Suit Alleges Trusted Blacks Drew Minorities to High-Rate Loans

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Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 2:39 pm
Tavis Smiley interviews Barack Obama in October 2007 (YouTube: BarackObamadotcom)

Tavis Smiley interviews Barack Obama in October 2007 (YouTube: BarackObamadotcom)

As the housing market began booming in the mid-2000s, Wells Fargo & Co. teamed up with prominent African American commentator and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and financial author Kelvin Boston, the host of “Moneywise,” a multicultural financial affairs show, to host something called “Wealth Building” seminars in black neighborhoods.

Smiley was the keynote speaker, and the big draw, according to Boston and Keith Corbett, executive vice president of the Center for Responsible Lending, who attended two of the seminars. Smiley would charge up the audience — and rattle the Wells Fargo executives in attendance — by launching into a story about how he hated banks, and how they used to refuse to lend him money for his real estate projects in Compton, Calif., and elsewhere. After Hurricane Katrina, Smiley also emphasized the importance of building assets and wealth, saying those who had done so were able to leave New Orleans, while people with nothing had to stay behind, Boston said.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“My spiel was the financial planning process, how you want to be able to save and invest for the future, and to have a plan of action,” Boston said. “Then Tavis talked about his experiences with the banks, and how people should be thinking about some real estate.”

The seminars in some cities drew standing room only crowds, with numerous Wells Fargo representatives on hand, seated at carrels to meet one-on-one with potential borrowers who lined up after the speeches, which were usually held in hotels. The free, day-long events were heavily advertised in the black media, and launched in eight cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Richmond, Va., and San Francisco.

But what appeared on the surface as a way to help black borrowers build wealth was actually just the opposite, according to a little-noticed explanation of the “Wealth Building” seminar strategy, contained in a lawsuit recently filed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Wells’ plan for the seminars all along was to target black borrowers for higher-cost subprime mortgages, not for wealth-building, the suit charged. And the seminars were a part of the bank’s overall illegal and discriminatory practice of steering black and Hispanic borrowers into riskier and more expensive loans, the suit said.

“According to a former Wells Fargo Home Mortgage employee, one of these ‘Wealth Building’ seminars held in Maryland was planned for an audience that would be virtually all African American,” the suit said. “The plan for the seminar was for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage employees to talk about subprime mortgages, although they were directed by Wells Fargo Home Mortgage to use the term ‘alternative lending’ when marketing these products.”

The former employee, who is white, was scheduled to speak at the seminar, but was told by a manager that she was “too white,” and that only black employees could make presentations, the suit said.

Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders and a recipient of $25 billion in government bailout money, has denied all the charges in the Illinois suit, as well as other allegations of unfair lending. The bank did not respond to requests for comment on the seminars. Smiley, an author and advocate who hosts the late night talk show, “Tavis Smiley,” and who organizes the State of the Black Union symposiums each year, also declined comment.

Corbett pointed out that Wells’ outreach to the minority community through the seminars wasn’t unusual. Lenders sponsoring financial literacy sessions, holding wealth building seminars, or contributing to local minority advocacy organizations, became a common marketing strategy as the subprime market grew. Some of the efforts were genuine, aimed at finding new customers in minority neighborhoods once deprived of credit. But sometimes they were used instead as a cover to push predatory loans, Corbett said.

“The wealth building seminars are certainly needed,” Corbett said. “But, if, in fact, Wells was selling bad products out of them, it was totally wrong.”

Boston, for his part, described himself as the small player in the seminars, giving an opening talk before Smiley went on. Boston said he spoke in general terms about the need to save money and to invest. Neither he nor Smiley ever mentioned or discussed subprime loans, he said.

“Basically we were just speakers for hire,” Boston said. “We didn’t have any role or any control over what else happened. The main point is that we were not involved in any of their discussions or in anything they sold.”

Corbett said that after the speakers finished, bank employees and other financial experts were offering credit checks, real estate counseling, and other kinds of assistance. Corbett said he also believes some employees were signing up people for loan pre-approvals, on the spot, though he couldn’t be sure of what kind of loans they were. He said attendees lined up to talk to the Wells employees in both events. “If they weren’t actually selling loans, they were setting up borrowers for the kill,”  Corbett said.

Once their speeches were over, however, Boston said he and Smiley  had nothing to do with the workshops and counseling. He said he and Smiley together did about 15 seminars over a period of about two years. He declined to comment on how much he or Smiley were paid.

In 2005, before the subprime crisis, Boston said, the main worry in the black community over mortgage lending was the banks were lagging behind in their lending to minority neighborhoods. He said expressed his concerns about this to Wells Fargo. Smiley, he said, also later raised questions about subprime lending tactics with the bank. “Tavis definitely had some dealings with them on this issue,” Boston said.

Nonetheless, in hindsight and with the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, Boston said he has second thoughts about participating in the seminars.

“Were we probably used? We probably were,” he said. “If I had the chance to do it over again, would I do it in a different manner? Probably.”

“You look back now and you feel for the homeowner who could have qualified for a better mortgage and got the costly type of mortgage. That concerns me a lot, not just for Wells Fargo, but for everybody out there, Citigroup, Countrywide … they were all doing the same events.”

But at the time, Boston said, having a major bank doing outreach in the black community was considered an encouraging development, after so many years of redlining and restricted access to credit. “We all thought at the time that we were doing a positive thing,” he said.

Boston said he quit doing the seminars after his contract ended two years ago. Smiley, he said, continued to work with Wells Fargo, particularly on his annual State of the Black Union symposiums. On his Website, Smiley recently posted a statement regarding Wells Fargo that said, “in this economic climate, we continue to be reminded every day that there is no perfect company.”

Smiley said in the statement that his relationship with Wells began in 2005, as part of the bank’s  “commitment to increase financial literacy in the African American community.” He said that “the partnership with Wells Fargo focused on building personal wealth, which for most Americans begins with buying a house.”

According to the statement, Smiley also has had partnerships with other companies, but has never served as a spokesperson or representative for any of them, including Wells Fargo. The statement also said Wells Fargo will no longer be one of the sponsors of his Black State of the Union event in 2010, although the bank sponsored the event as recently as last spring.

“Given the fact that Wells Fargo has been an industry leader, they have partnered with many African American and Latino national civil rights organizations on various community initiatives,” the statement said.

The Illinois lawsuit against Wells is one of many such actions winding their way through the court system around the country, offering more details of alleged discriminatory tactics by lenders during the height of the subprime boom. As TWI reported last week, housing advocates call these lawsuits the “smoking guns” of the housing crisis, providing what they see as proof that lenders deliberately targeted minorities for high-rate and risky subprime mortgages, while white borrowers with similar incomes and credit scores received lower-cost loans.

In a city of Baltimore lawsuit against Wells, former employees charged that Wells Fargo loan officers referred to minority borrowers as “mud people” and called subprime mortgages “ghetto loans.” But some prominent black bloggers find the “wealth building” seminars just as egregious, and question why Smiley, Boston, and anyone else who participated in them hasn’t been called on further to account for their actions.

“If Tavis Smiley was white, Wells Fargo and ‘Ghetto Loans’ would be front page news,” wrote Genma Stringer Holmes, a Nashville, Tenn., business owner and blogger who has blasted out several posts on the seminars.

Holmes said Smiley should speak out more against discriminatory subprime lending practices – but he hasn’t been forced to, because the black media has been silent on the issue, she said. The scandal that remains is that the ads and seminars targeted the most vulnerable members of black community, according to Holmes. “People who follow Tavis will follow him off a cliff,” Holmes said.

Boston said he still does seminars and presentations pushing wealth building, but he focuses on avoiding foreclosures and helping with loan modifications. He recently wrapped up work on an upcoming show on helping homeowners facing foreclosures, he said.

This story has been updated for clarity.

You can follow TWI on Twitter and Facebook.

Comments

103 Comments

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smcleod420
Comment posted September 17, 2009 @ 11:06 pm

What creeps. Boston says they were just “speakers for hire” and they had “no control” over what went on there. Well, that can't be true because they could have said “NO”.


brucedixon
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 3:36 am

That's our Tavis. Or their Tavis. Whatever.

Mr. Smiley is not a journalist or reporter, he has always been a marketer, a man whose job it is to assemble large black audiences for the benefit of his sponsors, among the most prominent of whom have been Wal-Mart and McDonalds, two of the largest and most notorious low-wage employers in the nation.

Tavis is part of the same old black misleadership class which has no clue how to address gentrification, the mass incarceration of black people, the unjust and illegal wars or much of any other problem. All they know is how to get paid. His excuse about there being “no perfect companies” is par for that course, as it absolves him of any and every repsonsibility to advocate responsible corporate behavior. But of course that might interfere with sponsorships.

No surprises here. Good catch, too.


mehitabel
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 4:49 am

I worked as a foreclosure counselor through a HUD funded program and it seemed to me that loan modifications were easier to negotiate with lenders in more typically white zip codes than in minority zip codes. I wonder if banks are “red lining” their loan modifications?


lamonth
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 6:57 am

ole tavis smiley. he never impressed me as someone who knew what he was talking about in the first place. i always looked at him as being in the right place at the right time – listen to a few of his interviews with politicians and policy makers and you will understand


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false1
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

Not surprising, and how many years will it take to realize that our illustrious Commander-in-Chief is selling the same bill of goods? The more we try to be mainstream the more we get used. The irony is that it's the blacks with “middle class values” of home and family that bare the brunt of the pain.


tony606
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

How ironic. Smiley openly expressed his dis-trust of Obama during his presidential run and now it turns out people shouldn't have trusted him.


GTFOOH
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

Where you at, Tavis?


jjcomet
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

Quelle suprise! A prominent media figure checking his values at the door to make a few shekels. Sorry, folks, but I look on virtually all significant media personalities, including Tavis Smiley, as raw opportunists whose job is to make themselves appear to be looking out for the common people while working with their corporate sponsors to take every last dime possible out of our pockets. Look at the sorry state of American journalism, where facts are sacrificed for “controversy” even where none exists, and where the health of the American economy is synonymous with the profit margins of large corporations. Smiley is one more genial rich phony trying to win your confidence by pretending to be just an average guy. As long as you can say that “the people who follow Tavis (or insert name of any other public figure) will follow him off a cliff,” there will be people duped into acting against their best interests to serve the interests of their guru.


Tony
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

Black People,
Spend your money with black people and build a community.

Check out http://www.werbeautiful.com


Emma Turner
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

Tavis Smiley has always been sketchy when it comes to his committments. Check out his relationship with Texas Southern University in Houston, TX. He committed to an endowment to the university which in turn named something after him and after the school honored their committment, Smiley never came through with his end of the deal. And this is the man who had the gall to want everyone to specifically hold President Obama accountable via his eternally mentioned and hawked book on Accountability. I say throw the book at him! It's about time he gets notariety for his bs. Oh and by the way, I am a Black woman so this is not any far-left conservative opinion. I'm a very liberal and progressive registered Democrat and I have no respect for Mr. Smiley.


geodiego
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

FUBU = FUBAR


claudet7
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

I TOTALLY agree!


blaqgem
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

Travis Smiley your words of accountability will bite you in your face…you are the worst. I hope they make you the fall guy, from day one I felt you were a creep


blaqgem
Comment posted September 18, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

Since when does Big Corporations want to help the African American Community to financial freedom and Smiley was in on the scam… look down Travis.


GHardy
Comment posted September 19, 2009 @ 2:49 am

I never trusted Tavis Smiley. I also felt he was just a marketer, helping himself ONLY! I always felt that he was interested in being in the spotlight. Tavis doesn't have SUBSTANCE! When he disrespected OBAMA I knew for sure his program lacked substance and real concern for African Americans. Tavis doesn't do anything but gather African-Americans and have a pity party. I'm not surprised at all by his actions. I'm glad they have come to light.


GDSAVTHQN
Comment posted September 19, 2009 @ 3:37 am

I think anyone who listens to any of the Black radio programs can not be unaware of the disconnect between the “talk” and the “walk”.
Those show's sponsors are very often the worst preditors you can imagine. Dosen't seem to be any standard for saying no to a dollar in that media.


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sangellone
Comment posted September 20, 2009 @ 1:53 am

Let me see here. Tavis and Wells Fargo are alleged to have begun this nefarious plot in the year 2000 and, one paragraph later, it is 2005 and Hurricane Katrina! Come on! This is just more noxious race hustling.

A button could be pushed in Washington, D.C. that would show exactly the racial composition of loan defaults yet it has not been pushed. Had blacks been denied credit during the boom years we could have expected that very same button to have been pushed to show the injustice of banks in denying credit to 'minorities' to partake of the economic 'explosion' The very fact that that 'button' has not been pushed, despite many local exposes that clearly show that it has been, disproportionately, 'minority' communities whose loan defaults have been responsible
for the problem ought to clue the race hustlers that this is the wrong road to go down.


ddshort777
Comment posted September 20, 2009 @ 5:41 am

My sister was a student at Texas Southern when Mr. Smiley made a 10 year pledge to fund the communications school, but The president of Texas Southern at the time, Priscilla Slade was later found to have used monies inappropriately, and after an investigation into her actions she was subsequently charged for misusing monies from the university–she then pleaded NO CONTEST, and it later came out that she spent some $127,000 on personal home furnishings–so you have to figure Ms. Slade had to have gotten that money FROM the school and where did the school get that money from? DONORS like Smiley and alumni, so I feel that If I'm Mr. Smiley or any donor who donated to TSU and found out the president of the university had done what she'd dne, I'd stop my pledge to the university also after the situation with Ms. Slade came to light. Now I'm not sure what PART Mr. Smiley had in the Wells Fargo situation–or if he's at fault for doing these seminars without checking into WHO was doing WHAT as it related to this lending mess in the African-American community. However, as far as Mr. Smiley's commitment to TSU goes, he has I believe agreed to resume pledge payments–to the University. But again, I would have ALSO stopped pledge payments to the university if I had found out about what Ms. Slade had been accused of, which she DID do.


christastiessen
Comment posted September 20, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

When will someone mention the “home equity” loans that were relentlessly pushed on the people who now were “home owners”! Not only did these “adjustable” interest rates sink a lot of people with mortgage payments that they could no longer afford, but now millions of people had also taken a loan against the already inflated price of their homes, at the urging of these same mortgage companies that sold them the “alternative” financing in the first place. Who in their right mind is going to pay off a mortgage where not only is the mortgage now for twice what the home is worth now, but also add to it the amount of the “home equity” loan, which is probably up to another $100,000, and you have a recipe for not before experienced bankruptcy filings. And why not, the banks got bailed out, not the mortgage holders. The feeling is “screw the banks, they screwed us good”. 7 years is all that is needed to discharge most bad debts, and then be able to start fresh and probably be mortgageable again!! Better than struggling to pay off an impossible burden and live with ruined credit, which is what happens after missing just one mortgage payment. Take that Wells Fargo, Bank of America, SunTrust, etc…


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mrpj
Comment posted September 21, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

Has anyone contacted Tavis for a comment?
If this is true I am highly disappointed.


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mcgeecarl
Comment posted September 21, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

It seems as though the chickens are coming home to roost–tavis.


barbara2
Comment posted September 22, 2009 @ 1:46 am

Once again, with Knowledge comes Power. But it is only through understanding and application that it will work for us. The real deal when the housing intiative was born for us the become Homeowners the powers that be were already designing a product and plan to implement on our happy assess. The tempter came were distracted, the tempter came and we fell for whatever they said. Now it time to clean up. Who has the solution? Its solution time.


jamiegumm
Comment posted September 22, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

Smily is far from stupid. I'm surprised so many here are willing to give him a pass: he's a marketer, a donor, whatever! ! ! He knew what the product was. If he didn't, he should have! Especially since he is aware of his stature and influence in the Black community. To not have known, would have been derelict. So, the short answer, I say he's as guilty as anyone else. He doesn't get my pass because he's Black. I didn't give it to O.J., and I don't give it to him!


bigpapi
Comment posted September 22, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

Black radio and its pimpish hosts were addicted to the ad revenue from sub-prime lenders. They lead the ignorant masses of African Americans to the gas chambers of financial ruin. Some loans are better off not being made and home ownership is definately not for everyone.


Nardwilly
Comment posted September 22, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

Nobody knew the mortgage crisis was coming until it hit. The whole society participated in the game, whites, blacks, rich, poor, male, female, everybody. Some lost more than others. Tavis and Boston are not responsible because they could not see the failure coming. The banks did not loan the money because they thought the would get the house. They loaned the money for the payment. They had the same efforts for loans in non minority communities.

I am no fan of Tavis. He is a self promoter. But, he does promote positive behavior in the community. S___ happens


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Comment posted September 23, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

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Karl Gibson
Comment posted September 24, 2009 @ 2:01 am

Extremely interesting article. I agree with many of the comments here that reference (paraphrasing here) that hindsight is 20/20. It's extremely unfortunate to me, first and foremost, that Wells Fargo- if the internal memos are true- were so base and disgusting toward the African-American market. That needs to be put on mega-blast. As for Mr. Smiley, I have worked with him in the past and would like to think that, like all media brands (who are dependent on sponsors and advertisers), he didn't know the extent of this scam. That's giving the benefit of the doubt i.e. innocent until proven guilty. I know that we must do our homework in this industry but I don't know to what extent anyone, even with deep research, could have known the insidious nature of the bank's intent. It's a story I'm glad to see being covered but it's still coming to light and I think Mr. Boston's statements are honest and indicative of being blindsided by what couldn't necessarily have been known at the time. I can't afford a house and have seen just in California what happens when you get loans for a home that turned out to be too good to be true. At this rate, I'll keep my apartment! Hope this gets further straightened out.


millgrist
Comment posted September 25, 2009 @ 2:00 am

if they're bringing the “marks” into the room with their reputations, the speakers are not innocent.

what is unfortunate is how widespread the practice of offering misleading seminars is in the financial services industry. how wealthy do you have to be to get straight advice? oh, that's right, there's that Bernie Madoff fella …. who screwed some of the smartest and richest and most successful people around. I guess everybody is a mark these days.


millgrist
Comment posted September 25, 2009 @ 2:05 am

not sure that mortgage debt nonrepayment problems are as easy to be rid of as you suggest


Top Black News Headlines – September 18, 2009
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atlantic
Comment posted September 28, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

The Center for Responsible Lending is one to talk! They are just as much a mouthpiece in the defrauding of black communities as Tavis Smiley might have been. The CRL was founded by World Savings owner Herbert Sandler. Tavis may have encouraged folks to buy homes, but World Savings wrote them the loans, knowing they could not afford them. It’s typical that now World Savings is using its puppet CRL to make another prominent black man into a fall guy.


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