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Ameriquest Faces Blizzard of Suits and $325 Million Settlement with States

30-State Task Force Alleges Deceptive Sales Practices

Ameriquest, the nation's largest subprime lender, faces numerous lawsuits filed by customers who said the subprime lender charged them excessive fees or changed the agreed-upon terms on refinancing loans when they arrived to sign the final documents.

The company disclosed last week that it had reached a tentative $325 million settlement with a task force of 30 state attorneys general over allegations of deceptive sales practices.

At least eight of the pending lawsuits are seeking class-action status.

Earlier this week, President Bush nominated Ameriquest founder Roland Arnall as the next ambassador to the Netherlands.

Arnall and his wife, who live on a 10-acre estate in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, contributed $5 million to a pro-Bush committee in 2003 and chipped in $1 million for Bush's second inauguration party, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Arnall also is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, a foreign policy group that advocates a hard line against Islamic terrorists.

Ameriquest, founded by Arnall as Long Beach Savings in 1979, has faced off with consumer activists, regulators and private litigants in a series of disputes over its lending practices dating to 1996. The company has paid millions of dollars in restitution and for borrower education, and it has adopted a series of "best practices" improvements to its operating policies.

In a case filed in Boston, borrowers said their loan fees and interest rates differed from what they had agreed to when they negotiated to refinance their homes, often to pay off household debts. California-based Ameriquest, the suit said, then ''uniformly promised" to refinance them a second time, sometimes within months, ''on more favorable terms," to recoup additional fees.

According to MortgageDaily.com, Ameriquest's parent company, ACC Capital Holdings Corp., is the nation's largest subprime lender, based on $82.7 billion in mortgage volume in 2004, including $3 billion in Massachusetts. Subprime loans are for people with credit scores too low for them to qualify for a traditional mortgage.

The litigation parallels charges being brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly and officials in 29 other states. Investigators found Ameriquest used ''bait and switch" tactics in often unsolicited phone calls to potential customers, did not disclose steep penalties charged for paying loans off early, and falsified borrowers' incomes to ensure they would qualify for the loan, The Boston Globe reported.

Reilly's office said it has received 133 complaints about Ameriquest since 2002.

In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, ACC Capital disclosed it set aside money for a tentative settlement with the states, but the company said there is ''no assurance such an agreement will be reached." Reilly's office said, ''any resolution will require a significant payment by Ameriquest, including restitution to harmed consumers."

In July, Connecticut's Department of Banking reached a $7 million settlement with Ameriquest and two other ACC units, Argent Mortgage Co. and Town & Country Credit Corp. The company agreed to reimburse 350 customers whose loan fees exceeded limits set by state law by $3,000, on average, state officials said.

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