South Carolina's consumer protection agency is investigating a Boston nonprofit that drew thousands of struggling homeowners to Columbia last year with the promise of lower monthly mortgage payments.
Six months after the event, fewer than half of the homeowners who attended Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America's "Save the Dream" event got help from the group's foreclosure counselors.
Now, the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs is looking into whether NACA officials improperly charged homeowners fees in exchange for help in negotiating lower mortgage payments.
South Carolina laws restrict the amount that a group can charge for credit counseling, largely limiting it to $50 a month. Also, NACA has received at least $69.5 million in federal money through a foreclosure prevention program that requires that counseling be free.
NACA's chief executive officer denied that his group charges money for foreclosure counseling.
"Homeowners have never paid a penny, and we've documented that," Chief Executive Officer Bruce Marks said Monday.
An administrative law court judge ruled Thursday that Marks' group must give Consumer Affairs information it has requested as part of the investigation, which started more than a year ago.
In March 2009, NACA officials held a three-day event in Columbia that paired homeowners with counselors who could help them ask their lenders for lower monthly mortgage payments. The event drew more than 25,000 homeowners from across the country.
Since then, Consumer Affairs has received a handful of complaints from homeowners who said they didn't get assistance and couldn't get in touch with the nonprofit.
In September, a NACA spokesman told The Post and Courier that of the 15,000 mortgages handled at the event, roughly 7,200 had been modified successfully so that homeowners paid less each month. Marks and the spokesman said Monday that they did not have an updated number.
NACA has held more than a dozen similar events across the country, partially using money from four large federal grants.
Since 2008, Congress has set aside roughly $415 million in federal money for state housing agencies and nonprofit organizations that offer foreclosure prevention help. Groups that accept the money can't charge fees for providing foreclosure counseling services to home-owners, said NeighborWorks spokesman Doug Robinson, whose group administers the grant money.
Consumer Affairs began asking NACA for information about licensing shortly before the Columbia event. After little response, it subpoenaed the group in August, requesting documents about "fees, compensation or gain received or expected to be received by NACA for the provision of foreclosure counseling services," according to a court order.
NACA officials sought to have the request thrown out.
On Thursday, S.C. Administrative Law Court Judge Ralph King Anderson III ordered the nonprofit to provide the information to Consumer Affairs. The group has 30 days to provide the documents, according to the order.
Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.