Consumer activists say the company, a big-time donor to both Democrats and Republicans and the No. 1 contributor to the 2005 Presidential Inaugural Committee, has also been lobbying against state legislation aimed at countering alleged abuses by sub-prime lenders.
For its part, Ameriquest has maintained that so-called anti-predatory lending laws hurt the poor by making it harder for them to get credit.
Ameriquest executives declined requests for interviews, asking instead for a written list of questions. The company answered some of those questions in writing and also offered a general statement about its practices.
"In its 25-year history, Ameriquest has helped hundreds of thousands of homeowners purchase or refinance their homes, making it possible for them to achieve their financial goals and enhance their quality of life," the statement said. "We are proud of our role in helping increase homeownership to historic levels. We are a nationwide lender and our goal is to be an industry leader.
"Ameriquest pioneered innovative best practices in the mortgage industry," the statement continued. "We have procedures and internal controls in place that are designed to ensure that underwriting standards, pricing policies and property valuations are fair and accurate. We act promptly to resolve any issues that arise."
The company is headed by Chairman Roland E. Arnall, a developer and financier who in 1977 helped found the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization, and served for 16 years on the California State University board of trustees.
Arnall, 65, a media-shy billionaire, has made headlines in recent years by buying a 10-acre Los Angeles estate for $30 million from singer Engelbert Humperdinck and a ranch in Aspen, Colo., for $46 million from movie mogul Peter Guber. Attendees at Arnall's holiday party late last year included Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, along with the couple they replaced in Sacramento, Gray and Sharon Davis. Also mingling at the soiree were other politicians from both sides of the aisle, including Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, a Democrat.
Ameriquest is among the largest political donors in California, spending $3.8 million in the 2003-04 election cycle on state candidates and ballot measures. Schwarzenegger was the largest benefactor, picking up $1.18 million of the company's money for his various campaign bank accounts, among them his reelection committee and one he uses to promote ballot measures.
In response to the barrage of lawsuits, the company has pointed to signed documents from customers saying they understood the terms of their loans. In a Florida lawsuit seeking class-action status, for example, Ameriquest asserts that the plaintiffs "distorted the actual facts concerning the underlying transactions." The allegation that borrowers didn't receive proper disclosures, Ameriquest says, is "directly belied by the fact that each plaintiff acknowledged in writing that they had received such disclosures."
But the plaintiffs in those cases contend that loan salespeople used fast talk and sleight-of-hand paper shuffling to get them to sign documents without knowing the consequences.
An East Palo Alto resident, Sara Landa, said Ameriquest employees tricked her into signing a mortgage that required her to pay $2,494 a month, more than she earns cleaning houses. All the negotiations were in Spanish, according to Landa's lawsuit, but all the loan documents were in English -- a language in which she's not proficient.
"The only thing she ever got from Ameriquest that was in Spanish was a foreclosure notice," said her lawyer, Nathaniel McKitterick.
Landa and Ameriquest reached a confidential settlement in December. Ameriquest did not admit wrongdoing. In its response to The Times, the company said it went to "great lengths to ensure customers are fully informed about loan terms so there are no surprises at the closing table."
Allegations of falsified documents are a common thread in the borrower lawsuits and in more than two dozen accounts from ex-workers.
In a suit filed Jan. 14 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Nona Knox claims that Ameriquest qualified her and her late husband, Albert, for a loan by fabricating documents showing that he earned $6,800 a month as proprietor of Knox Music Academy. At the time of the loan, the suit says, Albert Knox was 79 and suffering from terminal cancer. The music school never existed, the suit says.
"Mr. Knox had never played a musical instrument," said Aaron Myers, an attorney for Nona Knox, whose complaint against Ameriquest centers on other issues, including allegedly excessive closing costs. "This was truly made up out of whole cloth without their knowledge or consent, or any suggestion from them."
The company has not yet formally responded to Knox's lawsuit, which seeks class-action status. Before the suit, Ameriquest wrote to her attorneys denying anything was amiss with the loan.