Some 3,162 Latino customers of a Bakersfield-based mortgage bank are getting refund checks for alleged overcharges, the Federal Trade Commission announced Monday.
The checks, sent out last Friday, total $1.5 million. The trade commission says Golden Empire Mortgage Inc., which also goes by GEM Mortgage, illegally charged Latino applicants higher prices for home loans than it charged whites.
"These disparities...are substantial, statistically significant, and cannot be explained by factors related to underwriting risk or credit characteristics of the applicants," the trade commission alleged in a 2009 lawsuit.
Rick Roper, Golden Empire's executive vice president, said the refund checks represent the suit's final chapter.
A settlement agreement finalized last September called for comprehensive changes to Golden Empire's policies and procedures within specified time frames.
"Those were completed as scheduled," Roper said.
The company admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement agreement, and Roper said Golden Empire officials as well as the larger mortgage industry look at things differently than the FTC does. Golden Empire's own inquiry into its data found no meaningful differences between Latinos and other borrowers, Roper said. In the end, although the company disagreed with the FTC's findings, it simply wasn't big enough to fight the feds in court, he said.
The mortgage bank is privately owned by Howard D. Kootstra of Bakersfield, who is also named in the FTC suit and settlement agreement.
Golden Empire has about 65 branches on the West Coast, mostly in California, with others in Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. In all, there are about 700 employees, Roper said.
FTC spokesman Frank Dorman said the refund amounts range from as low as "10 or 11 bucks" to more than $10,000.
Dorman didn't know how many of the refund checks would go to Bakersfield residents.
"I'm told that most, if not all, of the people affected were in California, but I don't have a breakdown of where they live," Dorman said.
The lawsuit alleges that between 2006 to May 2009, when the complaint was filed, Golden Empire's Latino customers were charged, on average, more than white customers through a discretionary pricing policy. Loan officers and branch managers were paid more for the discriminatory, higher-priced loans, the suit says.
A $5.5 million judgment was suspended after Golden Empire quickly made good sending the FTC $1.5 million for the refund checks. The checks were sent out Friday by an administrator on behalf of the FTC.
People who received the checks should cash them by June 21, the FTC says. The agency never requires consumers to pay money or provide sensitive information such as Social Security or bank account numbers in order to cash the checks.
Golden Empire customers with questions about the settlement can call the administrator, Gilardi & Co. LLC, at 888-292-6875, or find information on the FTC's refund website at www.ftc.gov/bcp/cases/redress.shtml.