Finley: Dan Gilbert stands up to government goons

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Detroit's own Quicken Loans is the latest target of the Justice Department's shakedown of the nation's lenders.

Justice's goons have been systematically extorting protection money from big banks and mortgage lenders, under the threat of federal fraud lawsuits and prison time for their executives.

The department's modus operandi would be worthy of racketeering charges if carried out by civilian mobsters.

First, the Obama administration whips up a blame-the-banks fervor after the financial collapse. Then, armed with federal fraud statutes adopted after the savings and loan meltdown in the 1980s, it scours the transactions of lenders to find hints of irregularities. It extrapolates from the skimpiest evidence a pattern of widespread abuse, and if needed, frightens insiders into coughing up creative accusations against their employers.

With its "proof" in hand, Justice presents institutions with a choice — pay a large and painful fine to make the investigation go away, or try their luck at a jury trial in an environment in which the words "bankers" and "baby killers" register about the same revulsion.

The nation's six largest banks have all crumbled, choosing to pay $136 billion in fines and admit their "wrongdoing" rather than get their legs broken.

Quicken, owned by Dan Gilbert, has decided not to cower, at least for the moment. Instead of paying protection money, it filed a lawsuit to stop a three-year investigation. Thursday, the government responded by filing charges against Quicken, accusing it of submitting ineligible mortgages for FHA insurance.

In its complaint, Quicken says Justice demanded a multi-billion dollar settlement based on a sampling of just 55 of the 246,000 loans issued. Defects, according to the lawsuit, include miscalculating a borrower's income by $17 and lending another $26 too much. In those meager mistakes, Justice sees systemic fraud.

Trace evidence is all the Obama administration requires to put banks on the rack. To cinch a settlement, Justice adds the threat of criminal charges against individual executives.

Quicken's lawsuit accuses the government of "investigating and pressuring large, high-profile lenders into paying nine- and 10-figure sums and publicly admitting wrongdoing, including conceding that the lenders had made false claims." That's an exellent summary of Justice's racket.

Requiring a public admission of wrongdoing, instead of allowing institutions to settle without acknowledging guilt, as is common practice, leaves open the possibility of future criminal action against executives, assuring that they don't squawk publicly.

Gilbert is a different cat than Justice has crossed on Wall Street. Detroit street tough, he doesn't take to being bullied. Of course, the government has a lot of pressure points it can mash. Gilbert is in the gaming business, a highly regulated industry, and the administration is not above targeting his casinos.

But I hope he hangs in there. This government has gone gangster, and unless someone takes a stand, it won't be just the big bankers who get pinched.