Last night, I interviewed the man at the center of a new swirling controversy. Stephen Lerner, a veteran union organizer, wants collective bargaining for homeowners that owe money to the big banks. And this week, he was caught on tape talking about a "mortgage strike" against the big banks. He suggested that a large number of homeowners stop paying their mortgage until the banks agree to negotiate and modify loans.
Glenn Beck pounced on the recording. And so did Congress. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican Congressman from Utah, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder saying that Lerner's threats "clearly constitute domestic terrorism", and asked for an investigation.
I interviewed Lerner, to get his side of the story -- his first interview since being attacked by Beck. Lerner talked about the mortgage strike idea, the big banks, the Tea Party and Glenn Beck's attack, and being accused of terrorism.
"Glenn Beck and this group of people are basically shilling for Wall Street"
Here's Lerner on the Tea Party's defense of the big banks:
You know, I can't explain it. Why Glen Beck and this group of people are basically shilling for Wall St. and the big banks, it just makes no sense. So I can't get into their head on why they're doing it. What it feels like is that Wall St., sort of the elites at the top, are just really, really worried that people [will] understand all the things you said and when people understand on top of it that the banks get free money from the Fed -- it was very funny in a number of discussions that I've had, I say to people well if you got a billion dollars in free money and then loaned it out at 3% would you make any money? Everybody said, yeah I'd make money, I'd say, well you're a brilliant banker. So I don't know why they're shilling for the banks, I don't know why they don't want to make markets work. And that's the thing that seems to scare them, you can't have markets when you have Too Big to Fail, you can't have competition when you have Too Big To Fail and we're trying to figure out how to keep people in their homes, how to fix state budgets and how to make the economy work and it's stunning how some people seem more interested in protecting the super rich (who have all our money) than in supporting people who are trying to fix the economy and get people to work.
"We're not going to keep paying you as you said when you got this by stealing"
Here's Lerner, on a "mortgage strike" and homeowners acting like businesspeople:
What you're getting at is I think the thing that is so important to realize, that's the deal the bank makes when they loan you money: if you can't pay it back or if you don't pay it back they get the house. What I think is so interesting about this is -- I don't know if you remember I think it's the Mortgage Bankers Association after giving speeches on the sanctity of never walking away walked away from their own building and gave the keys back. There's this very double standard I think is what's really stirring people up more and more in the country. Everybody has sacrificed, everybody has taken a hit and the only people that don't want to share in the sacrifice are the people that got us in the mess and that's why a lot of people are saying individually I may not have a lot of power but if we start to act together we can try to negotiate with Wall St. and the banks and saying we need a better deal, not just for me individually but for the country so we can get the economy working again.
"People start throwing out words like terrorism and try to intimidate people into not speaking.
Lerner, on being accused of terrorism by Congressman Jason Chaffetz:
It really shows that something is off when people talking about doing something that's completely legal, that mirrors exactly how business operate that people start throwing out words like terrorism and trying to intimidate people into not speaking. The only thing I can figure on this -- you know you started off by talking about how much money the banks have and their influence and their relationship with government -- is that there is a whole set of people that just seem to say, I have to defend the banks and Wall St. no matter what happens. It's an attempt to sort of scare people and scare regular people and scare homeowners and scare people who are trying to figure out how to put their economic lives back together, to scare them out of standing up. I don't think it would work but it's really a disappointment that people go into that kind of sensationalism instead of saying let's really fix the problem here and keep people in their homes and get the economy working and lets really say we need to address Too Big to Fail instead of trying to intimidate folks that think the economy is a mess because of the banks.
Lerner is a former director of the Service Employees International Union's banking and finance campaign. He created the website WheresTheNote.com, a website for homeowners to research which financial institution actually holds their mortgage note after Wall Street banks securitized, repackaged, and sold American's mortgages en masse.