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Foreclosure Victims Aim To Take Over County Courthouses

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Solutions to the ongoing foreclosure crisis are virtually absent from the national political debate, but in Florida, one of the states hardest-hit by the housing crunch, several homeowners who have seen crisis firsthand are running for local office on anti-Wall Street platforms.

Lisa Epstein, a foreclosure victim-turned-activist, has launched a bid to unseat the local Palm Beach County Clerk in Florida, running on the slogan "a wave of change."

She is joined by at least two other anti-foreclosure fraud activists in Florida making runs for county clerk positions, the office in charge of property records. (A fourth dropped out after launching a campaign.)

Epstein will have the backing of one of the state's most popular progressive figures, former Rep. Alan Grayson (D), injecting an unusual amount of energy into a race that is often sleepy and frequently uncontested.

It started at Occupy Palm Beach. Epstein and a friend, Lynn Szymoniak, were briefing the occupiers on robosigning and other methods of foreclosure fraud and discussing ways for them to fight back.

"Why don't you run for office?" one activist asked Szymoniak, who recently won an $18 million settlement as a result of her own foreclosure ordeal with banks. The payout was part of a $25 billion foreclosure fraud settlement struck earlier this year between state and federal governments and the nation's biggest banks -- a deal that went unmentioned by the Republicans who were then campaigning in states like Florida and Nevada, where foreclosures have hit hardest.

Szymoniak sidestepped and pointed to Epstein, who lives in the area. "This is exactly my issue," Epstein said she thought to herself. "The effect of this massive fraud on homeowners, on our community, on our county finances."

Epstein needs roughly $9,300 for the filing fee before she can officially become a candidate, she said, and she has raised almost exactly that.

So far, she said, she's found voters receptive to her message. "The only opposition is from the county Democratic party," she said. "They don't like primaries. Everyone else is ready to listen."

"At my last event, a hardcore Occupy member was sitting next to a hardcore Tea Party member," she said, describing how anger at the banks crosses ideological lines. The Tea Partier, she said, told her he was going to put her bumper sticker "right next to my Allen West bumper sticker," referring to the bomb-throwing Republican congressman from the area.

The primary is August 14th. "I'm very happy to see real progressives running at any position on the ballot, top, middle or bottom," Grayson, who is running again for Congress, told HuffPost. "And Lisa is absolutely right to observe that officials of all kinds have been rubber-stamping papers that deprive thousands of families of their homes. When foreclosure fraud is rampant, then a county clerk can’t afford to be a yes-man. Lisa understands that."

Matt Stoller, a former Grayson aide and an influential online progressive organizer, is advising her on her campaign. "Lisa Epstein is one of the nation's leading forensic investigators of foreclosure fraud and the real estate property records system," he said.

The incumbent clerk, however, says that Epstein was only able to uncover as much fraud as she has as a result of the transparent and meticulous keeping of records.

"One of the reasons my opponent has all the information she has is because of the way I keep my records," Sharon Bock, Palm Beach County's Clerk and Comptroller, told HuffPost. "It not only worked, it worked for Lisa, it worked for Lynn, by allowing them to expose a system that was incorrect. If I had taken an advocacy position -- changed something, sent something back -- they wouldn't have been able to expose it."

Bock praised Epstein's energy. "She sat in my office [researching] for two years," she said. "She knows a lot about foreclosures. A lot."

But while she admires Epstein's passion and agrees with much of her critique, Bock thinks the clerk position is the wrong one for her. "What she and the Occupy people are saying is valid," said Bock. "I think there is a lot wrong with the banks. You'd be deaf, blind and dumb not to see the problem we have between the haves and the have-nots, what the Occupy people are calling the 99 percent ... The problem is the clerk's role is not the right role in which to advocate for these issues."

"The question becomes, do we all become advocates? If we do that, what then is the clerk? Am I a policymaker or am I a keeper of the people's records," she said. "By statutory authority, I am not a policymaker, [I'm] strictly administerial. My role is solely to protect the integrity of the public's records and public's funds. To do that I must remain independent and neutral."

Deb Lilley-Gillis, meanwhile, is making a bid for the Charlotte County clerk's seat, while Matt Gardi of Key West, Fla. is running for Clerk of Courts in Monroe County. Gardi is running partly because of his own bad experience with the foreclosure system. He said that he tried to do a short sale on a condo he owned, but his lender told him a short sale wouldn't work unless he was three months behind on payments, so he stopped making payments. Gardi is now in a foreclosure process that he said seems to bring one phony document and misrepresentation from his lenders after another.

"If a clerk can come in and say the buck stops here, anything coming through can be reviewed for accuracy," then banks will be deterred from committing foreclosure fraud, Gardi said. "In a nutshell, I really think there's been widespread rampant fraud with mortgage securitization."

Other than his own experience, however, Gardi said it's people like Lisa Epstein and foreclosure-focused websites like 4closurefraud.org and foreclosurehamlet.org that have kept him in the loop on foreclosure news.

Gardi, currently an IT director for the state attorney's office, is one of four Republicans seeking the job. He hopes to bring the clerk's office up to speed on electronic filing and to make banks pay filing fees when transferring mortgages, which he estimates would bring the county as much as $2 million in revenue.

Epstein, if elected, would ask her legal team to examine actions and lawsuits being filed by governments against the banks and against Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS), which created space for mortgages to be traded without recording deeds. Bock said she has already looked at those cases and doesn't think they'd be successful.

"I have been cut over 25 percent since 2009. The issue of money is very near and dear," Bock said. "I'm so underfunded I'm barely able to do what I'm legally required to do, so believe me, if a lawsuit would bring in money, i'd jump on it."

Epstein also said she'd call for an audit of all mortgage records. Bock said such an operation would be prohibitively expensive, while Epstein argued it would pay for itself as a result of increased fees -- to which Bock countered that such fees range between $6 and $10.

"Lisa is basically saying she would go through and look at all assignments of mortgages and see if any were improperly signed or perhaps notaries were wrong," said Bock. "It only arises in defense of a foreclosure action. Why would one go ahead and attempt to find all of the improper assignments of mortgages for people who are paying and not in foreclosure? The cost overweighs the reward for having to look at every document. I have hundreds of millions of documents."

To Epstein, the integrity of the records is worth the effort, because disputes are bound to arise. Her campaign, she said, is also an expression of a basic sensibility. "Someone has to start saying: This is fraud," said Epstein.

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