County With High Foreclosure Rate Hosts Hearing
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. We'll hear more now from a woman whose job it is to monitor the financial industry bailout. Her name is Elizabeth Warren. She is a Harvard law professor. And she's the person appointed to examine how the government spends $700 billion.
Professor ELIZABETH WARREN (Chairwoman, Congressional Oversight Panel): We have the power of the cranky question. Our power is only the power of the soapbox to say these are the questions Treasury should be answering.
MONTAGNE: That's how Warren described her job on this program yesterday. Now the woman asking those cranky questions has heard a few cranky answers. The panel that she leads held a hearing in a place hit hard by falling home prices. It's the county that includes Las Vegas, and NPR's Ted Robbins was there.
TED ROBBINS: Clark County, Nevada, has the highest foreclosure rate in the country. The printed hearing agenda called it ground zero of the housing and financial crises. So three members of the oversight panel came here to, in Elizabeth Warren's words, investigate, analyze, and review the bailout.
Professor WARREN: But most importantly, we are here to ask the questions that we believe all Americans have a right to ask. Who got the money? What have they done with it? How has it helped the country? And how has it helped everyday Americans?
ROBBINS: Who got the money is the easiest question to answer. Three hundred fifty billion dollars has either been given or will be given by the Treasury Department to major financial institutions. The purpose was to stabilize the markets by giving those institutions the means to lend. Whether they are lending is an open question. Senate Majority Leader Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada told the oversight panel that he called the heads of three major financial institutions to find out.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): And they all had the same answer: We're working on it. Well, I would suggest they get a new work crew because it's just not helping at all.
ROBBINS: All the elected officials at the hearing were Democrats. No one from a major financial institution was invited, which didn't bother panel chair Elizabeth Warren.
Professor WARREN: The big banks get many chances to tell their side. My concern does not - they will get many chances.
ROBBINS: At the first hearing, academics, state officials, and community leaders got their chance. They all had the same assessment. The money is not getting to everyday Americans. Mortgage counselor Linda Abrams-Bowie spoke up from the audience. She doesn't know if the banks are holding onto the money, but she does know that the byzantine mortgage system frustrates homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure.
Ms. LINDA ABRAMS-BOWIE (Mortgage Counselor): The bankruptcy department tells you you need to speak to the attorney. The attorney sends you right back. And then it comes back that, well, you know what? We can't do anything for that borrower because the loan is bundled. So we don't even have - we don't even know who the lender is.
ROBBINS: Homeowners were represented by one witness at the hearing. Others listened in. Debbie Russell(ph) has owned a home in Las Vegas for 12 years. She was just laid off from her sales job, and she's about to default on her mortgage. She says she expects foreclosure and eviction any day. So all the talk in the hearing...
Ms. DEBBIE RUSSELL: This is fluff to me. This doesn't mean anything. I don't want figures and numbers right now. I want results.
ROBBINS: The oversight hearing was held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Law School's moot courtroom, a fitting location perhaps since Nevada Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkley thought it was just an exercise.
Representative SHELLEY BERKLEY (Democrat, Nevada): We should have done this before we passed it. We didn't. Now we're playing catch-up. But we still have the ace in the hole, the 350 billion that hasn't been spent.
ROBBINS: Congressional leaders say they're drafting legislation to force more accountability before handing out the second half of the bailout. Ted Robbins, NPR News.
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