Florida banking regulator holds onto his job

Jul 30, 2008

St. Petersburg Times--July 30, 2008

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief

TALLAHASSEE — Fighting to salvage his job and reputation, Florida’s top banking regulator criticized the media Tuesday for a "rush to judgment" over reports that his agency issued mortgage broker licenses to felons.

Don Saxon’s appearance before Gov. Charlie Crist and three Cabinet members was the first since the Miami Herald reported last week that more than 10,000 people with criminal histories had worked in the mortgage industry between 2000 and 2007.

Saxon, commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, was given two weeks to come up with a detailed plan to tighten procedures, while the inspector generals for the governor and three Cabinet members review his operations.

"If we’ve made any mistakes, they were honest mistakes," Saxon said. "We do not have a systemic problem of licensing felons."

Saxon also noted that many of the 10,000 people in the Herald report included loan originators who are not licensed by the state. The paper reported, however, that more than 4,000 people did obtain mortgage broker licenses during that period.

Among the reforms Saxon said he will implement are a seven-year moratorium on issuing broker licenses to felons, a permanent denial to anyone convicted of crimes of fraud, dishonesty, breach of trust or money laundering, and a lifetime ban on anyone whose license has been revoked.

He also will assign his inspector general to audit the agency’s procedures, "to be sure we are making the right choices."

During a sometimes tense, hour- long discussion, Crist said "my confidence is shaken," but no effort was made to fire Saxon, who has generally enjoyed favorable reviews in a 33-year career in government. Only Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink continues to push for Saxon’s removal.

Citing "rampant" mortgage fraud in Florida, Sink said of Saxon’s promised changes: "To me, it’s almost too little, too late."

Crist fought back efforts by Attorney General Bill McCollum to immediately make it more difficult for all released felons to get their civil rights restored, a step that’s usually a prerequisite to obtaining a state-issued license.

"Our first duty is to protect," Crist said, "but I also believe we have a duty to give people second chances."