NEW YORK – In an effort to rush through thousands of home foreclosures since 2007, financial institutions and their mortgage servicing departments hired hair stylists, Walmart floor workers and people who had worked on assembly lines and installed them in “foreclosure expert” jobs with no formal training, a Florida lawyer says.

In depositions released Tuesday, many of those workers testified that they barely knew what a mortgage was. Some couldn’t define the word “affidavit.” Others didn’t know what a complaint was, or even what was meant by personal property. Most troubling, several said they knew they were lying when they signed the foreclosure affidavits and that they agreed with the defense lawyers’ accusations about document fraud.

“The mortgage servicers hired people who would never question authority,” said Peter Ticktin, a Deerfield Beach, Fla., lawyer who is defending 3,000 homeowners in foreclosure cases. As part of his work, Ticktin gathered 150 depositions from bank employees who say they signed foreclosure affidavits without reviewing the documents or ever laying eyes on them — earning them the name “robo-signers.”

The deposed employees worked for the mortgage service divisions of banks such as Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, as well as for mortgage servicers like Litton Loan Servicing, a division of Goldman Sachs.

Ticktin said he would make the testimony available to state and federal agencies that are investigating financial institutions for allegations of possible mortgage fraud. This comes on the eve of an expected announcement today from 40 state attorneys general that they will launch a collective probe into the mortgage industry. “This was an industrywide scheme designed to defraud homeowners,” Ticktin said.

The depositions paint a surreal picture of foreclosure experts who didn’t understand even the most elementary aspects of the mortgage or foreclosure process — even though they were entrusted as the records custodians of homeowners’ loans. In one deposition taken in Houston, a foreclosure supervisor with Litton Loan couldn’t define basic terms like promissory note, mortgagee, lien, receiver, jurisdiction, circuit court, plaintiff’s assignor or defendant. “I don’t know the ins and outs of the loan, I just sign documents,” she said at one point.

Until now, only a handful of depositions from robo-signers have come to light. But the sheer volume of the new depositions will make it more difficult for financial institutions to argue that robo-signing was an aberrant practice in a handful of rogue back offices.

Judges are unlikely to look favorably on a bank that claims paperwork flaws don’t matter because the borrower was in default on the loan, said Kendall Coffey, a former Miami U.S. attorney and author of the book “Foreclosures.”

“There has to be a cornerstone of integrity to the process,” Coffey said.

Bank of America responded to Tiktin’s depositions by re-affirming that an internal review has shown that its foreclosures have been accurate. “This review will ensure we have a full understanding of any potential issues and quickly address them,” Bank of America spokesman Dan Frahm said. Frahm added that, on average, the bank’s foreclosure customers have not made a payment in more than 18 months.

JP Morgan Chase spokesman Thomas Kelly said the bank has requested that courts not enter into any judgments until the bank had reviewed its procedures. But Kelly added that the bank believes that all the underlying facts of the cases involved in the document fraud allegations are true. Litton Loan Servicing did not respond to a request for comment.

Even before the foreclosure scandal broke, the housing market was in the midst of an ugly detoxification. Now the escalating crisis is likely to prolong the housing depression for at least another few years. The allegations are opening the entire chain of foreclosure proceedings to legal challenge. Some foreclosures could be overturned. Others could be deemed illegal.

For a housing recovery to occur, all the foreclosed properties — which could account for 40 percent of all residential sales by 2012 — need to be re-scrutinized by the banks and resold on the market. Now, with so much inventory under a legal threat, the process will become severely delayed.

“This just adds more uncertainty to the whole mortgage process, so buyers are asking themselves: Do I want to buy a home in this environment?” says Cris deRitis, director of credit analytics at Moody’s Analytics. “We need to fix these issues before the economy can recover.”

Though some have chalked up the foreclosure debacle to an overblown case of paperwork bungling, the underlying legal issues are far more serious. Yes, swearing that you’ve reviewed documents you’ve never seen is a legal offense. But at the center of the foreclosure scandal looms something much larger: the question of who actually owns the loans and who has the right to foreclose upon them. The paperwork issues being raised by lawyers and attorneys generals have the potential to blight not just the titles of foreclosed properties but also those belonging to homeowners who have never missed a mortgage payment.AUGUSTA – Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says a 50-state investigation of “robo-signing” of home foreclosure documents will bring answers to a national scandal that “affects peoples’ homes, the stability of our families and our local economy.”

All 50 states and the District of Columbia began the investigation Wednesday into allegations that mortgage companies mishandled documents and broke laws in thousands of foreclosures.

Mills said several court decisions in Maine in the last two months showed serious flaws with documents. One Maine District Court judge found “bad faith” on the part of GMAC employee Jeffrey Stephan, who has said he signed 10,000 documents a month without personally verifying the mortgage information.

The states’ attorneys general and bank regulators will examine whether mortgage company employees made false statements or prepared documents improperly.

Attorneys general have taken the lead in responding to a nationwide scandal that has called into question the accuracy and legitimacy of documents that lenders relied on to evict people from their homes. Employees of four large lenders have acknowledged in depositions that they signed off on foreclosure documents without reading them.

The allegations raise the possibility that foreclosure proceedings nationwide could be subject to legal challenge. More than 2.5 million homes have been lost to foreclosure since the recession started in December 2007, according to RealtyTrac Inc.

The state officials said they intend to use their investigation to fix the problems that surfaced in the mortgage industry.

“This is not simply about a glitch in paperwork,” said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who is leading the probe.”

Maine joins probe to find answers in national scandal

AUGUSTA – Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says a 50-state investigation of “robo-signing” of home foreclosure documents will bring answers to a national scandal that “affects peoples’ homes, the stability of our families and our local economy.”

All 50 states and the District of Columbia began the investigation Wednesday into allegations that mortgage companies mishandled documents and broke laws in thousands of foreclosures.

Mills said several court decisions in Maine in the last two months showed serious flaws with documents. One Maine District Court judge found “bad faith” on the part of GMAC employee Jeffrey Stephan, who has said he signed 10,000 documents a month without personally verifying the mortgage information.

The states’ attorneys general and bank regulators will examine whether mortgage company employees made false statements or prepared documents improperly.

Attorneys general have taken the lead in responding to a nationwide scandal that has called into question the accuracy and legitimacy of documents that lenders relied on to evict people from their homes. Employees of four large lenders have acknowledged in depositions that they signed off on foreclosure documents without reading them.

The allegations raise the possibility that foreclosure proceedings nationwide could be subject to legal challenge. Some foreclosures could be overturned. More than 2.5 million homes have been lost to foreclosure since the recession started in December 2007, according to RealtyTrac Inc.

The state officials said they intend to use their investigation to fix the problems that surfaced in the mortgage industry.

“This is not simply about a glitch in paperwork,” said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who is leading the probe. “It’s also about some companies violating the law and many people losing their homes.”

Ally Financial Inc.’s GMAC Mortgage Unit, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co. already have halted some questionable foreclosures. Other banks, including Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co., have not stopped processing foreclosures, saying they have done nothing wrong.

In a joint statement, the state officials said they will review evidence that legal documents were signed by mortgage company employees who “did not have personal knowledge of the facts asserted in the documents.” They also said that many of those documents appear to have been signed without a notary public witnessing that signature — a violation of most state laws.

“What we have seen are not mere technicalities,” said Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray. “This is about the private property rights of homeowners facing foreclosure and the integrity of our court system, which cannot enter judgments based on fraudulent evidence.”

— The Associated Press