Mark Bomchill says he'd like to forget the year he spent hustling mortgages for Ameriquest Capital Corp. in suburban Minneapolis.
Slugging down Red Bull caffeine drinks, sales agents would work the phones hour after hour, he said, trying to turn cold calls into lucrative "sub-prime" mortgages -- high-cost loans made to people with spotty credit.
The demands were relentless: One manager prowled the aisles between desks like "a little Hitler," Bomchill said, hounding agents to make more calls and push more loans, bragging that he hired and fired people so fast that one worker would be cleaning out his desk as his replacement came through the door.
"It was like a boiler room," said Bomchill, 37. "You produce, you make a lot of money. Or you move on. There's no real compassion or understanding of the position they're putting their customers in."
Indeed, Bomchill -- who said he left Ameriquest because he didn't like the way the company treated its employees and customers, and now works as a mortgage broker -- contends that the drive to close deals and grab six-figure salaries led many Ameriquest employees astray: They forged documents, hyped customers' creditworthiness and "juiced" mortgages with hidden rates and fees.
Such claims are not unusual against sub-prime lenders, which are a frequent target of consumer groups.
Ameriquest, however, has been held up as an industry model since agreeing in 2000 to establish a fund for needy borrowers and to adhere to a list of "best practices." The company says it holds itself "to the highest standards" and does not tolerate unethical or improper behavior by its employees.
The nation's largest sub-prime mortgage lender, based in Orange, has sought to burnish its image as it moves into prime, or mainstream, mortgage lending. It has increased its political profile, donating heavily to various campaigns, including in Sacramento. The privately held company, which may be considering a public stock offering, committed $75 million to have the Texas Rangers ballpark dubbed Ameriquest Field. And on Sunday it should gain even more recognition when it sponsors the halftime extravaganza at Super Bowl XXXIX.
"At Ameriquest," the company likes to say, "we never forget that our customers deserve respect, fairness and honesty."
Yet a far different picture emerges from public records, interviews and dozens of consumer lawsuits:
* Ameriquest customers filed more complaints with the Federal Trade Commission from 2000 through 2004 than did those of two of its biggest competitors combined, the agency said -- 466 compared with 101 for Full Spectrum Lending (Calabasas-based Countrywide Financial Corp.'s sub-prime unit) and 51 for Irvine-based New Century Financial Corp.
* From 2000 through 2004, 134 complaints (including allegations of fraud and unfair business practices) were registered against Ameriquest with the California Department of Corporations, compared with 39 for New Century and 21 for Full Spectrum.
* Recent lawsuits filed by consumers in California and at least 20 other states allege a pattern of fraud, falsification of documents, bait-and-switch sales tactics and other violations. Six of these suits seek class-action status to represent large groups of borrowers; such status has been granted for a 2001 suit filed in Redwood City, Calif. In a sworn declaration in that case, a former loan officer named Kenneth Kendall said Ameriquest managers encouraged employees to "promise certain interest rates and fees, only to change those rates at the time of the closing."
Ameriquest says it doesn't comment on pending litigation. But it notes that since 2003, it has had in place automated systems that allow loan officers to lower rates but not to raise them.
* In court documents and interviews, 32 former employees across the country say they witnessed or participated in improper practices, mostly in 2003 and 2004. This behavior was said to have included deceiving borrowers about the terms of their loans, forging documents, falsifying appraisals and fabricating borrowers' income to qualify them for loans they couldn't afford.
Five of these former employees made their claims as part of employment discrimination lawsuits that they filed against Ameriquest. Three other ex-employees gave sworn statements in connection with other lawsuits against the company. Among the other ex-employees, most were referred to the Los Angeles Times by people who had worked in the offices where alleged improprieties occurred. The newspaper sought them out so as not to rely solely on information provided by those in litigation with the company.
* Two ex-workers at an Ameriquest office in Sacramento that focuses on retaining existing customers said people often were solicited to refinance loans that they had for less than two years. In adopting a best-practices standard in 2000, Ameriquest pledged not to resolicit its customers for two years to discourage "flipping," or pushing new loans simply to generate fees and commissions.