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Ameriquest Settles Claims

Accused of misleading borrowers with credit problems, the mortgage company will overhaul its lending practices and pay $325 million.

January 21, 2006|E. Scott Reckard | Times Staff Writer

In a deal that could change how millions of credit-strapped Americans get their home loans, Ameriquest Mortgage Co. has finalized a $325-million settlement of allegations that it deceived borrowers, falsified loan documents and pressured appraisers to overstate home values.

A task force of 49 states and the District of Columbia plans to announce Monday that the Orange-based company and two affiliates -- all specialists in higher-cost mortgages to borrowers unable to qualify for bank loans -- had agreed to overhaul their lending practices.

Industry experts say the deal could in effect force rival lenders in the higher-cost loan market to adopt similar standards to avoid legal challenges from both regulators and consumers. These loans have been the fastest-growing segment of the mortgage market and now account for an estimated 20% of all such lending.

Settling the case also is expected to clear the way for Ameriquest's founder, Los Angeles billionaire Roland E. Arnall, to become the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.

The settlement is expected to be disclosed by California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller and others at a Los Angeles news conference Monday.

According to people familiar with the agreement, key provisions will include appointment of an independent monitor to ensure compliance, and new rules forcing loan agents to give better disclosure of mortgage terms to customers throughout the approval process.

Under the deal, hundreds of thousands of customers could be eligible for refunds.

The agreement would also:

* Prohibit Ameriquest from offering incentives that might encourage loan officers to unfairly impose higher fees, closing costs or early payoff penalties on customers.

* Ban "unreasonable" sales quotas for loan officers, and bar regional loan supervisors from setting quotas that exceed those set by corporate headquarters.

* Centralize property appraisals so that loan officers can't influence appraisers to inflate home values, and require the use of outside agents to close mortgages to ensure borrowers aren't pressured by their loan agent into signing final papers.

* Ban Ameriquest or its employees from colluding with debt collectors to pressure borrowers into refinancing.

The settlement would be the second-largest to date involving a mortgage loan company, after a $484-million pact signed by Household International and 50 states in 2002.

"This agreement is good for consumers and good for the company," Ameriquest said in a statement Friday. "We worked closely with the states to address their concerns. These improved business practices will enhance our ability to serve our customers."

The agreement is expected to apply to all states except for Virginia, where Ameriquest does not operate.

The settlement terms are designed to address a variety of improper lending practices detailed in a series of Los Angeles Times articles in the last year.

In those stories, former and current employees said that top-down pressure to boost loan sales created a "boiler room" atmosphere where workers forged documents, misled borrowers about rates and fees and inflated borrowers' incomes and home values to qualify them for loans they couldn't afford.

The company acknowledged there had been problems but denied they were systematic. They attributed misdeeds to rogue employees disregarding company policies.

The allegations against Ameriquest led Senate Democrats last fall to hold up a vote to confirm Arnall as the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.

Arnall, a major contributor to President Bush, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other politicians, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing that Ameriquest already was making key reforms. Those included steps to centralize appraisals and to use independent agents to close loans, both of which are expected to be part of the settlement.

Arnall, 66, founded Ameriquest in 1979 as Long Beach Savings. His Ameriquest Capital Corp., which includes several loan companies including Ameriquest Mortgage, has mushroomed into the nation's largest lender in the so-called sub-prime market. This is the market for borrowers who have credit problems, can't document their incomes, or want to borrow more money with less collateral than traditional lenders permit.

The draft settlement classifies borrowers in two camps -- those who received loans from 1999 through the first quarter of 2003, and those who got loans after that period, when software designed to curb lending abuses was in effect.

The first group -- about 235,000 borrowers, according to government mortgage data -- would share restitution of $175 million, or more than $700 each on average if all eligible borrowers accepted the settlement. A national administrator would determine how those funds would be allocated.

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