Washington figures– Comey, McCain, New York Times

Today’s Comey testimony —

Fired FBI director James B. Comey’s much-anticipated appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee today did contain three surprises. Keeping it brief, I’d rather highlight the three than recap everything that will be covered by every media outlet.

I watched the presentation live-stream on C-Span, the event unedited and unfiltered by commentary.

It was pretty much a given that Comey would fire back at the man who fired him and would accuse President Trump of lying, that questions from most of the Democrats on the Committee would focus on Trump, and that Republicans’ questions would defend him. It was also a given that some things would not be aired “in an open setting,” to use Comey’s phrase; the Committee was scheduled to hold a closed hearing at 1:00 p.m. Any discussion of the salacious Steele dossier would be reserved for the closed session. It was also a given that Comey would exonerate himself to the maximum extent possible–admit what you can’t deny, deny what you can’t admit. He’s done it before. He also made clear again, as in his prepared remarks (below), that Trump was not the subject of an investigation.

Thus we can skip over Senator Mark Warner’s introductory remarks and Comey’s prefatory comments about his firing, the FBI, and the Russian investigation, already much covered in cable commentary and in print. Pull quote: “Those were lies, plain and simple.”

Senator Burr’s opening questions established Comey’s position that Russia tried to intervene in the election–“no doubt”–but that the interference did not extend to altering votes. Comey also negatived a question whether anyone asked him to stop the Russian investigation. However, he left open the suggestion that criminal aspects not connected with the 2016 election may turn up. Plenty of room for investigation, by both special counsel and Congress. He also commented matter-of-factly and accurately that “There’s all kinds of cyber intrusions going on all the time” — “hundreds” “at least” — but that the 2016 election was the first he knew of affecting the DNC. Comey also said, in response to questions, that the FBI did not have direct access to the DNC hardware but got it via a third party, by spring 2016.

Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch

Surprise 1. Comey said again that he had decided to go public with his July 2016 statement about the Clinton email investigation to protect the credibility of the FBI and of the investigation. Specifically, he was concerned by former president Bill Clinton’s meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Saying that there was one significant item he could not talk about publicly, he said that there was one he could: Attorney General Lynch directed him to call it a “matter,” not an “investigation.” Comey reiterated the statement in response to subsequent questions. (The law prof has since been identified in the press.)

Surprise 2. During questions from Senator Susan Collins, Comey stated that he “asked a friend of mine to share the contents” of his writing with a reporter. The friend was a law professor, “a good friend of mine at Columbia Law School. ” His self-created source–a person close to Comey, as they say–passed the notes along to the New York Times. According to Comey, this transmission took place after the president tweeted about “tapes.” Comey also said he hopes there were tapes and would consent to their release.

Columbia Law

(Hypothetically–suppose Trump had accused Comey of leaking, even through a law-prof friend, to the NYTimes. What would the media reaction have been?)

Surprise 3. Senator John McCain seemed so confused that he sounded like a different person. Twice McCain said “Comey” when referring to President Trump. In a short series of disjointed questions, he accused Comey of having a “double standard” as to the Clinton email investigation and the Russian investigation. To this partisan talking point, McCain seemed to add a suggestion linking the Clinton campaign to Russia. The logical guess is that McCain meant the Ukraine, and Ukraine’s efforts to interfere on behalf of Clinton–but referred to Ukraine as “Russia.” (McCain still got off a reasonably good question. When Trump referred to “that thing” to Comey, why didn’t Comey ask him what “that thing” was? – Comey: it didn’t seem important. McCain: “I think I would have had some curiosity, if it had been about me.”)

The rest of the back-and-forth and questioning was punctuated by a few Comey answers quickly given, then quickly amended. Three examples:

When Angus King (I-Maine) asked Comey whether he had ever called the president, he immediately said no. But–“once I was asked to call the White House switchboard”–so he did.

When Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) asked Comey whether the president had ever asked him about Russian interference in the election, Comey instantly responded no. Then  he said he thought “there was an initial briefing” about Russia and the election, with “conversation” and “questions.” (Manchin also asked Comey, “Do you believe you would have been fired if Hillary Clinton had become president?” Comey: “I don’t know.” “I might have been.”)

When Manchin then asked Comey whether he had talked with Sessions about why Sessions wasn’t in the room (with Trump and Comey), he said no. But–“I did talk to him and said, you have to be [etc.],” but Comey did not tell Sessions about the Flynn conversation.

Further parsing if any will have to wait for a later date. For now, the wrap-up is that new Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) has a laudable ability to cover a lot of ground quickly, concisely, and clearly. Her questions included the following:

Any meetings of Trump officials and Russian officials during campaign, not acknowledged? Any encrypted communications? Anything destroyed? Any efforts to conceal? – Comey: all these Qs not to be dealt with in open session.

Harris: The parameters of Sessions’ recusal? – Any written notice or memo about it? – Comey: don’t know.

Harris: Should Mueller have full authority to pursue his investigation, full independence? –  Comey: yes.

Statement for the Record

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

James B. Comey

June 8, 2017

Chairman Burr, Ranking Member Warner, Members of the Committee.

Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today. I was asked to testify today to describe for you my interactions with President-Elect and President Trump on subjects that I understand are of interest to you. I have not included every detail from my conversations with the President, but, to the best of my recollection, I have tried to include information that may be relevant to the Committee.

January 6 Briefing

I first met then-President-Elect Trump on Friday, January 6 in a conference room at Trump Tower in New York. I was there with other Intelligence Community (IC) leaders to brief him and his new national security team on the findings of an IC assessment concerning Russian efforts to interfere in the election. At the conclusion of that briefing, I remained alone with the President Elect to brief him on some personally sensitive aspects of the information assembled during the assessment.

The IC leadership thought it important, for a variety of reasons, to alert the incoming President to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified. Among those reasons were: (1) we knew the media was about to publicly report the material and we believed the IC should not keep knowledge of the material and its imminent release from the President-Elect; and (2) to the extent there was some effort to compromise an incoming President, we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing.

The Director of National Intelligence asked that I personally do this portion of the briefing because I was staying in my position and because the material implicated the FBI’s counter-intelligence responsibilities. We also agreed I would do it alone to minimize potential embarrassment to the President-Elect. Although we agreed it made sense for me to do the briefing, the FBI’s leadership and I were concerned that the briefing might create a situation where a new President came into office uncertain about whether the FBI was conducting a counter-intelligence investigation of his personal conduct.

It is important to understand that FBI counter-intelligence investigations are different than the more-commonly known criminal investigative work. The Bureau’s goal in a counter-intelligence investigation is to understand the technical and human methods that hostile foreign powers are using to influence the United States or to steal our secrets. The FBI uses that understanding to disrupt those efforts. Sometimes disruption takes the form of alerting a person who is targeted for recruitment or influence by the foreign power. Sometimes it involves hardening a computer system that is being attacked. Sometimes it involves “turning” the recruited person into a double-agent, or publicly calling out the behavior with sanctions or expulsions of embassy-based intelligence officers. On occasion, criminal prosecution is used to disrupt intelligence activities.

Because the nature of the hostile foreign nation is well known, counterintelligence investigations tend to be centered on individuals the FBI suspects to be witting or unwitting agents of that foreign power. When the FBI develops reason to believe an American has been targeted for recruitment by a foreign power or is covertly acting as an agent of the foreign power, the FBI will “open an investigation” on that American and use legal authorities to try to learn more about the nature of any relationship with the foreign power so it can be disrupted.

In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.

I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past. I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) — once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months — three in person and six on the phone.

January 27 Dinner

The President and I had dinner on Friday, January 27 at 6:30 pm in the Green Room at the White House. He had called me at lunchtime that day and invited me to dinner that night, saying he was going to invite my whole family, but decided to have just me this time, with the whole family coming the next time. It was unclear from the conversation who else would be at the dinner, although I assumed there would be others.

It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.

The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.

My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.

I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten-year term as Director. And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President.

A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner. At one point, I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox: Throughout history, some Presidents have decided that because “problems” come from Justice, they should try to hold the Department close. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problems worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work.

Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term — honest loyalty — had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.

During the dinner, the President returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6, and, as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them. He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative. He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it.

As was my practice for conversations with President Trump, I wrote a detailed memo about the dinner immediately afterwards and shared it with the senior leadership team of the FBI.

February 14 Oval Office Meeting

On February 14, I went to the Oval Office for a scheduled counterterrorism briefing of the President. He sat behind the desk and a group of us sat in a semi-circle of about six chairs facing him on the other side of the desk. The Vice President, Deputy Director of the CIA, Director of the National CounterTerrorism Center, Secretary of Homeland Security, the Attorney General, and I were in the semi-circle of chairs. I was directly facing the President, sitting between the Deputy CIA Director and the Director of NCTC. There were quite a few others in the room, sitting behind us on couches and chairs.

The President signaled the end of the briefing by thanking the group and telling them all that he wanted to speak to me alone. I stayed in my chair. As the participants started to leave the Oval Office, the Attorney General lingered by my chair, but the President thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me. The last person to leave was Jared Kushner, who also stood by my chair and exchanged pleasantries with me. The President then excused him, saying he wanted to speak with me.

 

When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” Flynn had resigned the previous day. The President began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the Vice President. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify.

The President then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information — a concern I shared and still share. After he had spoken for a few minutes about leaks, Reince Priebus leaned in through the door by the grandfather clock and I could see a group of people waiting behind him. The President waved at him to close the door, saying he would be done shortly. The door closed.

The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.”

The President returned briefly to the problem of leaks. I then got up and left out the door by the grandfather clock, making my way through the large group of people waiting there, including Mr. Priebus and the Vice President.

I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls. Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.

The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the President’s request, which we did not intend to abide. We also concluded that, given that it was a one-on-one conversation, there was nothing available to corroborate my account. We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.) The Deputy Attorney General’s role was then filled in an acting capacity by a United States Attorney, who would also not be long in the role. After discussing the matter, we decided to keep it very closely held, resolving to figure out what to do with it down the road as our investigation progressed. The investigation moved ahead at full speed, with none of the investigative team members — or the Department of Justice lawyers supporting them — aware of the President’s request.

Shortly afterwards, I spoke with Attorney General Sessions in person to pass along the President’s concerns about leaks. I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened — him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind — was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply. For the reasons discussed above, I did not mention that the President broached the FBI’s potential investigation of General Flynn.

March 30 Phone Call

On the morning of March 30, the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as “a cloud” that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to “lift the cloud.” I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.

Then the President asked why there had been a congressional hearing about Russia the previous week — at which I had, as the Department of Justice directed, confirmed the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. I explained the demands from the leadership of both parties in Congress for more information, and that Senator Grassley had even held up the confirmation of the Deputy Attorney General until we briefed him in detail on the investigation. I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump. I reminded him I had previously told him that. He repeatedly told me, “We need to get that fact out.” (I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.)

The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.

In an abrupt shift, he turned the conversation to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, saying he hadn’t brought up “the McCabe thing” because I had said McCabe was honorable, although McAuliffe was close to the Clintons and had given him (I think he meant Deputy Director McCabe’s wife) campaign money. Although I didn’t understand why the President was bringing this up, I repeated that Mr. McCabe was an honorable person.

He finished by stressing “the cloud” that was interfering with his ability to make deals for the country and said he hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn’t being investigated. I told him I would see what we could do, and that we would do our investigative work well and as quickly as we could.

Immediately after that conversation, I called Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente (AG Sessions had by then recused himself on all Russia-related matters), to report the substance of the call from the President, and said I would await his guidance. I did not hear back from him before the President called me again two weeks later.

April 11 Phone Call

On the morning of April 11, the President called me and asked what I had done about his request that I “get out” that he is not personally under investigation. I replied that I had passed his request to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, but I had not heard back. He replied that “the cloud” was getting in the way of his ability to do his job. He said that perhaps he would have his people reach out to the Acting Deputy Attorney General. I said that was the way his request should be handled. I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel.

He said he would do that and added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” I did not reply or ask him what he meant by “that thing.” I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General. He said that was what he would do and the call ended.

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.

###

PAID CONTENT

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Foreclosures and other dead ends

In case you ever fantasized about making a million or few by house flipping —

There are two avowed official registries of foreclosures that take place in Prince George’s County, Maryland. One is included in the statewide registry maintained by the State of Maryland. The other is maintained by the Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement (DPIE, pronounced “D-Pie,” as in “cherry pie”).

Neither registry is open to the general public. The Maryland Foreclosed Property Registry is, as stated on its website,

an online, password-protected system managed by the Office of the Commissioner of Financial Regulation in the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (“DLLR”).

By law,

DLLR may grant access to the Registry only to State agencies and local jurisdictions, including counties and municipal corporations

to facilitate code enforcement, etc. The DLLR’s registry is not a before-the-fact research tool in any case; it is not a list of properties coming on the market.

Effective October 2012, in accordance with Maryland Code, Real Property Article § 14-126.1, every residential property purchased at a foreclosure sale must be registered in this system.

Purchasers are required to submit an initial registration of the property within 30 days after the foreclosure sale.

The purpose of the Maryland registry is to close the chronological records gap between the date of the foreclosure sale and the date the deed is recorded,

when unoccupied homes may fall into disrepair and it can be difficult to identify or contact the new owner.

The purchaser still has that 30-day grace period between buying a foreclosed property and submitting the registration. And again, the registry is not publicly accessible.

The information contained in the Registry is by law not a public record, and DLLR cannot grant access to the general public.

Prince George’s County

The registry maintained by the Prince George’s County Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement (DPIE) is also closely held, though apparently in a different sense. DPIE’s public notice, on the agency website, explicitly tells mortgage holders to register foreclosures:

Foreclosure Property Registration Form

Attention Lenders
Please register a property (residential or commercial) that is in the process of foreclosure. After the information is completed, it will be added to Prince George’s County’s Foreclosure Property Registry.

The form itself tells lenders to deliver it in person or mail it to the DPIE “Foreclosure Registration Unit” in an office condo at 1220 Caraway Court, Largo, Maryland. The form includes spaces for the name, address and contact information of the property owner; it does not include any statement or certification that the property owner has been contacted about the foreclosure.

P. G. County DPIE Foreclosed Property Registration Form

Questions have now arisen as to how the Prince George’s County foreclosure registry is used. Like the State of Maryland registry, it is not open to public view. According to a person with close knowledge of the process, “Historically,” the registry kept by DPIE has been “highly restricted.” The County foreclosure list is announced via DPIE website for the purpose of registration, but the list itself is “held very close to the vest.” Access to the registry is applied for through a Maryland Public Information Act request; form linked here. To find out about the foreclosures, you fill out the form and submit it, asking for records. The form then goes up the managerial pipeline through “appropriate channels.” Indications are that even people involved in the MPIA process are not necessarily involved in the resolution of MPIA requests, nor are they necessarily informed about requests granted or denied. The hole in the channels leaves open a realistic possibility that access to the registry may be secretive but may not always be protected. This possibility has been confirmed in interviews and conversations with County officials.

The stated rationale for holding the P. G. County foreclosure registry so closely is the danger of squatting in vacant properties. The County does not release the information on upcoming foreclosures because officials do not want to give advance notice to squatters. “You can read between the lines” as to this claim, this writer was told. I asked whether the list breaks down into foreclosures on abandoned properties and foreclosures on occupied homes. Answer: no.

Where to file if you’re foreclosing in P. G. County

Asking whether interested parties such as house flippers could access the registry, I was told, “You’re on the right track.” There is no in-house mechanism to prevent exchange of friendly influence or sharing information with flippers. Indeed, the Director of DPIE himself, Haitham Hijazi, is closely connected to more than one house-flipping company through immediate family members as well as through his ownership of property on which his relatives operate their businesses. (Previous blogs on this topic linked here and here, among others.) Dr. Hijazi has not returned messages requesting comment or information. His son Abdullah Hijazi, principal of a house-flipping company who has appeared as party and as attorney in numerous foreclosure cases, has also not replied to request for comment.

The foreclosure registry may be somewhat arcane to the general public. However, as someone with knowledge of the operating structure and the registry has said,  “your information is known by a variety of people here”–meaning in the county and in county government. But–“they also know nobody’s doing anything about it.” The problems with foreclosures, the genuine phenomenon of troubled homeowners being pushed out of their homes by people with a vested interest in the houses is “Probably pretty well known among key people in the county,” I was told, but county officials cognizant of the issues seem to be covered by “teflon.”

As previously noted, Hijazi as head of the Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement is one of County Executive Rushern Baker’s few holdovers from the previous county administration. Baker’s office has not yet had time to return a call requesting comment.

More to come

 

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Montana special election results coming

Gianforte hangs on to a commanding lead of three thousand votes out of 190,000 counted so far.

Gianforte now builds to a two-point lead. Three thousand votes ahead of Rob Quist. About 187,000 votes counted. Not looking too positive for the Democrat at this moment.

Almost 184,000 votes tabulated. Gianforte breaks out a percentage point ahead.

Gianforte ahead by a thousand. Wonder whether this will be the standing pattern for the rest of the night.

Gianforte pulls ahead. By less than a thousand. Gianforte leads by 726 votes out of 181,000.

Breaking: number of precincts fully reported just doubled (approximately), to thirteen.

Quist still ahead by an eyelash.

One percent of precincts (six) finished. Quist’s lead is less than a thousand votes. Quist now leads by exactly 323 votes, out of 178,000 cast.

Updating to 175,000 votes in. Quist leading by barely one thousand votes. The Libertarian, Wicks, holding ten thousand. Two whole precincts reported. Enough of an indicator that it’s close, but people knew that already.

Update: And a few minutes later, it’s Rob Quist again in the lead, 48 – 46 percent, with now 150,000 votes tabulated. Now Quist leads by three thousand votes, less than half the eight thousand Wicks is getting. These are very early returns. A third of precincts partly reporting. Only one precinct fully reported.

May 25, 2017. GOP candidate Greg Gianforte is slightly behind Rob Quist in first returns from Montana in the Thursday special election.

With 103,000 votes counted, Quist leads Gianforte approximately 48 percent to 46 percent. Lead is just short of two thousand votes.

The gap is much smaller than the number of votes being pulled by Libertarian candidate Mark L. Wicks, some six thousand.

Mark L. Wicks

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Jurisdiction, courts, and filings

Searching for trustee filings is not a quick-and-easy process.

The idea is that the filings would show which houses will be coming up on the market in foreclosure sales; this is the kind of tip passed along in online conversation threads for would-be investors who want to dabble in real estate. In Maryland, however, getting such information is easier said than done. I just spoke with a nice clerk at the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, who told me clearly that “we are not required to keep any lists or [that] information.”

Let’s backtrack a little. In an earlier post, I clarified on the basis of information received that, in Maryland, the Circuit Court handles foreclosures. A Circuit Court judge explicitly confirmed the language of the law in writing to a troubled homeowner. All District Court judges know that house foreclosures are not to be handled in the Landlord-Tenant division of the District Court. Regrettably, this crystal-clear law has been repeatedly violated, especially in Prince George’s County, and in the chambers of Judge Crystal Mittelstaedt–where, regrettably, foreclosures have in fact been processed. In legal terms, the District Court lacks jurisdiction to help a house flipper foreclose on a homeowner.

Trying to track down ‘substitute trustee’ filings in Prince George’s County corroborates the principle. When a bank or lender plans to foreclose on a homeowner, often it will arrange with a ‘substitute trustee’, as previously written. By law, a record of the arrangement has to be filed with the county. As one typical legal website explains,

The trustee named in the deed of trust carries out the foreclosure action.  While the original trustee named in the deed of trust may institute the foreclosure, the lender will generally appoint an individual, firm, or company that is experienced in foreclosure matters to be substituted in place of the original trustee.  This is accomplished by the execution of a written document properly recorded in the county where the real property collateral is located.  N.C.G.S. § 45-10 and 11.

Figuring that since foreclosures have in fact been processed in the District Court in Hyattsville, Maryland, I should start there, I called up the court to ask how to look up trustee filings. A nice clerk in the Hyattsville building told me that was “not something we actually handle here,” and transferred my call to the District Court in Upper Marlboro. Another nice clerk there told me, very politely, that the information I wanted “sounds like it may be Circuit Court,” and transferred me there.

Once in Circuit Court, it still took a couple of tries to land in the Foreclosure Department. Note that foreclosures are indeed a department in the Circuit Court, not in the District Court. To put it bluntly, beware of anyone pushing a foreclosure who proceeds through the wrong court. Furthermore, it is a sound principle that the records should be kept in the building where the cases are adjudicated.

Last resort

Even in the right department, however, it would not be an easy or at-a-glance task to look up forthcoming foreclosures by means of substitute trustee filings. One would need a case number and would have to come in requesting to see a specific case.

With that information, one could go to Maryland Case Search, or to some law firms; some large banks have foreclosure sections in their websites; real estate firms have access to foreclosure listings. Everything is easier if you have the information already.

For example, if you already know that one major ‘foreclosure mill’ attorney is John S. Burson, you can find ready confirmation with a quick look at the multi-page list of some of his cases. If you know that the Wittstadts are walking foreclosure mills, you can easily look them up. Each of these names generates more than 500 results in the quick Maryland look-up.

Looking up the name Hijazi also generates more than 500 results. Many of these cases belong to Abdulla Haitham Hijazi, the attorney son of P. G. County DPIE Director Haitham Hijazi. Some of Mr. Hijazi’s foreclosure cases–indicated as such in the Maryland case list–are actions in district courts in Maryland. Mr. Hijazi did not communicate in reply to a request for comment.

Each page shows 25 results. One can find the results here, or go to Maryland Judiciary Case Search and fill in the search boxes with the name/s.

In a quick search of the first page, I counted two cases in the District court in Hyattsville, six in the District court in Frederick County, and five in the District court in Silver Spring. These are all cases involving real property in which Hijazi is listed as “Attorney.” In fact, Hijazi is a party in each. On the entire page of 25 cases, only seven were handled in Circuit Court (none of those in P. G.).

Second page, another 25 results. All 25 were handled in District courts–fourteen in Rockville; one in Glen Burnie; ten in Hyattsville. For those of you keeping score at home, seven of the Hyattsville cases date from 2016 or 2017 and are currently listed as “ACTIVE.”

Presumably there is still hope for those homeowners. Sadder are all the cases listed as “CLOSED.”

Third page, another 25 results. Not all are indicated as foreclosures, but most involve real property and are being processed in District courthouses with Hijazi as the “Attorney” for his company as party–twenty in all, with five in the Upper Marlboro District Court and the rest in the Hyattsville District Court.

As a citizen, I am beginning to wish that our Judicial Disabilities Commission would take an interest in this pattern.

It also looks like a viable class action lawsuit. That could be hard to pull off, admittedly; people who have already been forced out of their homes might be hard to find.

More to come.

 

 

 

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The other side of house flipping: pushing out the homeowners

Ironically, the Director of the Prince George’s County Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement (DPIE) acquired his own residential property in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 mortgage derivatives debacle.

The real property on Willes Vision Drive in Bowie, Maryland, owned by DPIE Director Haitham Hijazi, sold in October 2004 for $600,728. Real estate near Bowie and Upper Marlboro was looking up back then. Sadly, Maryland public records show that the couple who owned the house sold it to a family member of Hijazi’s in October 2009 for about half what they had paid–$332,000. The purchaser, Fawaz Hijazi, then sold the house to Haitham Hijazi in July 2012 for $480,000–an apparent profit of $148,000, which might not be enough to retire on but was not a bad sale for the still-difficult market of 2012. Hijazi also got a reasonably good buying price on a house now valued by Zillow at an estimated half-million dollars. Hijazi’s office has not yet returned a call with questions.

Members of Hijazi’s family live in the house. The residential address is also listed in Maryland’s state Department of Assessments and Taxation as the office address of Integrity Professional Contracting, one of the Hijazi family members’ real estate businesses.

Yet more ironically, following up on the previous post on this topic, one can further track the family’s house-flipping business generated from this address. As found in state database real estate transaction listings and Washington Post home sales, typical examples are listed below. The list looks like the previous one. All properties are located in Prince George’s County:

  1. In October 2012, Integrity Professional Contracting bought the house at 9805 Walnut Avenue in Lanham, Maryland, for $109,000 (foreclosure). In April 2013, the company sold the house for $240,000.
  2. In August 2012, Integrity Professional Contracting bought the residence at 8516 Potomac Avenue, in College Park, for $148,000 (foreclosure). The company sold the house in April 2013, for $280,000.
  3. In April 2013, the company bought 5701 44th Avenue, in Hyattsville, for $207,000. Sold that July for $340,000–an affordable price considering its current valuation.
  4. In August 2013, Integrity Professional Contracting bought another immigrant-owned house, at 2305 Belleview Avenue in Cheverly, for $136,000. The seller of record was William M. Savage, who has acted as a ‘substitute trustee’ in a number of foreclosures. The Hijazis’ company has also bought other properties from, or through, Savage. The company sold the Belleview house in April 2014 for $250,000.
  5. In October 2013, Integrity Professional Contracting purchased 4814 Snowflower Boulevard, in Oxon Hill, Maryland, from another immigrant householder for $105,500. The homeowner had bought the house in July 2006 for $376,295. The company currently owns this property, according to the state real property database; the owner mailing address is the Hijazis’ residence and company office in Bowie.
  6. In April 2013, the company bought the property at 4815 Heath, in Capitol Heights, for $41,000 (foreclosure). The company sold the house in December 2013 for $190,000.

Further examples follow the same pattern, visible to anyone who checks. Even without delving deep, the effect on neighborhood property values is obvious. A house that the lender could resell within a few months–apparently, since that’s what the flippers are doing–is instead sold to a house flipper at a loss for the lender and at a terrible loss, sometimes, for the unwilling homeowner. Since the house flipper is dignified by terms like “foreclosure attorney” and “substitute trustee,” all this is nominally at the behest of the bank/lender, even when to the lender’s loss. And the next buyer gets a cut-price house, often without knowing much about the previous foreclosure sale, including the fact that the nominal ‘seller’–the flipper–was actually one of the parties in the foreclosure.

The Hijazi family also owns another real estate entity, this one registered in the SDAT database by the name of Secured Improvements, LLC (a limited liability company). Like Integrity Professional Contracting, Secured Improvements LLC has a mailing address at the Bowie property owned by Haitham Hijazi. According to the LexisNexis business database, Secured Improvements LLC was established in April 2004, as was Integrity Professional Contracting. Its Maryland state filings date from 2011. Those for Integrity Professional Contracting date from 2004.

House sold by Secured Improvments LLC

As with Integrity Professional Contracting, the company designation for Secured Improvements in WaPo house sales is “Corp.” rather than the technically accurate LLC.

Again as with Integrity Professional Contracting, Secured Improvements LLC has established a track record as a house-flipping company. Again, its business pace picked up in the years after the elder Hijazi began working in supervisory positions for Prince George’s County. A quick check of WaPo home sales shows seven home sales for the company from 2006 through 2009. For 2011, eight deals. For 2012, nine. For 2013, thirteen. Then seven, six, and seven respectively for the years 2014-2016.

Like Integrity Professional Contracting, the Secured Improvements company has obtained some houses through ‘substitute trustees’ including Mark H. and Gerard W. M. Wittstadt.

Sad to say, there are more ways to game the system even than the intermingled interests sketched above.

More to come.

 

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Wasn’t Hillary Clinton going to fire Comey?

This is the kind of observation that makes some people flap their hands and dismiss ‘What-ifs’, but if Hillary Clinton had been elected to the White House, wasn’t she going to fire the FBI’s James B. Comey?

Comey’s July 5, 2016, press conference was criticized across the political spectrum. Comey announced that Clinton would not be prosecuted for her private email server–but he also castigated her “extremely careless” handling of classified information, informed the public that there were indeed some top secret emails on the server, and said that none of them should have been kept on an unclassified system.

Comey, Clinton in 2016

Valid points, as far as they went, but criticism has continued from then to now.

No reason Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should be special, or left out. The July 5 presentation forms part of Rosenstein’s reason for recommending that Comey be fired. Read the Rosenstein memo here, helpfully published in full by the British Independent.

Ironies abound. Comey’s head was on the chopping block if Clinton got into the White House. That might or might not be a good thing, depending on your judgment of Comey’s over-all track record. The point here is that there has been little comment on this in reaction to Comey’s firing. In fact, there was little comment on it amidst all the media motive-hunting about Comey’s remarks eleven days before the 2016 election. The question was not raised with then-candidate Clinton then: if elected, do you plan to keep Comey on? At the time, most pundits were too busy vilifying Comey even to urge that she fire him. The gap is a little odder when you recall that they were all convinced that Clinton was indeed going to be in the White House. Did they deliberately not raise a question because they thought it might cost her voters? Or did it genuinely not occur to them?

The follow-up question for Clinton: with Comey gone, whom would she choose for FBI director? I can’t remember the speculation or even remember the question being discussed. (Admittedly, MSNBC was so insufferable–We’ve got the whip hand now!–that I had tuned out by then.) Speaking of motive-hunting, I can’t remember whether Rosenstein was considered a candidate.

But that kind of speculation is counter-productive right now. Amidst a media snowstorm blanketing Comey’s firing with the ‘Russia investigation’, what I’m noticing is that Rosenstein’s memo is surprisingly well written:

The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement. At most, the Director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.

The explanation of FBI protocol, i.e. U. S. law, here does not sound like just smokescreen, pretext for firing Comey over ‘Russia’:

The Director now defends his decision by asserting that he believed Attorney General Loretta had a conflict. But the FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department. There is a well-established process for other officials to step in when a conflict requires the recusal of the Attorney General. On July 5, however, the Director announced his own conclusions about the nation’s most sensitive criminal investigation, without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders.

Not to pile on Jim Comey at the moment, but I never thought the Attorney General had a conflict, or at least not one that necessitated Comey’s taking the pulpit. Every U.S. Attorney General is a political appointee. All of them, going back to Edmund Randolph, have landed in situations of political delicacy at least equivalent to Loretta Lynch’s.

And as Rosenstein’s memo points out, when an official has to recuse himself/herself, someone can fill in. Often that would be the next in command, a deputy–not Rosenstein, who was appointed to his current position in January–but Sally Yates.

I have no idea whether Yates would have made the kind of announcement Comey made in July 2016. If she had announced that the email investigation was ended, presumably she would have worded the message differently. When Comey took the pulpit on July 5, the effect was to pre-empt Yates at least as much as Lynch.

The memo seems to raise a question whether the email investigation would have ended then, had Comey chosen differently:

The current FBI Director is an articulate and persuasive speaker about leadership and the immutable principles of the Department of Justice. He deserves our appreciation for his public service. As you and I have discussed, however, I cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.

This point has not gone entirely unnoticed. Almost, but not quite.

 

 

 

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House flippers help pressure homeowners into foreclosure

Reducing foreclosure ‘backlogs’ is not the same as reducing foreclosures. To reduce foreclosures, best we keep people in their homes. Unfortunately, a different strategy is too often pursued, at least in Prince George’s County–speeding up the foreclosures. The backlog of foreclosures still in the hopper in the county can thus be reduced, on the books. It’s a strategy that benefits real estate investors. House flippers with the capital and connections to snap up a bunch of houses can then turn around and sell the houses at a profit, sometimes quickly.

Take for example the real estate company called Integrity Professional Contracting, in Prince George’s County, Maryland. On September 12, 2013, Integrity Professional Contracting purchased a pleasant home at 7800 Suiter Way, in Landover, for the bargain price of $73,000. Four bedrooms, four baths, nice yard if somewhat bland landscaping. The Washington Post’s real estate report listed Mark H. and Gerard W. Wittstadt as the seller. However, Maryland public records show that the actual homeowner was Olusegun A. Bright. Bright had bought his house in 2005 for $215,000. Forced into foreclosure after the collapse of the real estate market, he sold at enormous loss.

The Wittstadts were what is known as ‘substitute trustees’. In Maryland, these companies help push along the process of foreclosure. When a homeowner falls behind on  mortgage payments, the bank holding the mortgage note can contract with a foreclosure firm–which acts as ‘substitute trustees’, standing in for the lender–rather than dealing directly with the homeowner. Sometimes this arrangement works out well for the bank, which has fewer tearful borrowers to deal with and fewer individual cases to decide justly on the merits. Sometimes the arrangement fails to benefit the bank. 

Signs of the times

Signs of the times

The process can benefit well-financed house flippers, as mentioned. Integrity Professional Contracting sold the 7800 Suiter Way property on October 10, 2013, for $193,000–still a reasonable price for a good-sized condo in good shape, nonetheless a $120K gain in less than a month.

The company has not yet returned a telephone call for inquiry. Its members may or may not be Flip or Flop fans. What is known is that its top executive is Abdullah Haitham Hijazi, son as previously written of P. G. County’s Director of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement. Mr. Hijazi has gotten sweet press from the Washington Post, partly in support of cutting red tape, partly in sympathy for immigrant families in America.

Speaking of immigrant families–

Mr. Hijazi’s company bought another house on Suiter Way on January 30, 2014, paying Tito T. Ladipo $114,500 (foreclosure). The company sold the house on May 8 for $199,000, according to public record. The company bought 3911 Elkhorn Circle from Olushola Adetunji on September 19, 2013, for $162,000 (foreclosure). Sold on December 12 of that year for $270,000.

There seems to be little regulation of ‘substitute trustees’ in Maryland. Or–if you really can’t stand the word “regulation”–there seems to be little public oversight. With the enormous supply of homes in foreclosure in Prince George’s County, there is tremendous market pressure to ease up restraints that would keep properties from coming on the market. ‘Reducing the backlog’, again. (And “reducing regulation” and “cutting the red tape.”) Add to that a large county that includes historically excluded minorities, immigrant families, and first-time home buyers, and you have the ideal population for taking advantage of, historically under-served, with apparently little or no scrutiny from the state Attorney General. (Lack of scrutiny from the courts as an issue will have to wait for another day.)

Add further the recent down and up in real estate–the crash in 2007-2009, and the recovering housing market today. There is interest in buying houses, and there is frustration in waiting for a house to come on the market. Also, sellers leaving their homes voluntarily may choose to hold out for a decent price. And if they’re in a good position to sell, they may also have access to legal protection.

So what’s a sharp house flipper to do? One thing he can do is get in on the ‘substitute trustee’ end of the business. That way, he’s in touch with banks/lenders, with information on houses heading into foreclosure. In fact, he’s put directly in touch with the homeowners struggling with foreclosure. Another thing he can do is keep a sharp eye out for the most recent updates/information on permitting.

Integrity Professional Contracting, for example, the firm mentioned above, became active (registered) in Maryland in April 2011. The company purchased two houses in Prince George’s County in the next two years, and sold two others. Mr. Hijazi became Acting Director of DPIE on June 11, 2013, transferring from his previous county position as Director of the Department of Public Works and Transportation. A quick look at WaPo home sales for P. G. shows that from that date through the end of the year, the Hijazi firm bought six houses, selling the two in foreclosure mentioned above.

The pace picked up further. In 2014, the company bought and/or sold nine houses, including this home at 2715 Judith Avenue bought for $74,000 in October 2013 and sold for $230,000 in July 2014.  In 2015, the company bought or sold ten houses, including 804 Nalley Rd., purchased September 3 for  $100,000 (foreclosure) and sold November 26 for $210,000. In 2016, the company bought/sold eleven houses in Prince George’s County, including 116 Swiss Gap Rd., No. 14-4, sold on February 4 for $159,000 and purchased the previous September for $77,000 (foreclosure).

One cannot assume that all foreclosures are undeserved. Not all homeowners are deserving. But I know for a certainty that some foreclosures are undeserved. The homeowner, or relatives, can offer to make up the payments missed–and the foreclosure will still proceed. In other words, if the substitute trustee wants the house, once a homeowner falls behind on payments–even if because of medical bills or other legitimate issues–the trustee can still push the foreclosure forward.

Legal notice

Legal notice

From the standpoint of public policy, this is not the best strategy for reducing backlogs. The effect in Prince George’s County has been to reduce–directly and drastically–the chief source of wealth for historically excluded groups.

More to come.

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“Important Notice about Eviction”

Imagine coming home and finding a notice posted on your front door:

A person who claims the right to possess this property believes that this property is abandoned.

You just got home–from work, errands, visits. You’ve lived in the house for years; it’s your home. You and your relatives know the house well; so do your near neighbors. “Abandoned?” Potted plants on the front porch, porch furniture in place, house furnishings visible through the windows–this is abandoned?

Sad to say, some people who find such a notice on their front doors just leave. They don’t fight it. They just go, taking with them whatever belongings they can carry. They think it’s a done deal: they’ve been evicted. It’s over. Silent as it is, the printed word speaks.

But it’s not over. A neighbor of mine had this experience, some while back. Her particular posting, titled “IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT EVICTION,” told the homeowner,

If you are currently residing in the property, you must immediately contact:

Abdulla H. Hijazi, Esq., Hijazi Law Group LLC, 3231 Superior Lane Suite A-26, Bowie, Maryland 20715

with contact information via phone, fax and email.

Well, that’s one option: you could get in touch with the company that posted a notice telling you your home was abandoned. My neighbor took the wiser action of writing the judge who had jurisdiction. That took care of the abandonment claim, at least.

A call to Hijazi’s office, asking for information, has not yet been returned.

I asked the mayor of my own incorporated community what the homeowner should do. He had a quicker measure: “Call the police.” If you feel yourself to be intimidated, if you feel threatened, then put in a call to the police. The town administrator seconded: “That’s what 911 is for.” Regrettably there is no requirement that someone posting an eviction notice is supposed to let the town know first. No one checks in at the town office beforehand. You could theoretically xerox some notices, post them on doors, and nothing would happen.

My neighbor is someone I have been acquainted with for years. I know for certain that she lives in the house, did live in it at the time of the ‘abandoned’ eviction notice, and lived in it well before.

I am convinced, furthermore, that the company posting the notice knew that the house was not abandoned. I’ve had detailed conversations with the neighbor, and she is fortunately someone who keeps documents, answers correspondence, and makes copies. I’ve leafed through one of her three-inch-plus binders. She has made every effort to do everything right.

So what is the punishment for posting something you know is not true? Well, apparently–nothing. But isn’t it against the law? Well, apparently, if the homeowner is non-white–no. Or not effectively. I mean, is the poster even required to send a letter of apology to the victim? Or is an officer of the court required to apologize to the courts for what one might consider abuse of process? Again–seems not.

Giving up is humanly understandable. I have no respect for victim-blaming. But any house lost–by someone who wanted to stay in it–is a loss for everyone. This is not just metaphysics, as in We’re-all-part-of-the-great-web. It is survival in the most practical terms: if a real-estate investor can get away with this tactic against one of your neighbors, then he can use it against you. We all need to be paying attention.

With reportedly some six thousand home foreclosures still in the hopper in Prince George’s County, it is easy to understand how homes can slip through the cracks. But the effects are horrendous.

More to come.

 

 

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Why is a P. G. County official (or his family) buying up foreclosed homes?

On October 14, 2016, my neighbor received a two-page letter from the bank holding her mortgage note, M&T Bank.

Baltimore's own M&T Bank

Baltimore’s own M&T Bank

As foreclosure letters go, it could have been worse, on paper. M&T told her that it was “reviewing” her “workout package.” “It is possible,” the bankers informed her, that “we may determine that additional information is needed.” “If we determine that additional information is needed,” they assured her, “you will receive a letter identifying any additional documents that you need to provide.” Footnoted at bottom in faint and fine print was an address–a P. O. Box in Baltimore–and an 800 number for “Mortgage account information.”

The decision would be reached within 30 days after the bank received all the required information. That would be–spelling this out–the decision as to whether my neighbor was being kicked out of her house, the home she has lived in for eighteen years.

The bank said that she would receive one of five possible replies. 1) Her mortgage eligible for repayment or forbearance. 2) Mortgage eligible for trial-period modification. 3) Mortgage approved for permanent modification. 4) Mortgage not eligible for modification. Or 5) “More information is needed to make our decision. You will be contacted either by phone or letter to request the additional information.”

In proof of its bona fides, M&T signed off with one of those truly personal touches that make you wonder how a bank with heart like this stays in business:

Sincerely,

Single Point of Contact Team

Homeowner Assistance Center

The bank auctioned her house five days later. No further communication in the interim, from any person, through any medium. The letter was dated October 6; perhaps the bank docked eight days from the thirty, jumping the gun by a mere seventeen days.

The auction did not succeed. But that’s the end of the good news.

My neighbor’s house is still in the toils of the court system. In fact, it is still embroiled in two courts–only one of them legitimately involved under Maryland law.

Unfortunately, someone with connections in P. G. County had an interest in acquiring the property. Pshaw on the facts. The homeowner had cared for her mother, who died of cancer in her nineties. She had cared for her father, who died of Alzheimer’s, also in his nineties. The homeowner had lost her County job, quite possibly because of internal politics; fell behind three months on her mortgage; and has been working since 2014 to get her life back. Her house is not even underwater. No matter. The prospective buyer has all the cards–which happen in his case to include a top-tier County job as well as four adult sons and a former wife, mother of the latter, who invest in real estate via the foreclosure stream. Adiebi Hijazi, the former wife, is seen Tuesdays and Thursdays in front of the courthouse at Upper Marlboro, purchasing properties. The family has acquired quite a few houses in P. G.–all of them, as it happens, through the court of Judge Toni Clarke. “No one meets her”: the Honorable Ms. Clarke issues decisions without a hearing, from chambers, homeowner not present. The observation that “no one” meets her is not literal, be it noted. The prospective buyer of the house is present. “He goes in ex parte.”

Why is a P. G. County official pushing through foreclosures on properties he wants to buy as an investor?

The buyer is a son of Mr. Haitham Hijazi, Director of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement for Prince George’s County, Maryland. Hijazi has gotten favorable ink in The Washington Post for his interest in cutting red tape in permits. The Department (DPIE) itself touts Mr. Hijazi’s activities in its newsletter, published at taxpayer expense. Hijazi is one of County Executive Rushern Baker’s few holdovers from the previous County administration. DPIE’s responsibilities include identifying properties that are vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or blighted. His son, Abdullah Haitham Hijazi, Esq., is the person who appears in court to represent the family interests.

Haitham Hijazi, Director of Permitting for P. G. County

Haitham Hijazi, Director of Permitting for P. G. County

Unstated in the department newsletter is the fact that Hijazi and his family themselves invest in buying up foreclosed properties. Worse yet, he and his family members actively push the foreclosures. And worst of all, they are canny enough to push them through the District Court in Hyattsville rather than through the legally mandated route through Circuit Court.

Here’s where a brutal process, grim at best, not to say heartless to the point of becoming morally repugnant, gets odd. As another Maryland judge states with laudable clearness,

” . . . all of the Judges of the District Court are aware that foreclosure matters fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Circuit Court.”

Question from Ms. Average Citizen: If foreclosure is exclusively the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court, then why do homeowners have to go into the District Court in Hyattsville to try to keep from losing their homes?

My neighbor has been represented by an attorney, a couple of times in the process; has received informal assistance from attorneys; and has been in touch with other homeowners in related cases. She and others in danger of losing their houses–and some who have already lost their homes–have had to show up in courtrooms in Hyattsville.

What she/they do is bounce back and forth between the District Court in Hyattsville–which, as mentioned, is not the venue for foreclosure–and the Circuit Court system in Upper Marlboro and Annapolis–which sometimes blesses the District Court foreclosures. It’s an agonizing process or game of shuttlecock, as our British cousins would say, or ping pong, where the hapless homeowner gets batted back and forth between parties with a more moneyed interest in the real property, though none of the sweat equity. First, the courtroom of Judge Crystal Mittlesteadt (Circuit Court), who denies without a hearing the homeowner’s request for a stay of proceedings. Then, the courtroom of Judge Brian Denton (Hyattsville, District Court), who at least listens to the homeowner, in appearance pro se. (In this particular matter, Judge Denton granted a continuance. That gave the prospective buyer more time but arguably gave the homeowner same. More to the point, the Hyattsville court did not have jurisdiction in the first place.) Then, another Hyattsville courtroom, where the homeowner’s continuance is denied. (“People get a continuance for missing a bus.” Again, shouldn’t have been there anyway.) In this case, denying the continuance requesnt meant that the Hyattsville judge “gave him my property.” Again, fortunately, it didn’t stick.

Imagine being in your house, living in your home, where you have lived for years, and facing the constant threat of losing the house any month. Any week. Any day. From a public policy perspective, what is the upside here?

Back to the court system, if ‘system’ is the term–

On a briefly happier note, the homeowner asked the (last) judge to reconsider, and the judge granted the request. The case then went to Hyattsville Judge Clayton Aarons, who ruled that the homeowner had to put up $7,500. A previous employer of the homeowner stepped in and put up the money. One for the good guys.

The case is now back in Circuit Court. The homeowner could not afford the constant legal help necessary to shepherd the matter through five or six courtrooms. Aside from the bank or the eager investor, who can afford such legal help? Pro bono legal work is not available for foreclosures, according to my neighbor. The University of Maryland legal clinic had a good guy available to help, and help he did. But he died in December 2016.

The interested real-estate-investor buyers in these cases have more options. They always have more cash and more financing than a homeowner in arrears, and more ability to hire legal talent.

They also have more legal talent on the bench–their bench–according to the accounts I’m hearing. In Prince George’s County, they have Judge Clarke. She “never decides for the homeowner.”

Questions emailed to County Executive Baker and DPIE Director Hijazi have not been returned.

More to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Good faith is an element in every contract

[Update May 2. Here is the reply to my question to the Maryland Attorney General’s office:]

Your email to Attorney General Brian Frosh has been referred to me for response. You have inquired into whether the Maryland Attorney General could assist with the enforcement of contracts between authors and publishers. Under a valid contract between and author and a publisher, the parties are legally required to perform certain agreed upon terms. If one party fails to perform, the other can sue to enforce the agreement.  Under Maryland law, there is no authority for the Attorney General to get involved in such a contract dispute.  The dispute is between the two parties to the contract and the remedy is for one party to file an action against the other.
Please let me know if you have further questions.  Jenny Baker

Contracts between authors and publishers don’t get treated as real contracts. In the judicial system, the author is generally treated as “a very, very small business.” So I was told several years ago as a member of the National Writers Union. While in the NWU I chaired the DC chapter for a couple of years; I also served as a Grievance Counselor, trying if possible to help members who had a problem with their publishers. Most often the problem was that they did not get paid.

The first question was ‘Do you have a contract or [something, anything, in writing]?’ If yes, the next question was ‘Can you send it to me?’ One of the services offered by the NWU was contract advice. I was not a Contract Advisor, but the CAs were also there to help; they tried to see to it that the author stuck out for a decent contract, bringing another pair of eyes to rights and royalties.

The trouble was that even a writer with a clear-as-glass contract had little way to enforce it.

I cannot go into detail on individual examples/cases. But I can say that my premise that a contract is a contract, even where one party is a small-time ham-and-egger, started to feel a bit naive. An author’s contract would generally be written by the publisher. It could have an unequivocally clear schedule for reporting sales and paying royalties–obligations of the publisher. But if the calendar date rolled around and there was no royalty check from the publishing company–then what?

Well, in the State of New York, when Andrew Cuomo was state Attorney General– nothing. Too bad I can’t go into details. Suffice it to say that a state AG, or the office of a state’s attorney, does not come banging on the door of a deadbeat publisher, demanding that he cough up or else. There’s no SWAT team for scofflaws in publishing. The contract might as well not have existed. Mutual agreement, mutual consideration, formal written expression all in place–the basis for contract law itself. And they might as well have been the Rock of Gibraltar recreated as whipped cream, sliding into the ocean.

NY AG Andrew Cuomo

NY AG Andrew Cuomo

Many journalists and other writers know something about the above picture, enough so that they don’t choose to freelance. Theoretically, being on the staff of a recognized periodical offers protections that an isolated freelancer does not get.

All this brings me to what sounds like an interesting book from Barbara Feinman Todd, fittingly titled Pretend I’m Not Here. Feinman Todd was a freelancer with more position than most. Among other professional activities she was a ghostwriter for the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein, Benjamin Bradlee, and Bob Woodward. She also ghosted Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village (1996).

According to an interesting article by Clark Hoyt, the book–which I have not read yet–recounts that Feinman Todd got burned by Woodward. The story is that the author confided to Woodward that Hillary Clinton bolstered herself psychically by having imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt among others. Instead of keeping this item secret as promised, Woodward used it–prominently–in his own book on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. He also passed along copies of two transcripts Feinman Todd allegedly gave him to other WaPo writers, for their work on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Woodward denies Feinman Todd’s account, according to Hoyt. As a supporter of authors I think Mr. Hoyt’s article makes a point of bigger interest than the personalities involved:

Woodward’s efforts to report the story could explain why Feinman Todd suddenly found herself on the outs with the Clinton White House, which ordered the publisher of “It Takes a Village” to withhold her final payment. 

Bill Clinton’s White House “ordered the publisher” to withhold the author’s last payment on a book she ghosted for first lady Hillary Clinton?

1996, Simon & Schuster

1996, Simon & Schuster

Why, absent a national security concern, does a White House get to tell a publisher what to do? And of all things to command, why does it get to tell a publisher not to pay an author? Admittedly, that particular command might go down easy; see above on how publishers pay. But however willing the publisher might be to entertain the order, as represented it is still an order to violate a contract. They used to call it breach.

That wasn’t the only one, according to Feinman Todd:

And, when the book came out, Feinman Todd was given no credit, despite a requirement in her contract that she be included in the acknowledgments.

Ghosters can get shafted. The ghostwriter is usually supposed to be invisible, or at least not too conspicuous. Just the same, if the publisher failed to honor a contract requirement, the author had grounds to take the publisher to court. And she would have had more position than most to do so. The controversy actually drew some attention at the time. Simon & Schuster exposed its lack of self-respect when it caved under a directive from the Clinton White House. (Despite my concern with the larger issues, I admit it would be interesting to hear how the order was worded. And who delivered it, and to whom. And when. And where. Reading this stuff is like reading that the CIA could direct a university to hire one of its own as a full professor.)

For the record, my own view is that an author shouldn’t have to sue for redress. Breach of contract harms the public. It should be handled by a public entity, as in the state’s attorney’s office. Reading about the actions of a major publisher in 1996 raises the issue again.

 

 

 

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