By Richard Bowen: January 20, 2018
This past Sunday the PBS documentary produced by WNET, New York, about Sherry Hunt, one of my former chief underwriters (Sherry blew the whistle on Citigroup four years after I was thrown out for warning about their bad mortgages), and myself aired on KERA Channel 13, Dallas PBS.
The documentary, entitled “The Whistleblower,” is the first episode in a three-part PBS series called Playing by the Rules: Ethics at Work. It has aired in New York and several other cities around the country and in Dallas this past weekend, with most of the PBS stations airing it this month. You can watch it here and on the WNET website.
Sherry Hunt was a vice president and chief underwriter at CitiMortgage in O’Fallon, Missouri. Since 2005 she had flagged defects; 50 % of the loans she saw had defects, fraudulent defects. She complained and was ignored. I became her boss in 2006 and learned of her concerns which were also expressed by others.
I dug deeper, and it was worse than I could ever have imagined. While we reported that 95% of our mortgages met our policies, in reality, 60 % (growing to 80 %) of the mortgages did not. And yet Citi was certifying to the purchasers of many billions of dollars of these mortgages that they met our policies.
I was forced to leave in early 2008 after my continued warnings to my managers, the executive team and the board of directors, trying to tell them that a bomb was about to explode in this area. After my departure, Sherry continued to see defects and potential fraud. Yet even after the bailouts, in late 2008, nothing changed.
Citigroup was the poster child for fraud when it came to credit controls, underwriting and mortgages. I lived this story, yet watching this documentary was disturbing.
Subprime mortgages made it possible to buy homes even if you could not afford one. It seemed too good to be true and it was. In 2008 when the bubble burst, our economy was devastated and nearly collapsed. As you know the Federal government had to step in and rescue the banks. Citigroup was bailed out three separate times by the government for $350 billion in capital and toxic asset guarantees, resulting in the US Treasury owning 36% of the world’s largest bank.
Nothing changed! Even after the bailouts, nothing changed. In 2011 when Sherry, still an employee, was told to cook the books, she took a stand. As Sherry said, if you have to change something, you have to start and you can’t be afraid. She sued Citigroup for defrauding the government through FHA insurance fraud. Citi admitted the fraud and settled for a fine of $158 million; Sherry received $31 million. She did a hard and lonely thing.
We need whistleblowers now more than ever. Who’s looking out for ordinary people? It’s the last thing we have between illegal behaviors and the right thing to do. Has anything been fixed? There’s been no criminal prosecution, no real accountability.
As Professor Adam Waytz, who studied the psychology of whistleblowing and who wrote a Citigroup case study for the Kellogg School of Management about this situation says, “no one feels good about it.” His students ask, why have banking leaders escaped criminal prosecution? Why no accountability?
It’s David against Goliath, as Sherry’s attorney, Finley Gibbs said, ”If you’re willing to stand up and do your best, sometimes the little guy can win.”
At the end of the day– we have to roll up our sleeves and take a stand. I’m honored to have been part of this story. Enjoy, please.
Note: The second episode of the series, entitled “Ask Why,” is about Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins, with some of it also being filmed here at the University of Texas at Dallas. It will air in Dallas this Sunday, January 21, also at 10:30 AM on KERA PBS, Channel 13, and is also on the WNET website.
Richard Bowen is currently a Professor of Accounting at the University of Texas at Dallas. He speaks publicly about ethics and fraud in the financial crisis.