How To Boil Down Your Life For A Bailout Panel

Alfred Estrada, who recently lost his job and is facing foreclosure, was invited to appeared in front of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) oversight panel Tuesday in Las Vegas. We join him for the day to get a sense of what it's like to take the morning off from unpaid bills to sum up his woes in three minutes.

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A three-person panel is currently investigating how well the federal bailout package is working. They want to hear how the plan, known as TARP, is affecting Americans living far from Wall Street. This congressional oversight panel is now traveling throughout the country. They started yesterday in Las Vegas where they heard from local community leaders in finance, housing, banking and social services. Producer Adam Burke brings us this profile of one of the people who testified.

ADAM BURKE: As soon as Alfred Estrada met his realtor in the driveway, he knew he'd found his dream home, or so the story goes. It wasn't the bedroom or the kitchen or the wood work or anything about the house itself that swung the deal.

Mr. ALFRED ESTRADA: I didn't even walk into the house. OK? I looked across the street, and I seen the playground, and all I thought about was my daughters, that that was their playground, right? And so, I told her, I said, OK, look, I don't even need to look and see what's inside the house. All I want to know is what does zero down mean, right? And she says well, if you give me a check for a thousand dollars, I'll give you the house.

BURKE: Can't blame a guy who wants to walk across the street to pick his daughters up from school. But maybe the Estradas should have kicked the tires on the deal a little bit more. Estrada was laid off from his job as a Las Vegas tour bus driver, his mortgage went up. He fell behind, and in October, the Estradas lost their dream home. The story takes a while to tell. But yesterday, Alfred Estrada had to boil it down to five minutes for the Congressional Oversight Committee.

Unidentified Man: Mr. Estrada, you know, this is your chance if - imagine, Hank Paulson is sitting right here at this desk. What would you say?

BURKE: It's sort of a daunting question if you think about it. I mean, what would you say to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson if you had five minutes? Well, in his minivan on the way to the hearing, it was clear Estrada hadn't prepared all that much. He'd only been invited to speak the night before.

Mr. ESTRADA: I'm very interested to see what's going to happen at the hearing. I've never been to anything like this, and if anything that I can say helps somebody, that's all I'm hoping for.

BURKE: At the hearing, however, once they saw the set up - the panel, the witness table, the five-minute time limit - the Estradas started to jot down some notes. Then, Alfred got his five minutes.

Mr. ESTRADA: I'm going to tell you a little story about what happened to me, OK? What happened was that my house - I fell behind in my payments, OK? The house doubled in price. Like this gentleman had seen, the house doubled in price, so the amount of money that I owed on my house was not what it was worth anymore. So I had found another buyer to purchase the house for me, right? And this is when I met up with my realtors, and I asked...

BURKE: Estrada's story is the story of a guy who put his faith in an institution, and the institution failed him. But hearing Estrada tell the complicated tale to the committee was nerve-racking, to say the least. He really only hit his stride when he went back to his favorite topic - the kids.

Mr. ESTRADA: My six-year-old came home the other day with a full sheet of paper with all of her friends' names on it. And she told me that these are the people that are going to miss her because we were going to have to be moving. And I told my daughter, I said, I don't care if I have to live in a van, I said, you're still going to be able to go to this school.

BURKE: But one thing was crystal clear in the story. Estrada and his wife had made repeated attempts to negotiate with the mortgage company. They'd found a family friend who was willing to buy their house and rent it back to them. They were in the final stages of a deal when the company inexplicably sold the home in auction. This part of the story was familiar to oversight panel member, Richard Neiman, superintendent of banks for the New York State Banking Department.

Superintendent RICHARD NEIMAN (Superintendent of Banks, New York State Banking Department): This is something - an area that has to be addressed, and I very much appreciate you bringing this one to our attention because it highlights a number of the problems in facing and dealing with an institution and the impact that it has on families. So I thank you very much for sharing that with us today.

Mr. ESTRADA: Yes, sir.

BURKE: This panel was clearly trying to restore some trust among Americans who suspect that the bailout will only benefit corporations. Yesterday, in addition to Estrada's testimony, the panel video taped statements from another two dozen citizens outside the court room, and there are more hearings planned over the next few months in other troubled parts of the country. But will these hearings matter? In the minivan on the way home, Alfred Estrada expressed gratitude for the opportunity to speak. But when I asked him whether he thought his testimony would count in some important way...

Mr. ESTRADA: I don't think it's going to make a difference.

BURKE: Can I just ask, why do it then if you don't think it's going to make a difference?

Mr. ESTRADA: Well, at least, I can say that I spoke up and said something. You know, the ball is not in my court anymore. It's in their court. They either going to have to do the right thing here, or we're going to be in a world of trouble.

BURKE: In the meantime, Estrada is just trying to keep it together. He's looking for another job. His wife has two. But one thing that brightens their mood on a daily basis - picking up the kids at school.

Mr. ESTRADA: Here come my beautiful daughters. That's Hannah(ph), with the red nose. That's Angel(ph).

BURKE: The kids get in the van and give their own testimony.

Mr. ESTRADA: What did you have for lunch today, my love?

Unidentified Girl #1: I had one of those chips with cheese.

Mr. ESTRADA: Did you?

Unidentified Girl #2: Nachos.

Mr. ESTRADA: Nachos?

Unidentified Girl #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Girl #2: It was nachos.

Mr. ESTRADA: Was it good?

Unidentified Girl #1: Yes.

Mr. ESTRADA: Yes?

Unidentified Girl #1: And pears.

Unidentified Girl #2: I didn't like cheese.

BURKE: Two sweet daughters are the best medicine for times like these. For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.

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