Daily Archives: January 20, 2012

Top Justice officials connected to mortgage banks

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By Scot J. Paltrow
Fri Jan 20, 2012 9:31am EST

(Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, were partners for years at a Washington law firm that represented a Who’s Who of big banks and other companies at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud, a Reuters inquiry shows.

The firm, Covington & Burling, is one of Washington’s biggest white shoe law firms. Law professors and other federal ethics experts said that federal conflict of interest rules required Holder and Breuer to recuse themselves from any Justice Department decisions relating to law firm clients they personally had done work for.

Both the Justice Department and Covington declined to say if either official had personally worked on matters for the big mortgage industry clients. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Holder and Breuer had complied fully with conflict of interest regulations, but she declined to say if they had recused themselves from any matters related to the former clients.

Reuters reported in December that under Holder and Breuer, the Justice Department hasn’t brought any criminal cases against big banks or other companies involved in mortgage servicing, even though copious evidence has surfaced of apparent criminal violations in foreclosure cases.

The evidence, including records from federal and state courts and local clerks’ offices around the country, shows widespread forgery, perjury, obstruction of justice, and illegal foreclosures on the homes of thousands of active-duty military personnel.

In recent weeks the Justice Department has come under renewed pressure from members of Congress, state and local officials and homeowners’ lawyers to open a wide-ranging criminal investigation of mortgage servicers, the biggest of which have been Covington clients. So far Justice officials haven’t responded publicly to any of the requests.

While Holder and Breuer were partners at Covington, the firm’s clients included the four largest U.S. banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co – as well as at least one other bank that is among the 10 largest mortgage servicers.

DEFENDER OF FREDDIE

Servicers perform routine mortgage maintenance tasks, including filing foreclosures, on behalf of mortgage owners, usually groups of investors who bought mortgage-backed securities.

Covington represented Freddie Mac, one of the nation’s biggest issuers of mortgage backed securities, in enforcement investigations by federal financial regulators.

A particular concern by those pressing for an investigation is Covington’s involvement with Virginia-based MERS Corp, which runs a vast computerized registry of mortgages. Little known before the mortgage crisis hit, MERS, which stands for Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, has been at the center of complaints about false or erroneous mortgage documents.

Court records show that Covington, in the late 1990s, provided legal opinion letters needed to create MERS on behalf of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and several other large banks. It was meant to speed up registration and transfers of mortgages. By 2010, MERS claimed to own about half of all mortgages in the U.S. — roughly 60 million loans.

But evidence in numerous state and federal court cases around the country has shown that MERS authorized thousands of bank employees to sign their names as MERS officials. The banks allegedly drew up fake mortgage assignments, making it appear falsely that they had standing to file foreclosures, and then had their own employees sign the documents as MERS “vice presidents” or “assistant secretaries.”

Covington in 2004 also wrote a crucial opinion letter commissioned by MERS, providing legal justification for its electronic registry. MERS spokeswoman Karmela Lejarde declined to comment on Covington legal work done for MERS.

It isn’t known to what extent if any Covington has continued to represent the banks and other mortgage firms since Holder and Breuer left. Covington declined to respond to questions from Reuters. A Covington spokeswoman said the firm had no comment.

Several lawyers for homeowners have said that even if Holder and Breuer haven’t violated any ethics rules, their ties to Covington create an impression of bias toward the firms’ clients, especially in the absence of any prosecutions by the Justice Department.

O. Max Gardner III, a lawyer who trains other attorneys to represent homeowners in bankruptcy court foreclosure actions, said he attributes the Justice Department’s reluctance to prosecute the banks or their executives to the Obama White House’s view that it might harm the economy.

But he said that the background of Holder and Breuer at Covington — and their failure to act on foreclosure fraud or publicly recuse themselves — “doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Federal ethics regulations generally require new government officials to recuse themselves for one year from involvement in matters involving clients they personally had represented at their former law firms.

President Obama imposed additional restrictions on appointees that essentially extended the ban to two years. For Holder, that ban would have expired in February 2011, and in April for Breuer. Rules also require officials to avoid creating the appearance of a conflict.

Schmaler, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that “The Attorney General and Assistant Attorney General Breuer have conformed with all financial, legal and ethical obligations under law as well as additional ethical standards set by the Obama Administration.”

She said they “routinely consult” the department’s ethics officials for guidance. Without offering specifics, Schmaler said they “have recused themselves from matters as required by the law.”

Senior government officials often move to big Washington law firms, and lawyers from those firms often move into government posts. But records show that in recent years the traffic between the Justice Department and Covington & Burling has been particularly heavy. In 2010, Holder’s deputy chief of staff, John Garland, returned to Covington, as did Steven Fagell, who was Breuer’s deputy chief of staff in the criminal division.

The firm has on its web site a page listing its attorneys who are former federal government officials. Covington lists 22 from the Justice Department, and 12 from U.S. Attorneys offices, the Justice Department’s local federal prosecutors’ offices around the country.

As Reuters reported in 2011, public records show large numbers of mortgage promissory notes with apparently forged endorsements that were submitted as evidence to courts.

There also is evidence of almost routine manufacturing of false mortgage assignments, documents that transfer ownership of mortgages between banks or to groups of investors. In foreclosure actions in courts mortgage assignments are required to show that a bank has the legal right to foreclose.

In an interview in late 2011, Raymond Brescia, a visiting professor at Yale Law School who has written about foreclosure practices said, “I think it’s difficult to find a fraud of this size on the U.S. court system in U.S. history.”

Holder has resisted calls for a criminal investigation since October 2010, when evidence of widespread “robo-signing” first surfaced. That involved mortgage servicer employees falsely signing and swearing to massive numbers of affidavits and other foreclosure documents that they had never read or checked for accuracy.

Recent calls for a wide-ranging criminal investigation of the mortgage servicing industry have come from members of Congress, including Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., state officials, and county clerks. In recent months clerks from around the country have examined mortgage and foreclosure records filed with them and reported finding high percentages of apparently fraudulent documents.

On Wednesday, John O’Brien Jr., register of deeds in Salem, Mass., announced that he had sent 31,897 allegedly fraudulent foreclosure-related documents to Holder. O’Brien said he asked for a criminal investigation of servicers and their law firms that had filed the documents because they “show a pattern of fraud,” forgery and false notarizations.

(Reporting By Scot J. Paltrow, editing by Blake Morrison)

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Gulf of Mexico Records Largest Demand for Specialised Offshore Vessels

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Infield Systems have made a report on the offshore construction activity demand in order to recognize key regions and gauge supply developments stressing the possibility for activity increase due to the arrival of transcontinental pipelines and the deepwater tie-in of various satellite wells matched to an increased level of subsea installations. Demand is expected to reach its peak during 2015.

North America, particularly the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), has been recording the largest demand level mainly because of the availability of assets.

A considerable growth is expected in Asia and West Africa to 2016, supported by West African projects perceived as one of the key constituents of the emergent deepwater market and the region is seen as a key to a continued utilization of strategic assets. The Asian market features numerous countries including Malaysia, India, China and Indonesia, each reflecting differing dynamics, providing a slightly different opportunity for vessel operators who are keen to secure high utilization.

The global recession has affected all offshore developments and oil companies forcing them to restructure their capital cost commitments together with their offshore expansion plans.

Considerable confidence in Global financial markets has been regained. The declining oil price trend seen in Q2 2011 stabilized during Q3 2011. Greatly depending on whether the major economies return to recession, the global oil demand is anticipated to grow, although at a slower rate than expected.

Infield Systems strongly believe that the level of activity for specialist vessels will increase as E&P ventures expect to rise as a result of exploited reserves.

Vessel operators dealing with harsh and remote environments are most likely to be at the forefront of the expected growth. However, Infield Systems expects the global fleet to become more technologically advanced.

Infield Systems’ Global Perspective Specialist Vessels Market Report To 2016 is dedicated to the construction and construction support vessels that are employed in the development of offshore oil and gas fields. The third edition of this ground breaking report provides an in depth analysis of global and regional trends and the supply and demand dynamics for the period 2007 through to 2016.

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USA: Golden Pass LNG Plans Re-Exports

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The U.S. Golden Pass LNG Terminal (GPLNG) said Wednesday it will seek the necessary authorizations from the U.S. Department of Energy to re-export LNG that has previously been imported into the United States and stored at the terminal.

GPLNG intends to receive foreign-sourced LNG at its terminal facility, store such volumes of LNG temporarily at its terminal, and then send it out of the terminal for export to foreign markets.

The Golden Pass LNG Terminal said in a statement to DOE that the original design of the terminal incorporated the ability for the terminal to load onto ships LNG stored at the terminal.

Therefore, no new facilities and no modifications of existing facilities will be required in order to provide re-export service.

GPLNG will, however, need to modify its existing operating procedures to address the proposed re-export activities, it said in a statement.

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Rig Hired by Spain’s Repsol Arrives off Cuba

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HAVANA – A deepwater oil rig hired by Spain’s Repsol-YPF for use in Cuba’s Gulf waters has arrived off the island’s coast and will be put into operation shortly.

The Scarabeo-9 platform was about 10 miles off northern Cuba Thursday and could already be seen from the coast.

The rig, built in China and Singapore and initially due to arrive in the summer of 2011, is heading west to an area off the coast of the city of Mariel, an industry official told Efe, adding that exploratory drilling is expected to begin soon.

The platform will be used to determine the crude potential of Cuba’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which is located in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico and estimated to hold up to 9 billion barrels of petroleum in more than a score of commercially significant prospects.

The EEZ covers some 112,000 sq. kilometers (43,240 sq. miles) and is divided into 59 blocks of 2,000 sq. kilometers (772 sq. miles) each, 22 of which have been awarded to foreign companies such as Spain’s Repsol, Venezuela’s PDVSA and PetroVietnam.

Eight onshore blocks also have been awarded to Cuban state oil firm Cupet and five others to foreign companies, according to official figures.

Cuba’s oil and gas output has stabilized over the past five years at a level of 4 million tons of oil equivalent, according to the Basic Industry Ministry.

Last year, several U.S. House Democratic and Republican leaders urged Repsol, which also has leases to drill in U.S. waters of the Gulf of Mexico, to drop plans to explore for oil in Cuban waters and warned the company of possible legal action in the United States.

In a letter sent to Repsol Chairman and CEO Antonio Brufau, 34 House lawmakers said any exploratory drilling the oil company conducts in Cuban waters “will provide direct financial benefit to the Castro dictatorship.”

U.S. officials also have expressed concerns about environmental risks considering the drilling site’s proximity to U.S. soil, just 95 miles from the Florida Keys, although Repsol has pledged to adhere to U.S. regulations and the highest industry standards in its drilling in Cuban territorial waters.

The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard inspected the Scarabeo-9 last week and found it to be in compliance with U.S. and international standards governing deepwater drilling.

BSEE director Michael Bromwich told the House and Senate last year that U.S. authorities had witnessed a spill response exercise carried out at Repsol’s office in Trinidad and that during that simulation Repsol technicians demonstrated their ability to respond successfully to a hypothetical spill.

Concerns about Cuba’s plans to tap its offshore oil reserves have grown in the wake of the devastating 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Cuba is hoping crude discoveries will provide a boost to the communist-ruled island’s ailing economy and make it less dependent on imported oil from close ally Venezuela. EFE

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DOE Releases Reports on Major Potential of Wave and Tidal Energy Offshore USA

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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released two nationwide resource assessments showing that waves and tidal currents off the nation’s coasts could contribute significantly to the United States’ total annual electricity production, further diversify the nation’s energy portfolio, and provide clean, renewable energy to coastal cities and communities.

These new wave and tidal resource assessments, combined with ongoing analyses of the technologies and other resource assessments, show that water power, including conventional hydropower and wave, tidal, and other water power resources, can potentially provide 15% of our nation’s electricity by 2030. The reports represent the most rigorous analysis undertaken to date to accurately define the magnitude and location of America’s ocean energy resources. The information in these resource assessments can help to further develop the country’s significant ocean energy resources, create new industries and new jobs in America, and secure U.S. leadership in an emerging global market.

The United States uses about 4,000 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year. DOE estimates that the maximum theoretical electric generation that could be produced from waves and tidal currents is approximately 1,420 TWh per year, approximately one-third of the nation’s total annual electricity usage. Although not all of the resource potential identified in these assessments can realistically be developed, the results still represent major opportunities for new water power development in the United States, highlighting specific opportunities to expand on the 6% of the nation’s electricity already generated from renewable hydropower resources.

The two reports—”Mapping and Assessment of the United States Ocean Wave Energy Resource” and “Assessment of Energy Production Potential from Tidal Streams in the United States”—calculate the maximum kinetic energy available from waves and tides off U.S. coasts that could be used for future energy production, and which represent largely untapped opportunities for renewable energy development in the United States.

The West Coast, including Alaska and Hawaii, has especially high potential for wave energy development, while significant opportunities for wave energy also exist along the East Coast. Additionally, parts of both the West and East Coasts have strong tides that could be tapped to produce energy.

Earlier this year, DOE announced the availability of its national tidal resource database, which maps the maximum theoretically available energy in the nation’s tidal streams. This database contributed to the “Assessment of Energy Production Potential from Tidal Streams in the United States” report, prepared by Georgia Tech.

The wave energy assessment report, titled “Mapping and Assessment of the United States Ocean Wave Energy Resource,” was prepared by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), with support and data validation from researchers at Virginia Tech and DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The report describes the methods used to produce geospatial data and to map the average annual and monthly significant wave height, wave energy period, mean direction, and wave power density in the coastal United States. NREL incorporated the data into a new marine and hydrokinetic energy section in their U.S. Renewable Resource atlas.

In addition to the wave and tidal resource assessments released , DOE plans to release additional resource assessments for ocean current, ocean thermal gradients, and new hydropower resources in 2012. To support the development of technologies that can tap into these vast water power resources, DOE’s Water Power Program is undertaking a detailed technical and economic assessment of a wide range of water power technologies in order to more accurately predict the opportunities and costs of developing and deploying these innovative technologies. The Program is currently sponsoring over 40 demonstration projects that will advance the commercial readiness of these systems, provide first-of-a-kind, in-water performance data that will validate cost-of-energy predictions, and identify pathways for large cost reductions.

These resource assessments, techno-economic assessments, and technology demonstration projects are critical elements of DOE’s strategy to capture the very real opportunities associated with water power development, and to further define the path to supplying 15% of the nation’s electricity through water power technologies.

DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy invests in clean energy technologies that strengthen the economy, protect the environment, and reduce dependence on foreign oil. DOE’s Water Power Program is paving the way for industry and government to make sound investment and policy decisions about the deployment of renewable water power technologies by quantifying the nation’s theoretically available water power resources.

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