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Foreclosure firm's party mocks homeowners

Photos from a company Halloween bash spark debate on workplace culture and compassion for people who have lost their homes.

By MSN Money Partner Nov 1, 2011 9:41AM

This post comes from Marilyn Lewis at MSN Money.


The mortgage mess is at the center of an Internet scandal that has netizens howling.


New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera published an expose -- "What the costumes reveal" -- of photos that reportedly depict costumes at a Halloween party last year at New York state's biggest foreclosure law firm.


What's so outrageous about that? The bash, Nocera says, was a chance for some staff members to make fun of the troubled homeowners whom they make their living evicting.


Included are six photos that Nocera says were given to him by a former staff member of Buffalo area law firm Steven J. Baum P.C.


Some of the pictures Nocera saw show women -- reportedly Baum staffers -- dressed up as evicted homeowners protesting their foreclosures. One holds a sign reading, "3rd party squatter. I lost my home and I was never served," presumably meaning that she wasn't served legal papers. Her companion grasps a bottle in a brown paper bag.


Satirizing evicted homeowners

Other pictures satirize homeless camps, a foreclosure sale, a row of "foreclosed homes." Nocera writes:

My source told me that not every Baum department used the party to make fun of the troubled homeowners they made their living suing. But some clearly did. The adjective she'd used when she sent them to me -- "appalling" -- struck me as exactly right.

The 39-year-old firm's website says it specializes in "loss mitigation" efforts, including foreclosure, foreclosure alternatives, evictions and lawsuits. The site describes company charitable activities and efforts to keep homeowners in their homes.


Nocera describes Baum as New York's largest foreclosure mill firm, "meaning it represents banks and mortgage servicers as they attempt to foreclose on homeowners and evict them from their homes."

Post continues below.

State and federal government investigations have probed some of Baum's foreclosure tactics, Nocera writes. Homeowner advocate firms accuse it of failing to file documents required for mortgage modifications.

It (Baum) recently agreed to pay $2 million (.pdf file) to resolve an investigation by the Department of Justice into whether the firm had "filed misleading pleadings, affidavits, and mortgage assignments in the state and federal courts in New York." (In the press release announcing the settlement, Baum acknowledged only that "it occasionally made inadvertent errors.")

"There is this really cavalier attitude," Nocera says the source told him. "It doesn't matter that people are going to lose their homes."


Asked for comment, a Baum spokesman sent the Times a statement:

 "It has been suggested that some employees dress in ... attire that mocks or attempts to belittle the plight of those who have lost their homes," the statement read. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Later, though, the company apologized, says The Buffalo News:

The head of the firm, Steven J. Baum, said in a statement to The Buffalo News on Saturday that the photos "obviously were in poor taste."
"On behalf of the firm, I sincerely apologize for what happened last year at our Halloween party," he said.

Not everyone's "appalled"

Not everyone is offended, of course. The Ethics Alarms blog takes issue with the complaints:

Witch costumes show "an appalling lack of compassion" for the victims of the Salem witch trials. Ghosts show disrespect for the dead. Zombies might be taken the wrong way by the handicapped or mentally challenged. PETA members will say that dressing like Shamu celebrates slavery. Halloween costumes among friends and colleagues should be exempt from charges of offensiveness by anyone not invited to the party.

Above The Law charges political correctness, too:

I thought the rule for Halloween costumes was "don't dress like Hitler." But apparently you are also supposed to wear costumes that are nice and compassionate -- or else you might be smacked around in the New York Times.

Times reader "FaithK" takes issue with the Times singling out the women in the photos:

…  let us assume they are not strategic decision-makers but rather, perhaps, glued to a headset in a cubicle trudging their way through distasteful work day after day; and, in accordance with the culture around them (and to be honest, most corporate/bureaucratic cultures) self-aggrandizing in their workaday world by assuming themselves somehow better than the disembodied sufferers on the other end of the phone.

"Paper Pusher" writes that she used to work for the Baum firm for $10 an hour to supplement her full-time work in another field.

Sure, there were some cases that I looked at and could feel bad about, but when the majority of the mortgages I saw were over $300,000.00, or even 3 million, it's hard to feel bad for the mortgagor. Especially when I can't even afford to *think* about buying my own house.

Nocera -- who, incidentally, apologized to readers in August for a column comparing Tea Party members to terrorists -- inspired 175 reader responses … and counting. "Outrageous, cruel, obscene, despicable" writes one. "Horrible, horrible people," writes another.


Says reader "Doug Terry":

The contempt of the employees of the Baum law firm probably reflects a desire to distance themselves from what they are doing and to make it appear that it is always the mortgage holder who is at fault. If a lot of money is being made in this process, and the employee is getting a good slice of it, then there is a powerful incentive to bend one's opinions and morality for the firm.

More on MSN Money:

Nov 1, 2011 2:53PM
I see we have nothing better to do than blame innocents yet again for the largely self imposed problems in this country.  Seriously, who the hell cares?  People can't leave their homes anymore without having to think about how they're going to inadvertently offend someone else.  Give it a rest already... People can dress up how they want, it's Halloween...let's grow up, assume some personal responsibility, and get on with our lives already!
Nov 1, 2011 10:33PM
If you think people who work at an unemployment office, food stamp program office, wick office, and other entities that have to deal with the public on a daily basis don't get irritated by many of the people they deal with you are mistaken. Wearing costumes and making fun of some of the people they have to deal with is a way of letting off steam among people who understand your frustration and was never meant to go public.
Nov 2, 2011 10:54AM
Wow. Reading some of your comments leads me to believe there really is very little hope. What absolute horrors of human beings some of you are.
Nov 1, 2011 4:16PM
20 million Americans underwater on their mortgages due to criminal fraud committed by the mortgage industry.

That is a financial Holocaust, and these soulless Nazis laughing over the corpses of the victims should be sent to the gallows.

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