’s practices enough to fend off a new set of accusations by the Florida Bar. The Bar has just released a 12-page guilty plea for consent judgment with Marshall Watson. This is the Florida Bar’s third regulatory action against foreclosure mill owners.
At the time of the settlement with the Florida AG, Marshall C. Watson, president and chief executive of firm, said in a statement that he was “pleased” with the settlement. “With our firm’s tight controls now in place we are setting a high bar for the mortgage law provider industry, and our clients recognize and value the positive steps we are taking.” One of those “positive steps”, a brilliant PR move, was to hire the Broward County Chief Judge Victor Tobin, who resigned from the bench on June 30, 2011 and started his employment at Marshall Watson’s foreclosure factory one day later. Questions remain over when Tobin negotiated his employment terms and if the questionable career change violated the edict that sitting judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety. Tobin who, once held the highest Broward County judgeship, set court policies for all cases including foreclosures as well as adjudicating foreclosure cases himself when the court was short staffed. Now, less than two years later, despite Watson’s “tight controls” and the hiring of Tobin, the Florida Bar has extracted a guilty plea from Watson for failing to develop foreclosure policies in line with the rules of professional ethics for Florida attorneys and also for routinely filing documents in Florida courts that were illegally executed and/or notarized. Kim Miller who broke this story in the Palm Beach Post wrote, “Charges against Watson in the Bar’s 12-page ‘conditional guilty plea for consent judgment’ include that an attorney contracted by the firm was paid $1 each for signing approximately 150,000 fee affidavits.” According to the Consent Judgement and guilty plea, an undetermined number of affidavits in order to secure fees were signed outside the presence of a notary public and then later notarized, a clear violation of the law, and in numerous instances, an attorney was given only the signature page of an affidavit to sign. Affidavits require the signer to swear under oath that they have personal knowledge of the facts stated therein. However, that’s not possible if the signer doesn’t even see the text of what he or she is signing!
Besides the Office of the Florida Attorney General and the Florida Bar, a Florida lawmaker has voiced serious concerns about Marshall Watson’s foreclosure mill. In October 2011, Senator Darren Soto, former Florida state representative (D-49) and newly elected to the Florida state senate (D-14), called for a formal investigation, possibly criminal related, Marshall Watson’s possible violations of the settlement agreement with the Florida Attorney General.
There was at least one additional investigation into Marshall Watson’s practices. Former Monroe County state attorney Dennis Ward opened an investigation into Marshall Watson’s mill, focusing on a Watson attorney, Patricia Arango, whose apparent signature appears on thousands of legal documents, some clearly improper, filed in official records across the state. At the time the investigation was covered in the media, Ward stated, his “ultimate concern is protecting the integrity of the legal system and land title records.”
The Bar has been slow to act against rampant crimes related to the prosecution of foreclosure cases but there are two previous Florida Bar regulatory actions against a disgraced former foreclosure mill owner, David J Stern, whose now defunct firm went down in flames in 2011 after widespread media stories exposed illegal and unethical practices at his mill. Nevertheless, Stern remains a lawyer in good standing with the Florida Bar despite numerous citizen complaints filed over the past decade in addition to the Bar’s own 2002 and 2011 complaints. The Bar also issued a detailed ethics opinion on January 11, 2011 explaining a process to be implemented by foreclosure mill attorneys who have knowledge of illegal and unethical practices in specific foreclosure cases by their bank clients.
Shapiro, Fishman, Gauche was exposed for submitting documents to Florida courts that bore the signature of an attorney who had left the firm months prior. The attorney herself was outraged when she discovered that her signature was being used on Shapiro, Fishman, Gache’s legal filings. Previously, in 2010, a judge wrote in an order dismissing a foreclosure case, “The Court finds by clear and convincing evidence that WAMU, Chase, and Shapiro & Fishman committed fraud on this Court.”
Ben Ezra Katz was another, now defunct, foreclosure mill that self-imploded after it’s owner, Marc Ben Ezra admitted to “execution issues” in foreclosure proceedings. Marc Ben-Ezra remains a lawyer in good standing with the Florida Bar. Interestingly, Florida Default Law Group, now Ron Wolfe and Associates, and Smith Hiatt Diaz, now SHD Legal, have both changed their foreclosure mill firm names recently.
After the foreclosure fraud story broke in the national media, the Office of the Inspector General for the FHFA, the regulator for Freddie and Fannie, audited Freddie and Fannie’s oversight of their foreclosure attorney network. On September 30, 2011, the Inspector General issued a report concluding that Fannie Mae and its regulators—including FHFA—had been alerted repeatedly as early as 2003 to serious problems with the legal firms in the retained attorney network (RAN), but failed to take corrective action. The Inspector General also reported that “FHFA did not begin to act on foreclosure abuse issues involving Fannie Mae’s RAN until mid-2010,” despite “multiple indicators of foreclosure abuse risk prior to 2010 that could have led FHFA to identify and act earlier on the issue.”
Rep. Elijah E Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued a statement in response to the report, “as I review the policies announced today, I will look to see that they will truly ensure that the firms selected by servicers to handle foreclosure cases are staffed, compensated, and supervised in a way that will prevent future abuses.”
Yet, after all the buzz of this big news, the Law Office of Marshall Watson seems to be shutting down in name only because it has all the appearances of easing right into its new name, Choice Legal Group, with the same staff, attorneys, foreclosure cases, and clients. Slick move…
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