She tried to stay quiet, she really did. But after eight years of keeping a heavy secret, the day came when Alayne Fleischmann couldn’t take it anymore.
“It was like watching an old lady get mugged on the street. I thought, ‘I can’t sit by any longer.'”
Fleischmann is a tall, thin, quick-witted securities lawyer in her late thirties, with long blond hair, pale-blue eyes and an infectious sense of humor that has survived some very tough times. She’s had to struggle to find work despite some striking skills and qualifications, a common symptom of a not-so-common condition called being a whistle-blower.
Fleischmann is the central witness in one of the biggest cases of white-collar crime in American history, possessing secrets that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon late last year paid $9 billion (not $13 billion as regularly reported – more on that later) to keep the public from hearing.
Back in 2006, as a deal manager at the gigantic bank, Fleischmann first witnessed, then tried to stop, what she describes as “massive criminal securities fraud” in the bank’s mortgage operations.
Thanks to a confidentiality agreement, she’s kept her mouth shut since then. “My closest family and friends don’t know what I’ve been living with,” she says. “Even my brother will only find out for the first time when he sees this interview.”
Six years after the crisis that cratered the global economy, it’s not exactly news that the country’s biggest banks stole on a grand scale. That’s why the more important part of Fleischmann’s story is in the pains Chase and the Justice Department took to silence her.
She was blocked at every turn: by asleep-on-the-job regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission, by a court system that allowed Chase to use its billions to bury her evidence, and, finally, by officials like outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, the chief architect of the crazily elaborate government policy of surrender, secrecy and cover-up. “Every time I had a chance to talk, something always got in the way,” Fleischmann says.
This past year she watched as Holder’s Justice Department struck a series of historic settlement deals with Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America. The root bargain in these deals was cash for secrecy. The banks paid big fines, without trials or even judges – only secret negotiations that typically ended with the public shown nothing but vague, quasi-official papers called “statements of facts,” which were conveniently devoid of anything like actual facts.
And now, with Holder about to leave office and his Justice Department reportedly wrapping up its final settlements, the state is effectively putting the finishing touches on what will amount to a sweeping, industrywide effort to bury the facts of a whole generation of Wall Street corruption. “I could be sued into bankruptcy,” she says. “I could lose my license to practice law. I could lose everything. But if we don’t start speaking up, then this really is all we’re going to get: the biggest financial cover-up in history.”
Alayne Fleischmann grew up in Terrace, British Columbia, a snowbound valley town just a brisk 18-hour drive north of Vancouver. She excelled at school from a young age, making her way to Cornell Law School and then to Wall Street. Her decision to go into finance surprised those closest to her, as she had always had more idealistic ambitions. “I helped lead a group that wrote briefs to the Human Rights Chamber for those affected by ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” she says. “My whole life prior to moving into securities law was human rights work.”
But she had student loans to pay off, and so when Wall Street came knocking, that was that. But it wasn’t like she was dragged into high finance kicking and screaming. She found she had a genuine passion for securities law and felt strongly she was doing a good thing. “There was nothing shady about the field back then,” she says. “It was very respectable.”
In 2006, after a few years at a white-shoe law firm, Fleischmann ended up at Chase. The mortgage market was white-hot. Banks like Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup were furiously buying up huge pools of home loans and repackaging them as mortgage securities. Like soybeans in processed food, these synthesized financial products wound up in everything, whether you knew it or not: your state’s pension fund, another state’s workers’ compensation fund, maybe even the portfolio of the insurance company you were counting on to support your family if you got hit by a bus.
As a transaction manager, Fleischmann functioned as a kind of quality-control officer. Her main job was to help make sure the bank didn’t buy spoiled merchandise before it got tossed into the meat grinder and sold out the other end.
A few months into her tenure, Fleischmann would later testify in a DOJ deposition, the bank hired a new manager for diligence, the group in charge of reviewing and clearing loans. Fleischmann quickly ran into a problem with this manager, technically one of her superiors. She says he told her and other employees to stop sending him e-mails. The department, it seemed, was wary of putting anything in writing when it came to its mortgage deals.
“I could lose everything. But if we don’t start speaking up, we’re going to get the biggest financial cover-up in history.”
“If you sent him an e-mail, he would actually come out and yell at you,” she recalls. “The whole point of having a compliance and diligence group is to have policies that are set out clearly in writing. So to have exactly the opposite of that – that was very worrisome.” One former high-ranking federal prosecutor said that if he were taking a criminal case to trial, the information about this e-mail policy would be crucial. “I would begin and end my opening statement with that,” he says. “It shows these people knew what they were doing and were trying not to get caught.”
In late 2006, not long after the “no e-mail” policy was implemented, Fleischmann and her group were asked to evaluate a packet of home loans from a mortgage originator called GreenPoint that was collectively worth about $900 million. Almost immediately, Fleischmann and some of the diligence managers who worked alongside her began to notice serious problems with this particular package of loans.
For one thing, the dates on many of them were suspiciously old. Normally, banks tried to turn loans into securities at warp speed. The idea was to go from a homeowner signing on the dotted line to an investor buying that loan in a pool of securities within two to three months. Thus it was a huge red flag to see Chase buying loans that were already seven or eight months old.
What this meant was that many of the loans in the GreenPoint deal had either been previously rejected by Chase or another bank, or were what are known as “early payment defaults.” EPDs are loans that have already been sold to another bank and have been returned after the borrowers missed multiple payments. That’s why the dates on them were so old.
In other words, this was the very bottom of the mortgage barrel. They were like used cars that had been towed back to the lot after throwing a rod. The industry had its own term for this sort of loan product: scratch and dent. As Chase later admitted, it not only ended up reselling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of those crappy loans to investors, it also sold them in a mortgage pool marketed as being above subprime, a type of loan called “Alt-A.” Putting scratch-and-dent loans in an Alt-A security is a little like putting a fresh coat of paint on a bunch of junkyard wrecks and selling them as new cars. “Everything that I thought was bad at the time,” Fleischmann says, “turned out to be a million times worse.” (Chase declined to comment for this article.)
When Fleischmann and her team reviewed random samples of the loans, they found that around 40 percent of them were based on overstated incomes – an astronomically high defect rate for any pool of mortgages; Chase’s normal tolerance for error was five percent. One mortgage in particular that sticks out in Fleischmann’s mind involved a manicurist who claimed to have an annual income of $117,000. Fleischmann figured that even working seven days a week, this woman would have needed to work 488 days a year to make that much. “And that’s with no overhead,” Fleischmann says. “It wasn’t possible.”
But when she and others raised objections to the toxic loans, something odd started happening. The number-crunchers who had been complaining about the loans suddenly began changing their reports. The process she describes is strikingly similar to the way police obtain false confessions: The interrogator verbally abuses the target until he starts producing the desired answers. “What happened,” Fleischmann says, “is the head diligence manager started yelling at his team, berating them, making them do reports over and over, keeping them late at night.” Then the loans started clearing.