PORTLAND — In April 2008, Thomas Cox joined the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project to fight against unfair foreclosure practices.
His reward for his services? $100,000.
Cox, the retired attorney who uncovered the practice of “robo-signing” and other illegal practices in the mortgage industry, was one of five people honored Wednesday with the 2012 Purpose Prize, which recognizes people older than 60 who work toward the public good and rewards them with $100,000.
It’s a stunning turnaround for a man who once was a lawyer for Maine banks, helping with debt collection and foreclosures.
“I feel more alive and vital than I think I’ve ever felt,” Cox, 68, said Wednesday. “I couldn’t feel more satisfied with my work right now.”
Cox’s second career dates to the late 1990s, when the emotional toll of his work with banks led him to “major-league depression.” His mental health issues led to a divorce and estrangement from his sons.
After retirement and intense therapy, he started a second career as a carpenter. But he returned to law in April 2008, joining the Maine Attorneys Saving Homes project, started by Pine Tree Legal Assistance in conjunction with the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project in Portland.
His expertise in foreclosures and his contacts in Maine’s legal community helped desperate Mainers find free lawyers.
In September 2009, Cox took up the case of Nicolle Bradbury, whose home was being foreclosed on by GMAC Mortgage, which was the nation’s fifth-largest mortgage servicer and is now facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
In a deposition, the company’s “limited signing officer” admitted to signing thousands of foreclosure affidavits in 23 states, including Bradbury’s, “without ever knowing if any of the information was true,” Cox said.
By exposing the practice, which soon became known as “robo-signing,” Cox “blew the lid off” systematic foreclosure fraud by some of the country’s biggest banks, wrote Encore.org, which distributes the Purpose Prize.
As a result of Cox’s work, GMAC suspended foreclosure activity nationwide on September 18, 2010. JP Morgan/Chase, Citibank and PNC Bank soon did the same, and tens of thousands of homes were saveed.
Some of the foreclosures were legitimate and proper procedure just wasn’t followed, Cox said.
But in the past four years, he’s uncovered scores of cases in which mortgage lenders wrongly kept customers delinquent and foreclosed on homes using improper accounting, illegal fees and an “egregiously inflated” forced-place insurance.
“Some of the practices that were being used were truly incredible,” he said.
The impact was so immense that the 50 state attorneys general sued the five biggest mortgage servicers. In December 2011, Bradbury finally won her case against GMAC in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
In February, the servicers agreed to a $25 billion settlement to assist people who had either lost or were going to lose their homes to foreclosure.
Cox says he will use most of the prize money to build a network of lawyers to do pro bono work defending consumers. He plans to host training seminars with top lawyers he’s met since becoming a national figure.
He also said he’ll soon unveil a plan to “catch” more lawyers on the verge of retirement and push them toward pro bono, pro-consumer work — similar to what he’s done.
He also plans to use a small share of the money to take a bonefishing vacation to the Bahamas in February.
“I’m going to be a little selfish,” he said. “It’s become a passion. I haven’t gone in a few years, and I’m itching to go.”
The Purpose Prize program is funded by the John Templeton Foundation and The Atlantic Philanthropies.