SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown's appointee to head the department that oversees banking, financial and consumer regulations in California led a trade association that fought against tighter lending restrictions before the subprime mortgage crisis exploded and was an executive with Washington Mutual when the now-failed bank was among the most aggressive marketers of loans to high-risk borrowers.
Jan Owen, a Democrat, also is named in a congressional inquiry into whether lawmakers and certain executives received preferential treatment for home loans, although she was not accused of wrongdoing.
Consumer advocates said they are watching Owen's decisions carefully to see how she performs in her role as commissioner of the California Department of Corporations. The Democratic governor appointed her in December to the $143,000-a-year position, and she started in January.
Owen, 59, of West Sacramento, has a long resume in California, including stints in both business and government, but it is her history with organizations that were at the heart of the mortgage meltdown that stands out in a state that has one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the nation.
Owen served as state director of government and industry affairs at Washington Mutual from 2002 until its collapse in 2008, one of the largest bank failures in American history. It was taken over by JP Morgan Chase, where Owen stayed on as vice president of government affairs until 2009.
"It is of concern if a person who takes a job there, at that pay level in particular, has such experience, particularly with the mortgage bankers association, JPMorgan and Washington Mutual," said Rick Jacobs, president of the Courage Campaign, which advocates on behalf of policies for poor and working-class families.
"These are big institutions, some of which don't even exist anymore because of what they did in the mortgage business, and what they did to California," Jacobs said. "That should be watched very carefully."
Owen declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press for this story, but a spokesman for the Department of Corporations, Mark Leyes, responded to questions by email and telephone. He said Owen's professional background is an asset because she understands consumer issues.
"Understanding these industries and how they function— and fail — improves the ability to regulate effectively," Leyes said in an email.
He said the department protects consumers by licensing and regulating the network of financial services and securities businesses, including brokers, dealers, investment advisers, financial planners and lenders. Because Owen "really understands how these complex industries operate, she knows what to look for and how to crack down," Leyes said.
Officials with several consumer groups said they were hesitant to openly criticize Owen's background because they will have to work with her in her new role. Lawmakers similarly were hesitant because Owen's appointment still has to be approved in the Legislature. Although Owen's appointment requires confirmation by the state Senate, she is allowed to work for up to one year before lawmakers decide.
Some consumer advocates who have worked with Owen in the past praised her, saying she was responsive to their concerns.
Orson Aguilar, executive director of the Greenlining Institute, a Berkeley-based national policy group that advocates for racial and economic justice, said he often found himself on the opposite side of the table from Owen on consumer protection and affordable housing issues when she was an executive at Washington Mutual.
"I think people would be surprised, but definitely she was somebody who was easy to work with and she got it. She just didn't pay lip service, she tried her hardest" to help poor communities, he said.
Before joining Washington Mutual, Owen was executive director of the California Mortgage Bankers Association from 2000 to 2002, where she worked on behalf of lenders on regulatory issues that she now is in charge of enforcing.
Owen was among those who argued against a 2001 bill that attempted to control high-interest predatory lending several years before the collapse of the housing industry, which helped propel the state's unemployment rate to more than 12 percent during the height of the recession.
SB60 by then-Sen. Joe Dunn, a Democrat, would have required lenders to assess whether potential recipients of high-interest, high-risk loans had the means to repay them and required the attorney general to document complaints against lenders.
The bill sought to end the "abusive practices imposed upon a captive market," according to its text.
"These abusive tactics, known as 'predatory lending' practices, range from the charging of exorbitant fees and interest rates from those least likely to afford them, to aggressive sales of costly and unnecessary services, to outright fraud aimed at forcing foreclosures and allowing seizures of property," the bill said.
That was 2001, long before most Americans had heard about the complex lending and financial instruments that contributed to the collapse of the housing market and billions of dollars in bank bailouts.
A report that year in American Banker, a trade magazine, notes that a hearing on the bill was canceled and said Owen's office contacted the senator to try to "work with him" on it. A newsletter for bankers association members from 2001 quotes Owen as saying the legislation and other bills like it would turn lenders away from California, which would lead to complaints that low-income buyers and the elderly could not receive loans.
"There is a fine line between protecting consumers and making the process so cumbersome and risky that lenders will simply do business elsewhere," she said in the newsletter.
Dunn's bill died in committee that year.
The former senator, who is now executive director of the State Bar of California, did not return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Leyes, of the Department of Corporations, said industry groups argued that the law duplicated existing federal regulations, although those did not cap interest rates or fees on loans. He noted that the association did not take an official public position on the bill.
"The industry wasn't supportive of Dunn's bill and similar efforts that year or in that time period. Jan was employed by the association, the CMBA, and she needed to represent their point of view," he said.
Leyes said a similar bill by then-Sen. Carole Migden passed later. The Mortgage Bankers Association also lobbied against that bill.
The association also is listed as an opponent of the California Financial Privacy Act by then-Assemblyman Tim Leslie, which sought to prohibit financial companies from sharing customers' data unless customers opted in. That legislation, AB21, died in a committee in 2002.
The California Reinvestment Coalition is one of many groups that lobbied in the early 2000s for tighter lending standards and more restrictions on high-interest loans. Its associate director, Kevin Stein, said he did not recall whether Owen spoke out publicly against the Dunn bill but said her resume raises some concerns about whether she will be an effective advocate for consumers.
Stein called Washington Mutual a "perfect example of what happens when regulators don't regulate."
"So she's aware of that, and maybe there's some appreciation that she might have for the role that regulations can and should play," he said.
A spokesman for the governor, Gil Duran, said is uniquely qualified to lead the department.
"Jan Owen is a highly experienced and respected commissioner with a deep knowledge of California's complex industries and regulations. Gov. Brown picks appointees based on their qualifications," he said.
Owen's name also is cited in two congressional investigations.
They include a 2009 inquiry into the collapse of Countrywide Financial Corp. as a potential "Friend of Angelo" — a reference to former Countrywide chief executive Angelo Mozilo, who helped high-profile clients get discounted mortgages.
Once the country's largest lender, Countrywide played a major role in the collapse of the housing market because it aggressively pushed complicated home loans to people with a questionable ability to repay.
An April 2003 email exchange cited as part of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's investigation begins with an email message from Owen to Pete Mills, then-senior vice president of legislative and government regulatory affairs for Countrywide Home Loans.
"Don't forget name and telephone number of the guy for refi for us," Owen wrote.
Mills then emailed another Countrywide executive, asking him or "one of your top people," to help Owen. In addition to noting her government affairs position at Washington Mutual, Mills refers in his email to Owen as "a good friend of Countrywide from her days as executive director at Calif. MBA." A follow-up email urges another staffer to offer Owen a discount of half a percentage point on her loan and "no junk fees."
Leyes said Owen does not remember ever receiving a refinancing offer from Countrywide, and public records reviewed by The Associated Press do not show her or her husband having any loans from the company for the two Sacramento-area homes they have owned.
The report concluded that Countrywide loan officers waived fees and knocked off points for VIP borrowers at no cost, saving them thousands of dollars in deals that were not available to regular applicants. It does not say whether Owen received a loan with preferential terms.
"She didn't seek any preferential treatment even though she may have kind of innocuously asked into the terms that Countrywide provided for a refinance," Leyes said. "What's unfortunate is that that got included in that report back then and it didn't get challenged or corrected at the time."
Owen's name also surfaced in a July 2010 House Ethics Committee investigation that cleared Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Long Beach, of wrongdoing in the foreclosure of her Sacramento home, an action that Washington Mutual later rescinded. Owen was among the bank officials who dealt with Richardson's case.
Before she worked for the trade association and the banks, Owen was chief consultant to the Senate Banking Committee in the Legislature from 1992 to 1995, a deputy commissioner at the Department of Financial Institutions under former Gov. Gray Davis from 1996 to 1999 and acting commissioner from 1999 to 2000, when she left to head the bankers association.