06-19-2024  6:25 am   •   PDX and SEA Weather
  • (Photo by Nati Harnik/AP)

    Juneteenth is a Sacred American Holiday

    Today, when our history is threatened by erasure, our communities are being dismantled by systemic disinvestment, Juneteenth can serve as a rallying cry for communal healing and collective action. Read More
  • Dancer Prescylia Mae, of Houston, performs during a dedication ceremony for the massive mural

    Juneteenth Explained: What Is the Holiday, Why Was It Created and How Should It Be Celebrated?

    Many Americans are celebrating Juneteenth, marking the day in 1865 when the last enslaved people in the U.S. learned they were free. For generations, Black Americans have recognized the end of one of history’s darkest chapters with joy, in the form of parades, street festivals, musical performances or cookouts. There’s a push today for people to see beyond the revelry and learn about Juneteenth’s history. Read More
  • Adrian Perkins in his office in Chicago, Thursday, June 13, 2024. During his 2022 reelection campaign for mayor of Shreveport, La., a video, paid for by a rival political action committee, used artificial intelligence to superimpose Perkins’ face onto the body of an actor playing him. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

    AI is Making Controversial Changes to State and Local Elections

    Text, photos, videos and audio created using artificial intelligence are increasingly making their way into campaigns for state and local office. AI deepfakes that misrepresent candidates can do more damage in those races because campaigns have fewer staffers and less money. Yet some local candidates see AI as an equalizer against more powerful or well-financed candidates. They can use it for the practical aspects running a campaign, which frees them up Read More
  • Charles McMillan, a witness to George Floyd’s murder, speaks at the site where Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

    Americans Used to Unite Over Tragic Events − and Now Are Divided by Them

    "Public tragedies have contributed to the increasing political polarization and the sectarian tone of political rhetoric today. One question I sought to answer in my book is why?" Read More
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NORTHWEST NEWS

‘Feeling Our Age’: Oregon Artist Explores Aging Through Portraiture

64 women were painted and asked to reflect on lives well lived.

Off-Duty Guard Charged With Killing Seattle-Area Teen After Mistaking Toy for Gun, Authorities Say

Prosecutors charged 51-year-old Aaron Brown Myers on Monday in connection with the death of Hazrat Ali Rohani. Myers was also charged with assault after authorities say he held another teen at gunpoint. His attorney says Myers sincerely believed he was stopping a violent crime.

James Beard Finalists Include an East African Restaurant in Detroit and Seattle Pho Shops

The James Beards Awards are the culinary world's equivalent of the Oscars. For restaurants, even being named a finalist can bring wide recognition and boost business.

Ranked-Choice Voting Expert Grace Ramsey on What Portland Voters Can Expect in November

Ramsey has worked in several other states and cities to educate voters on new system of voting. 

NEWS BRIEFS

Word is Bond, Portland Art Museum, Portland Sneaker Week Announce Juneteenth Celebration Event, June 20

This Juneteenth program uses the shoe as a medium to amplify the creative voices and visions of Black men and their communities ...

Southeast Portland Natural Area Improvements Coming, Funded by Development Fees

Kelly Butte Natural Area trails, park amenities planned ...

Montavilla Pool to Reopen in July After Mandatory Maintenance

The pool will open later this summer due to an upgrade to the pool’s plumbing that required a more complex solution to achieve...

Coalition of 43 AGs Reach $700 Million Nationwide Settlement With Johnson and Johnson Over Deceptive Marketing; Oregon to Receive $15 Million

Today, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and 42 other attorneys general announced they have reached a 0 million nationwide...

Juneteenth 2024 Events in Portland and Seattle

View events celebrating Juneteenth in the Portland and Seattle area ...

With pardons in Maryland, 2.5 million Americans will have marijuana convictions cleared or forgiven

Maryland this week became the latest state to announce mass pardons for people convicted of marijuana-related crimes as the nation wrestles with how to make amends for the lives disrupted in the decadeslong war on drugs. Under Gov. Wes Moore's plan, more than 175,000 convictions for...

US acknowledges Northwest dams have devastated the region's Native tribes

SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. government on Tuesday acknowledged, for the first time, the harmful role it has played over the past century in building and operating dams in the Pacific Northwest — dams that devastated Native American tribes by inundating their villages and decimating salmon runs...

Kansas lawmakers to debate whether wooing the Chiefs with new stadium is worth the cost

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators trying to lure the Kansas City Chiefs to their state argue that helping the Super Bowl champions build a new stadium could bring Kansas millions of dollars in income taxes from players and coaches, which are currently going to Missouri. Some...

Kansas lawmakers poised to lure Kansas City Chiefs from Missouri, despite economists' concerns

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A 170-year-old rivalry is flaring up as Kansas lawmakers try to snatch the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs away from Missouri even though economists long ago concluded subsidizing pro sports isn't worth the cost. The Kansas Legislature's top leaders...

OPINION

Juneteenth is a Sacred American Holiday

Today, when our history is threatened by erasure, our communities are being dismantled by systemic disinvestment, Juneteenth can serve as a rallying cry for communal healing and collective action. ...

Supreme Court Says 'Yes” to Consumer Protection, "No" to Payday Lenders 7-2 Decision Upholds CFPB’s Funding

A recent 7-2 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court gave consumers a long-sought victory that ended more than a decade of challenges over the constitutionality of the agency created to be the nation’s financial cop on the beat. ...

The Skanner News May 2024 Primary Endorsements

Read The Skanner News endorsements and vote today. Candidates for mayor and city council will appear on the November general election ballot. ...

AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE NEWS

A journalist traces his family tree back to ancestor who served in Black regiment in Civil War

WASHINGTON (AP) — It was the middle of the night in the summer of 2021 when I finally found the missing piece of my family history. My great-great-great-great grandfather Hewlett Sands, born into slavery in Oyster Bay, New York in 1820, was one of the more than 200,000 names listed...

Rickwood Field, a time capsule of opportunity and oppression, welcomes MLB for Negro Leagues tribute

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Gerald Watkins watched Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and other New York Yankees wade through stalks of corn onto an Iowa field in 2021, near the filming site for the 1989 baseball movie “Field of Dreams.” Watkins thought about Rickwood Field, the...

Caitlin Clark and the WNBA are getting a lot of attention. It's about far more than basketball

NEW YORK (AP) — Oh, you thought going to a WNBA basketball game might be an escape from the arguments and polarization that are so common in American life these days? Ha, good one. Some of the atmosphere in the public and media that has swirled around the professional women's league...

ENTERTAINMENT

Book Review: 'Margo’s Got Money Troubles’ tells a tale of modern love and success

The cover art and title of “Margo’s Got Money Troubles” don’t quite convey the wild ride readers who crack open this new fiction from Rufi Thorpe will take. There’s a reason Apple TV optioned it as a series starring Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning before it was even published. This is a...

Music Review: Paul McCartney and Wings' oft bootlegged 1974 'One Hand Clapping' deserves applause

The sound of Paul McCartney and Wings' “One Hand Clapping” used to only be heard on bootlegs, or in snippets available on archival releases over the years. But it's new (mostly) complete official release deserves two-handed applause. As aging rockers empty their...

Book Review: 'Swole' explores what masculinity could be in a hyperconnected, TikTok-imaged world

Author Michael Brodeur takes the gym too seriously, and not seriously at all at the same time, in his book “Swole: The Making of Men and the Meaning of Muscles” in an effort to show the readers that the overly online world of hypermasculinity is an illusion and what a man can be is what you...

U.S. & WORLD NEWS

US soldier convicted of theft in Russia and sentenced to nearly 4 years in prison

MOSCOW (AP) — A court in Russia’s far eastern city of Vladivostok on Wednesday convicted a visiting American...

How did North Korean soldiers wander across the world's most heavily guarded border?

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Don’t believe the name: The Demilitarized Zone between the two rival Koreas might be...

Caitlin Clark and the WNBA are getting a lot of attention. It's about far more than basketball

NEW YORK (AP) — Oh, you thought going to a WNBA basketball game might be an escape from the arguments and...

For Trump it's MAGA, but Hungary's Orbán is going MEGA at the European Union's helm for six months

BRUSSELS (AP) — Hungary’s populist government announced on Tuesday that its upcoming presidency of the...

Norway tightens controls over adoptions from abroad but won't ban practice as investigation unfolds

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Norway has tightened controls over adoptions from abroad but will allow them to...

Britain's rollercoaster-riding Liberal Democrat leader embraces stunts to gain election attention

LONDON (AP) — Most politicians try to avoid slips, stumbles and undignified photos. Not Ed Davey. ...

James O\'Toole CNN Money

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Getting served with foreclosure papers made Lynn Szymoniak rich.

While she couldn't have known it at the time, that day in 2008 led to her uncovering widespread fraud on the part of some of the country's biggest banks, and ultimately taking home $18 million as a result of her lawsuits against them.

Szymoniak is one of six Americans who won big in the national foreclosure settlement, finalized earlier this year, as a result of whistleblower suits. In total, they collected $46.5 million, according to the Justice Department.

In the settlement, the nation's five largest mortgage lenders --Bank of America, Wells Fargo,JPMorgan, Citigroup and Ally Financial -- agreed to pay $5 billion in fines and committed to roughly $20 billion more in refinancing and mortgage modifications for borrowers.

A judge signed off on the agreement in April, and in May -- Szymoniak received her cut.

"I recognize that mine's a very, very happy ending," she said. "I know there are plenty of people who have tried as hard as I have and won't see these kinds of results."

Whistleblower suits stem from the False Claims Act, which allows private citizens to file lawsuits on behalf of the U.S. when they have knowledge that the government is being defrauded. These citizens are then entitled to collect a portion of any penalties assessed in their case.

The act was originally passed in 1863, during a time when government officials were concerned that suppliers to the Union Army during the Civil War could be defrauding them.

In 1986, Congress modified the law to make it easier for whistleblowers to bring cases and giving them a larger share of any penalties collected. Whistleblowers can now take home between 15% and 30% of the sums collected in their cases.

In the cases addressed in the foreclosure settlement, the whistleblowers revealed that banks were gaming federal housing programs by failing to comply with their terms or submitting fraudulent documents.

In Szymoniak's case alone, the government collected $95 million based on her allegations that the banks had been using false documents to prove ownership of defaulted mortgages for which they were submitting insurance claims to the Federal Housing Administration.

The FHA is a self-funded government agency that offers insurance on qualifying mortgages to encourage home ownership. In the event of a default on an FHA-insured mortgage, the FHA pays out a claim to the lender.

Szymoniak's case was only partially resolved by the foreclosure settlement, and she could be in line for an even larger payout when all is said and done.

As an attorney specializing in white-collar crime, the 63-year-old Floridian was well-placed to spot an apparent forgery on one of the documents in her foreclosure case, one she saw repeated in dozens of others she examined later.

"At this point, the banks are incredibly powerful in this country, but you just have to get up every morning and do what you can," she said.

The other five whistleblowers in the settlement came from the industry side, putting their careers at risk by flagging the banks' questionable practices.

Kyle Lagow, who won $14.6 million in the settlement, worked as a home appraiser in Texas for LandSafe, a subsidiary of Countrywide Financial. He accused the company in a lawsuit of deliberately inflating home appraisals in order to collect higher claims from the FHA, and said he was fired after making complaints internally.

Gregory Mackler, who won $1 million, worked for a company subcontracted by Bank of America to assist homeowners pursuing modifications through the government's Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP. Under HAMP, the government offers banks incentive payments to support modifications.

Mackler said Bank of America violated its agreement with the government by deliberately preventing qualified borrowers from securing HAMP modifications, steering them toward foreclosure or more costly modifications from which it could make more money. He, too, claims to have been fired after complaining internally.

There's also Victor Bibby and Brian Donnelly, executives from a Georgia mortgage services firm who accused the banks of overcharging veterans whose mortgages were guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, thereby increasing their default risk. Bibby and Donnelly won $11.7 million in the settlement; their attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Shayne Stevenson, an attorney who represented both Lagow and Mackler, said the two weren't aware of possible rewards when they first brought their evidence to his firm.

"The reality of it is that most of the time, whistleblowers don't even know about the False Claims Act -- they don't know they can make money," Stevenson said. Both his clients, Stevenson added, "just wanted the government to know about this fraud, so they deserve every penny that they got."

A Bank of America spokesman declined to comment on individual cases, but said the national settlement was "part of our ongoing strategy to put these issues, particularly these legacy issues with Countrywide, behind us." BofA acquired mortgage lender Countrywide in 2008, thereby incurring the firm's legal liabilities.

The other banks involved either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

While the whistleblowers in the settlement scored big paydays in the end, the road wasn't easy. Stevenson said his clients "were pushed to the brink" after raising their concerns, struggling to find work and beset by financial problems.

"They were facing evictions, foreclosure, running away from bills, trying to deal with creditors that were coming after them," Stevenson said. "This went on and on and on, and this is part and parcel of what happens to whistleblowers."

For Robert Harris, a former assistant vice president in JPMorgan's Chase Prime division, the experience was similar.

Harris accused the bank of failing to assist borrowers seeking HAMP modifications and knowingly submitting false claims for government insurance based on wrongful foreclosures. He was stymied when he tried to complain internally, and says he was fired for speaking out.

While Harris ended up with a $1.2 million payout in the settlement, the father of five says he's been blacklisted within the industry and exhausted by the ordeal.

"It completely turned my life upside down," he said. "I'm trying to raise my kids, recover from a divorce, recover from the loss of my career -- it just comes to down to surviving and putting this to an end."

"I guarantee the other whistleblowers, too, have sacrificed a lot," he added. "But to be able to sit back and sleep at night is worth it."

 

The Skanner Foundation's 38th Annual MLK Breakfast