The attorneys general of all 50 states Wednesday announced an investigation into whether sloppiness or deceit led to the latest episode of the national foreclosure drama, further threatening the recovery of the U.S. housing market.
"This is not a silver bullet to keep millions of Americans in their homes," said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who's heading the bipartisan investigation. "This is a chance to right the law and get the process right, a chance to have some extra time ... and maybe a chance to do some modifications."
Statements from Miller and other state investigators said the initial focus will be on whether industry employees -- so-called "robo-signers" -- signed off on thousands of foreclosures every month without reviewing the files as legally required.
"Robo-signing is the one [problem] ... we're most concerned about," Miller told reporters late Wednesday, but he added, "We're not ruling out other issues."
The immediate goals of the investigation appear to be a halt of improper foreclosures and a review the past and present mortgage service practices, investigators said.
"We want this to never happen again," Miller said. "We will try to do this as quickly as possible."
In courts throughout the nation, homeowner attorneys have alleged that lenders forged signatures and improperly notarized documents in the rush to foreclose on homeowners.
"Banks blatantly broke the law, papering the courts with defective documents to railroad consumers into fast, possibly fraudulent foreclosures," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said in a statement. "At the best, banks engaged in careless negligence, at worst, outright fraud."
Such practices might have violated laws against unfair and deceptive trade practices, which could result in civil penalties, according to investigators.
"This is the clearest signal yet to the major mortgage lenders and servicers that they need to take serious measures to fix problems with affidavits," said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, who recently filed the nation's first lawsuit against a mortgage servicer over allegedly fraudulent affidavits.
"What we have seen are not mere technicalities, as some suggest," Cordray said. "Rather, this is about the private property rights of homeowners facing foreclosure and the integrity of our court system, which cannot enter judgments based on fraudulent evidence."
The joint investigation into the practices of the booming mortgage-servicing industry could pressure financial institutions to rewrite a sea of corrupt paperwork.
Previous calls for a nationwide foreclosure moratorium had industry insiders worried but the states stopped short of requesting such a measure.
"The worst thing anybody could do right now is impose a lengthy moratorium on foreclosures, particularly if it results in people not being able to sell properties that have already been foreclosed on," said Rick Sharga, vice president of the real estate data firm RealtyTrac. "Right now, foreclosure properties represent about 30 percent of all home sales, and to take 30 percent of sales out of the housing market at a time when it's already unstable could have pretty disastrous results."
The Obama administration Monday rejected calls for a nationwide moratorium on foreclosures amid growing concerns about the market's recovery.