S&L; Sales System Record-Keeping Lacks Safeguards : Bailout: Thrift regulators may be handicapped in detecting potential favoritism, fraud or improper pricing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The federal agency responsible for selling billions of dollars in real estate from failed savings and loan associations lacks a central record-keeping system to keep track of the properties sold, the prices paid or the names of the buyers.

Without such a system, the Washington headquarters of Resolution Trust Corp. may be handicapped in detecting potential favoritism, fraud or improper pricing in the sales of thousands of pieces of property.

The agency's local offices are expected eventually to sell more than $100 billion in real estate from failed thrift institutions, including single-family homes, condominiums, office buildings, shopping centers and land. The corporation's four regional offices are independent in deciding the types of records to keep on purchasers of real estate, The Times has learned.

RTC officials questioned the importance of a central mechanism to identify buyers but added that such a system eventually will be installed.

The agency is not particularly interested in the identity of buyers, said Kevin Shields, spokesman for the Denver regional office, which includes California. "If they have the money and paid in cash, it doesn't matter," he said. "What's the difference to the taxpayer; who cares who buys it?"

He said that agency procedures will prevent fraud and protect taxpayers. "We have policies and guidelines that do not allow us to sell below market value."

However, local RTC officials have considerable autonomy, with the authority to cut the price of a property 20% if it hasn't sold in six months.

The agency has 35,000 properties for sale. Buyers can be identified only if the specific address of the property is known. Even then, on sales of specific pieces of property by the 247 thrifts currently operating under Resolution Trust conservatorship, it is usually necessary to go to the S&L; involved to search for information.

The agency's 14 local offices should have files on the sales of properties held by S&Ls; that have been shut down. However, on a regional level, the compilation of local figures varies.

The Western region in Denver, for example, has no central listing of buyers of real estate assets throughout California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.

In the Dallas region, officials began a complete computer record system in June, insisting that they be notified of the identification of buyers on a routine basis.

Previously in Dallas, RTC regional reports identified buyers only a third of the time.

"The system was spotty at best in tracking buyers," said Teresa McUsic, public affairs officer for the region, which includes Texas and Oklahoma. "The focus at first was on the number of assets and the dollar amount sold," she added. "The focus was not on tracking the buyers."

There is an elaborate set of RTC rules, forbidding officials involved in the cleanup of hundreds of S&Ls; to do business with persons who have caused a loss to a thrift institution. The government does not want people who might have contributed to the collapse of an S&L; to be able to buy foreclosed properties at bargain prices.

But the lack of a central system makes it difficult for officials in Washington to know precisely who is buying government-owned real estate.

"Washington has decentralized," said Thomas Hamberger, special assistant to Lamar Kelly, director of asset and real estate management. "We in Washington do not keep files on the specific properties."

"The regional directors are in charge of their property, having their people dealing with the purchasers, doing appraisals and selling property," he said. He argued that, because sales take place at a local level, it is unnecessary to have sales records at Washington headquarters.

"It is very difficult for us in Washington to travel to Los Angeles and show a property," Hamberger noted. "We don't have a specific computer base at this time to have the capacity, for example, to keep track of single-family home sales in Los Angeles."

The RTC makes available a list of properties for sale through both printed volumes and computer discs.

However, there is no accompanying list of the properties that have already sold by the agency, which has been in existence since last August.

"They know at the local level who they are selling property to," said Stephen Katsanos, the agency's director of communications. "As far as us in Washington needing to have a five-foot stack of paper listing everyone who bought property, I am not sure how useful that would be."

He added: "If I wanted to go to an S&L; and find out everything that S&L; has sold, they have the records at the S&L;, so I can look at each transaction." And, he said, at local offices of the agency "I can look at what has been sold" from defunct S&Ls.;

Katsanos said that his agency eventually will have a central system for identifying asset sales and buyers. "I can't tell you (when) at this time," he said.

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