Daily Archives: April 15, 2012

Sixth-graders learn, lead in NATO Lesson before summit

Chicago NATO Host Committee members Aarti Kota, center, and Ross Karp ask questions of sixth-graders at Disney Magnet School on Thursday. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune / April 12, 2012)

Ms. Purdy’s students had been well-prepped.

chicagotribune.com | Apr 13, 2012

by Mary Schmich

Are you smarter than a sixth-grader?

It’s safe to say that a lot of adults, given a quiz on NATO, wouldn’t have outsmarted Ms. Purdy’s sixth-grade class at Walt Disney Magnet School on Thursday.

“When was NATO started?”

It was late morning, and Aarti Kotak, one of the day’s guests, was peppering the students with questions they couldn’t wait to answer.

“April 4, 1949!” a girl cried.

“Why was it started?”

Another burst of waggling hands.

“To prevent World War III!”

“Who were we worried about in 1949?”

“The Soviet Union!”

“Who were the countries in NATO?”

In the torrent of answers — Britain, France, Slovakia, Slovenia — a few students had to glance down at their fact sheets, but, together, they managed to list all 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The founding of NATO might seem as ancient as the fall of Rome to some sixth-graders, but Ms. Purdy’s students had been well-prepped before Kotak arrived with a colleague from the Chicago NATO Host Committee.

The committee, the group charged with raising money to cover the local costs of the May summit, has a public-relations mission as well: to help the thousands of NATO visitors appreciate Chicago, to help Chicagoans understand NATO, and to help everybody understand how we’re all connected.

That’s why Kotak, a lively woman who is a real estate lawyer by profession, was at Disney on Thursday, in a classroom of 33 students who, like the city they inhabit, have roots all over the world.

“What things do we get from other countries?” she asked.

Food. Music. Clothes. The answers came fast.

“Most products are made in China,” a boy said.

“Well,” said another boy, “I don’t drink it — but coffee.”

Bank Of America Sues Itself In Unusual Foreclosure Case

huffingtonpost.com | Apr 10, 2012

WASHINGTON — Bank of America is suing itself for foreclosure.

“It’s crazy,” housing data analyst Michael Olenick told HuffPost. “They shouldn’t be suing themselves.”

Over the past two years, the nation’s largest banks and the Obama administration have repeatedly vowed to clean up the foreclosure fraud mess. In February, banks agreed to pay $25 billion and overhaul their foreclosure processes as part of a 50-state investigation into bank wrongdoing, resulting from practices that included robo-signing.

Foreclosure Frenzy: Bank Of America Sues Bank Of America

But in Florida’s Palm Beach County alone, Bank of America has sued itself for foreclosure 11 times since late March, according to foreclosure fraud activist Lynn Szymoniak, who forwarded one such foreclosure filing, dated March 29, 2012, to The Huffington Post. (A white-collar crime expert, Szymoniak was recently awarded $18 million for her work helping the government recover $95 million as a result of bank foreclosure problems in North Carolina.)

In the March 29 filing, Bank of America is seeking to foreclose on a condominium and names the condo owner and Bank of America as defendants in the suit. The company is literally seeking damages from itself in order to foreclose on the condo owner.

“We are servicing the first mortgage on behalf of an investor and we own the second mortgage,” Bank of America spokeswoman Jumana Bauwens told HuffPost. “Naming the second-lien holder in the suit is necessary to eliminate the junior interest,” Bauwens said.

“This just strikes me as classic robo foreclosure,” Professor Alan White of Valparaiso University Law School told HuffPost. White, a predatory lending expert who tracks and analyzes data on loan modifications and foreclosures, said that lawyers for the bank likely performed an electronic title search to see if any other liens on the property existed and simply wrote down the name of whatever bank came up in the search. Lawyers and paralegals who perform these tasks typically fill out dozens of such forms a day, White told HuffPost.

“I’m sure the paralegal who did this did 100 others that day,” he said.

Banks have been caught suing themselves before. In 2009, Dow Jones columnist Al Lewis uncovered a case in which Wells Fargo had sued itself in connection with a foreclosure in Florida’s Hillsborough County. The bank owned both the first and second liens on the property and ended up hiring two separate attorneys to deal with the snafu — one to bring the lawsuit and another to defend itself.

The Bank of America self-suits seems to have emerged from a scenario that investors have complained about for years involving home equity loans. Big banks like Bank of America service mortgages on behalf of other investors. Bank of America processes payments, negotiates with borrowers and operates the foreclosure process but does not actually own the loan. Many properties from the housing bubble had an additional home equity loan, or second lien. Banks could charge higher interest rates on these second liens because they were riskier loans — the second lien is supposed to eat losses before anything happens to the first lien.

When a bank brings a foreclosure case in court, it has to notify whoever owns the second lien that it is taking action. In this case, Bank of America owns the second lien.

But meticulous attorneys would not ordinarily let their clients sue themselves. “It is a little bit mindless on the part of the lawyer,” White said. “They don’t need to sue themselves.”

An ugly foreclosure story, starring Bank of America

After homeowner Dirma Rodriguez fell behind on her payments, the Bank of America lowered her monthly obligation, but then sold her house at a foreclosure auction last September. (Associated Press)

Dirma Rodriguez wonders how a house she’d been paying on for years, and which is specially modified for her severely disabled daughter, could be taken from her.

You might wonder why Bank of America found it smarter to sell at a loss than to work out reasonable terms with Rodriguez, who made mortgage payments for more than 20 years without incident.

Los Angeles Times | Apr 13, 2012

by Gale Holland

Dirma Rodriguez had five minutes to gather her things and vacate the West Adams house she and her severely disabled daughter had lived in for more than 25 years.

As a property manager changed the locks, Rodriguez fluttered back and forth from the yard — where a pile of stuff lay by the kitchen stove — to her car, where her daughter, Ingrid Ortiz, sat screaming and crying.

How Rodriguez and Ortiz ended up in this predicament is a long, messy story that resounds with a misery all too common in this age of foreclosure.

Rodriguez took out a loan to retrofit her house for her special-needs daughter. After she fell behind on her payments, the Bank of America lowered her monthly obligation, but then sold the house at a foreclosure auction last September. The new owner, a house flipper from El Segundo called West Ridge Rentals, moved to evict the family.

I came upon Rodriguez’s story through Occupy Fights Foreclosure, the latest offshoot of the 99% movement. Occupy interceded to stop her eviction March 26, and it just may have saved her home for good. Bank of America said last week it is considering a loan modification that would return the home to Rodriguez and her family.

But how did it come to this? Bank of America took a $45-billion bailout from taxpayers when it got into financial trouble. Why couldn’t the bank have shown Rodriguez — a widow whose life was already a trial — the same courtesy when she got squeezed?

“I would pray to God the executives from Bank of America would come over here and see what I have to deal with,” Rodriguez said through a Spanish-speaking Occupier last week.

Ortiz, now 27, has cerebral palsy and does not speak. Her vision is poor, and she can walk with leg braces, but she generally finds it easier to slide around the house on her knees. She often cries and wails loudly.

The stucco house on South Rimpau Boulevard, which Rodriguez keeps immaculate, is custom-conditioned for Ortiz, with gleaming floor tiles to ease her movements and a wheelchair ramp. In the summer, Rodriguez spreads a blanket on the lawn so Ingrid can enjoy the sun and gaze at the dozens of unblemished rose bushes her mother planted in honor of her quinceañera.

Given the circumstances, it’s hard to picture Rodriguez spending her loan money on a cruise. Or finding another place where Ortiz could live comfortably.

“I built all this house so she could have a castle,” Rodriguez said through a translator last week. Two portraits of a smiling Ortiz in a white quinceañera dress with rosebud trim hung nearby. “This is the only world she knows,” her mother said.

Bank of America inherited Rodriguez’s loan from Countrywide. After her payment jumped, and she fell behind, the bank placed her in a trial loan modification. She made her payments faithfully for 13 months and was awaiting a permanent modification package when the bank sold her home out from under her, she says.

How and why this came to pass is in dispute. Rodriguez says the bank began returning her payments, then put her into foreclosure without notice. Bank of America spokesman Rick Simon said she received ample notification, and the foreclosure was aboveboard.

Getting at the truth is complicated by “advocates” that Rodriguez brought in to try to save her home. One of them, G & G Financial of Los Angeles, earned a grade of “F” from the Better Business Bureau for allegedly charging homeowners advance fees to work on loan modifications, which is illegal in California. A man who answered the phone at G & G hung up on me when I tried to ask about Rodriguez’s case.

Another company, Golden Global Investments of Van Nuys, said through an employee that it helped Rodriguez fight eviction. But West Ridge lawyer Alan Dettelbach says no one was in court for Rodriguez when the eviction proceeding was heard.

Bank of America’s assertion that the foreclosure was proper might be more persuasive if it and four other banks hadn’t just signed a $25-billion settlement with the federal government and state attorneys general over shoddy, and possibly illegal, foreclosure practices. Or if it had established more of a record of helping longtime homeowners hang on to their properties.

Bank of America was the only lender that joined a 2009, $1.1-million city pilot program to help homeowners in the North San Fernando Valley obtain loan modifications. But as of February, the bank could find no “eligible borrowers,” city staff reported to the City Council.

Really? REALLY? There’s not a single Bank of America borrower in North Hollywood or Sun Valley deserving of a break?

Rodriguez owed $457,000 on the house; West Ridge picked it up for $300,100. You might wonder why Bank of America found it smarter to sell at a loss than to work out reasonable terms with Rodriguez, who made mortgage payments for more than 20 years without incident.

Basically, the bulk of the loss falls not on Bank of America, the loan servicer, but on the loan’s owner — in Rodriguez’s case, Freddie Mac.

Dettelbach, the attorney, said West Ridge is willing to walk away if the bank repays its money plus costs. Simon, the spokesman, said the bank has to be certain Rodriguez can afford the payments before they agree to a modification.

“We are certainly sympathetic to the situation involving her daughter and the renovations that have been done to the home,” Simon said in an email.

“I don’t want a free house. I just want to make my payments,” Rodriguez said.

Barack Obama’s bodyguards sent back to US after prostitution scandal

Mr Obama’s campaign promises to change politics as usual had raised hopes that he would not continue the practise of doling out prized ambassadorships to cronies Photo: AP

They are the besuited, stern-faced agents, earphones in place, eyes scouring crowds for potential threats, who accompany US leaders across the world to protect their safety

telegraph.co.uk | Apr 14, 2012

By Philip Sherwell, in New York, and Harriet Alexander

But an advance party of Secret Service agents deployed to oversee security for President Barack Obama’s visit to Colombia this weekend also apparently found time to pursue some local diversions.

Around 12 agents are now embroiled in a prostitution scandal after at least one woman complained to police in the city of Cartagena, which is hosting the Summit of the Americas, that she had not been paid. There were claims that the elite presidential bodyguards, some of whom are married and including at least two supervisors, had brought prostitutes back to their hotel, which is also housing US delegation members and media. Another report said only one agent had returned to his room with a prostitute, but that Secret Service chiefs decided to recall all the members of the team so they could be questioned by internal agency investigators about his behaviour and security issues.

”This is the worst scandal in the history of the agency,” said Ronald Kessler, author of In The President’s Secret Service, who broke the story after receiving a tip from an agency source. Although prostitution is legal in Colombia inside so-called “tolerance zones”, the agents could still have been exposed to blackmail and the business is closely connected to crime and drug gangs. About a dozen men have now been sent home.

The Columbian police contacted American diplomats, who tried to mediate the dispute and keep a lid on the crisis as a new crew of agents were rushed to the country from the US. US officials insisted that there was no danger to Mr Obama and that the agents had already been replaced by the time the president arrived in Cartagena on Friday evening.

But two explosions from home-made pipe-bombs in the city on Friday evening and two more blasts in the capital in Bogota, were a reminder of the security dangers in Colombia. Despite marked improvements in recent years, the country has long been plagued by far-Left political terrorism, drug cartel violence and kidnappings.

”This is a very bad security breach and is being taken extremely seriously inside the agency,” Mr Kessler said. “Aside from the morality issues, even if prostitution is legal, this conduct opened these men up to the threat of blackmail. Terrorists could have gained access to secure areas and that could have resulted in an assassination attempt. The consequences could have been extremely serious”.

The incident also threatened to overshadow Mr Obama’s efforts to focus on the economy and boosting trade ties with fast-growing Latin America. With Hispanic voters in the US crucial to his re-election hopes in November, the president has been keen to use the three-day summit to show he is engaged in a region that critics have accused him of largely ignoring.

In an interview with a Spanish language television station, he courted Hispanic voters back home by saying that he would purse immigration reform in his second term and attacking Mitt Romney, his presumed Republican rival, for his policies.

Colombian media reported that prostitutes descended on Cartagena ahead of the summit, where heads-of-state and delegations from 34 of the hemisphere’s 35 countries – Cuba is absent – are discussing trade, the economy and regional co-operation.

The agents were staying at the Hotel Caribe, which is also hosting members of the White House staff and press corps during the summit. A hotel employee said the agents arrived at the beachfront hotel about a week ago, and alleged that they were drinking heavily during their stay.

The employee said the agents left the hotel on Thursday, a day before Mr Obama and other regional leaders arrived for the weekend summit. Edwin Donovan, a Secret Service spokesman, said the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which serves as its internal affairs unit, was investigating the men’s actions.

”The Secret Service takes all allegations of misconduct seriously,” Mr Donovan said. “These personnel changes will not affect the comprehensive security plan that has been prepared in advance of the President’s trip.”

Mr. Bongino, a former Secret Service agent with the presidential protection division, who left the agency last year and is now running for a US Senate seat, said that he was told the team had all been told to report to internal affairs yesterday.

“I am hearing that it’s an isolated incident, that it’s one individual who had some interaction with a prostitute,” he told The New York Times. “A confrontation ensued, and it didn’t end well.”

The scandal – which prompted headlines such as “Secret Service Gone Wild” and “the Dirty Dozen” yesterday – is the latest embarrassment for the agency under the Obama administration.In a major breach of security that shocked Washington, three party-crashers talked their way past Secret Service agents into a White House state dinner hosted by the president in 2009, despite not having an invitation.And in August, a Secret Service agent was arrested for drunken driving in Iowa, where he as arranging security for a visit by Mr Obama. The agent, who was off-duty at the time, was recently sentenced to two days in jail and fined $1,250.

On the eve of the summit (FRI), Radio Cadena Nacional (RCN), a leading Colombian station, broadcast a special feature about the “thriving and well-organised” prostitution racket in Cartagena. The programme featured interviews with local taxi drivers who take visitors to areas where they could find women. Once the price – usually around 80,000 Colombian pesos (£30) – had been negotiated, they drove the couple to a secluded area or to a network of residences where rooms could be rented by the hour. “All the prostitutes are heading to Cartagena for the summit,” one woman told the station.

Spaniards react with anger as King Juan Carlos of Spain operated on after ‘elephant hunting’ accident

The King appeared on the web page of the safari company, Rann Safaris, beside an elephant he killed earlier during the trip
Fiona Govan

Spain’s King Juan Carlos, 74, underwent surgery after an accident while he reportedly hunted elephants in southern Africa.

telegraph.co.uk | Apr 14, 2012

By Fiona Govan, in Madrid

He was operated on for four hours to replace his hip at a hospital in Madrid on Saturday morning, after suffering a triple fracture which the Royal Palace said was “linked to arthritis”.

The accident happened in Botswana during what the palace described as a private hunting trip.

Many Spaniards reacted with anger, with criticism of his expensive hobby at a time when his nation is mired in economic crisis with high unemployment and real suffering, especially for the young.

Adding to the embarrassment for the royal family, a few days ago on Monday his eldest grandson, Felipe Juan Froilán Marichalar y Borbón, 13, shot himself in the right foot with a shotgun during target practice at a family estate north of Madrid.

His father was questioned by police for allowing his son to use a firearm without a license, which can only be issued in Spain to those over 14 years old.

It was not the king’s first hunting controversy. In 2006 there were reports that while on holiday in Russia he had shot and killed a performing bear called Mitrofan which had first been fed honey mixed with vodka.

News of the accident broke on the day that many Spaniards marked the anniversary of the birth of the Spain’s Second Republic when on April 14 1931, the last king, Alfonso XIII went into exile.

It set off fevered controversy within Spain and brought more unwelcome scrutiny on a Royal family that traditionally has enjoyed the kind of privacy and respect that the Windsors could only dream of.

“The King, in this situation of economic distress and the dramas that affect millions of people, instead of being in his office puzzling over the fate of his country is instead hunting exotic animals and endangered species, ” said Basque politician Julia Madrazo at a rally in Bilbao to commemorate the Second Republic.

“This April 14 has given us a fine account of a day in the life of our King, full of privileges of the past.” Spain’s left-leaning daily newspaper El Pais speculated that the monarch had been on a trip to hunt elephants in Botswana, where sanctioned elephant hunting is allowed to cull herd numbers.

Andres Gutierrez Lara, president of the Spanish Federation of Hunting said it would cost between 7,000 and 20,000 euros to shoot an elephant on top of travel costs.

“It was a private trip and therefore not subject to official comment,” Juan Carlos Zamora, private secretary to the King, explained to The Sunday Telegraph, refusing to confirm whether the monarch had in fact been shooting elephants.

“As ever the media will come to their own conclusions,” he said.

The palace also declined to disclose how the trip had been funded. It comes just weeks after the monarch publicly expressed his worry over the state of Spain’s economy.

“One of the consequences of the crisis, youth unemployment, gives me sleepless nights,” he told a group of students in Barcelona in March.

It was the 4th time the king has undergone surgery since May 2010. He had surgery on his Achilles tendon last September, a knee replacement in June last year and a benign tumour removed from one of his lungs the year before.