Foreclosure story is what papers do best

Public Editor

June 17, 2007|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Several recent Sun articles demonstrate the positive power of newspapers. Just one day after a shocking Page One story of financial abuse that left a Columbia man bankrupt and his family homeless, government officials promised in another front-page article to close loopholes in Maryland's foreclosure process that allowed this outrage to occur .

The first article, "Out of townhouse, but not by choice," written by Larry Carson, described how an immigrant from Ghana's routine home refinancing process turned into a nightmare through no fault of his own. In essence, Carson found that Kwaku Atta Poku, who now is an American citizen and who has a small taxicab business, had lost his home to foreclosure, had lost much of his business, had his credit ruined and is now deeply in debt because of errors by financial institutions - errors those institutions don't deny.

Most outrageous was that Atta Poku, who never missed a mortgage payment, lost everything because a refinancing settlement check was lost and he therefore could not prove in court that the debt had been paid. His appeal of the foreclosure decision was denied in Howard County Circuit Court on Aug. 10, 2006. The Atta Poku family was evicted on Aug. 28, 2006. Atta Poku's last appeal before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals was denied last month.

His case is the most egregious recent example of how Maryland's laws, which allow the quickest foreclosures in nation, can leave homeowners with little time and recourse to fight for their homes. Carson reported that it was slightly more than five weeks between the date Atta Poku was notified of the pending foreclosure and the time his house was put up for sale.

For many readers, especially those who were homeowners, Carson's article and his follow-up with colleague Andrew Green hit a nerve.

From Pat Clements: "Once again, a masterpiece of reporting rips the heart out of me. Once again, I am convinced that the `business friendly' state of Maryland is severely dysfunctional. With flipping, ground rents, and now zero accountability within the title business - which causes Maryland to have perhaps the highest closing costs in the nation - is there no end to the greed and corruption? I can only hope that this story gets passed on to the governor, the attorney general, and every member of the state legislature."

Rajkanwar Bar said: "I was looking for tax sale properties and came across your story about Mr. Atta Poku and how he lost his house. It is an outrage how the mortgage companies and even the courts could not see the truth, but are hung up on technicalities. He seems like a hard-working guy whose fault is that he was not familiar with refinancing, despite having a lawyer to handle the case. Most home buyers do not know all that goes on behind the scenes in refinancing and getting a mortgage. All they are concerned with is getting a lower interest rate. This is a grave injustice to Mr. Atta Poku by the lawmakers and the courts."

Newspapers regularly get calls and e-mails from readers who think they have been wronged by a government agency or a business, and it can be difficult and time-consuming to verify the details, let alone determine who is at fault. The majority of these communications do not result in stories. The challenge for reporters and editors is determining what stories should be followed.

Carson, a veteran reporter with more than 30 years of experience at The Sun, covers Howard County government and politics. In 1999 and 2000, while reporting stories on a proposed taxi fare increase in the county, he met and interviewed Atta Poku. Carson thought Atta Poku's efforts to establish a cab business made for an interesting human-interest story, and in June 2000 he wrote an article headlined "Local cabby has driving ambition."

More than six years later, Atta Poku called Carson and told him about the circumstances of the foreclosure of his townhouse and his pending eviction. Carson passed Atta Poku's information to another Howard County reporter, who had written about foreclosures. When that reporter left the newspaper earlier this year , Carson took over the reporting and writing of the story.

What Carson discovered about Atta Poku's situation and Maryland's foreclosure laws was truly disturbing - and newsworthy. Carson's diligent reporting penetrated the financial fog of this case and helped readers understand its complexities.

It also triggered action. Last Thursday, The Sun's front-page carried a lead article, "Home Loan Relief Sought," reporting that Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration was preparing a substantial plan aimed at reducing the risk of Marylanders losing their homes to quick foreclosure. O'Malley is also creating a task force to study the issue.

Carson's reporting is making a big difference. That is what reporters live for.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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