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Originally published November 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 3, 2008 at 12:16 PM

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WaMu loan underwriter recalls pressure

As a senior mortgage underwriter, Keysha Cooper was proud of her ability to detect fraud and other problems in a loan application. But as a senior mortgage underwriter at Washington Mutual during the late, great mortgage boom, Cooper says she found herself in a vise.

The New York Times

As a senior mortgage underwriter, Keysha Cooper was proud of her ability to detect fraud and other problems in a loan application. She says a decade of vetting mortgage documents had taught her plenty.

But as a senior mortgage underwriter at Washington Mutual during the late, great mortgage boom, Cooper says she found herself in a vise. Brokers squeezed her from one side, superiors from the other, and both pressured her to approve loans, she says.

"At WaMu it wasn't about the quality of the loans; it was about the numbers," Cooper says.

"They didn't care if we were giving loans to people that didn't qualify. Instead, it was how many loans did you guys close and fund?"

Cooper, 35, laid off a year ago, is still jobless. She came forward to discuss her experiences to help investors recover money from WaMu executives.

She is one of 89 employees whose stories fill a voluminous complaint filed against WaMu officers by the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan board, a big shareholder. Topping the list of defendants is Kerry Killinger, the WaMu CEO ousted in mid-September.

Biggest bank failure

The Seattle thrift was seized by federal regulators in late September, the biggest bank failure in the nation's history. It was sold to JPMorgan Chase for $1.9 billion.

The shareholder complaint depicts WaMu's mortgage-lending operation as a boiler room where volume was paramount and questionable loans were pushed through because they were more profitable.

When underwriters refused to approve dubious loans, they were punished, Cooper says.

She started at WaMu in 2003 and lasted 3-½ years. She says she was allowed to do her job but in February 2007, WaMu executives told employees they were not making enough loans and had to get their numbers up.

"They started giving loan officers free trips if they closed so many loans, fly them to Hawaii for a month," Cooper recalls. "One of my account reps went to Jamaica for a month because he closed $3.5 million in loans that month."

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Although Cooper couldn't see it, the wheels were already coming off the subprime bus.

"If a loan came from a top loan officer, they didn't care what the situation was, you had to make that loan work," she says. "You were like a bad person if you declined a loan."

One loan file had so many discrepancies that Cooper was certain it involved mortgage fraud. She turned the loan down, she says, only to be scolded by her supervisor.

"She told me, 'This broker has closed over $1 million with us and there is no reason you cannot make this loan work,' " Cooper says. "I explained to her the loan was not good at all, but she said I had to sign it."

The argument did not end there. Cooper says her immediate boss complained to the team manager about the loan rejection and asked that Cooper be "written up," with a formal letter of complaint placed in her personnel file.

Cooper says the team manager told her to "restructure" the loan to make it work. "I said, how can you restructure fraud? This is a fraudulent loan," she recalls.

Cooper says that her bosses placed her on probation for 30 days for refusing to approve the loan and that her team manager signed off on the loan.

Four months later, the loan was in default, she says. The borrower had not made a single payment. "They tried to hang it on me," Cooper says, "but I said, 'No, I put in the system that I am not approving this loan.' "

Brokers often dangled gifts to approve loans, she says. One offered to pay $900 to send her son to football summer camp if she would approve a loan declined by a host of other lenders.

"I told him no and not to disrespect me like that again," Cooper says.

Hidden fees meant brokers could easily make between $20,000 and $40,000 on a $500,000 loan, Cooper says.

"WaMu was allowing brokers to get 6 to 8 percent off one loan," she says.

"If I had a loan where the borrower was already tight and then I saw the broker is getting $10,000 or $20,000, I would cut their fees back. They would get so upset with me."

Cooper says loans she turned down were often approved by her superiors. One in particular came back to haunt WaMu.

Strange discrepancy

Vetting a loan one day, Cooper says she became suspicious when a photograph of the house showed one street address while documents deeper in the file showed a different address. She contacted the appraiser, who said he must have erred and that he would send her the correct documents.

"So then he sent me an appraisal with a picture of the same house but this time with the right number on it," Cooper recalls. "I looked the address up in our system and could not find it. I called the appraiser and said, 'Please investigate.' "

The appraiser came back, reporting that a visit to the California property had found everything in order and in agreement with the original appraisal. "I was so for sure that it was fraud I wanted to get on an airplane," Cooper says.

The $800,000 loan was approved, but not by Cooper. Six months later, it defaulted, she says. "When they went to foreclose on the house, they found it was an empty lot," she recalls. "I remember clear as day this manager comes over to me and asks, 'Do you remember this loan?' I knew just what she was talking about."

Battle fatigue

Rejecting loan after loan, however, gave her battle fatigue. "The more you fight, the more you get in trouble," she says. She was written up three or four times at WaMu.

After WaMu's mortgage-lending unit laid her off, she applied for work in its retail-banking division but was turned down.

Cooper's biggest regret, she says, is that she did not reject more loans. "I swear 60 percent of the loans I approved I was made to," she says. "If I could get everyone's name, I would write them apology letters."

Chad Johnson, a partner at Bernstein, Litowitz Berger & Grossmann, is lead counsel for shareholders in the suit. He said: "Killinger pocketed tens of millions of dollars from WaMu, while investors were left with worthless stock."

With WaMu gone, Johnson added, "it is all the more important that Killinger and his co-defendants are held accountable."

The lawyer representing WaMu and Killinger did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Cooper hopes to return to the mortgage business soon. "I loved underwriting because it's about being able to put a person in their dream home," she says. "But messing these borrowers around was wrong."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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