A few weeks ago, the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously for the estate of Dorothy Halstien. She was an elderly woman with dementia who had lost all the equity in her suburban Whidbey Island home to Washington Mutual Bank after a notary public falsely backdated a notice of foreclosure sale. The outrageous 2007 act prevented an orderly open-market sale of the home and allowed WaMu to foreclose on its mortgage and pocket the $160,000 in equity (not that it did much good for the bank, which spectacularly failed just a year later).
The opinion in Klem v Washington Mutual Bank, which you can read here, will make your blood boil. But for me there’s an added interest: the involvement of yet another crooked notary. You see, for three decades before becoming New To Seattle, I have been writing as a journalist about notaries who ply the wrong side of the law. Now, most notaries–generally, clerks and secretaries in law firms, financial services outfits and courthouses–correctly perform their limited government-granted duties of using seals and stamps to certify signatures and documents, or putting people under oath. But despite these modest powers, for which in Washington State they can charge modest fees up to $10 per signature or act, notaries keep getting into trouble.
Over the years thousands nationally have been stripped of their commissions, and some have gone to jail. Maybe it’s a function of their sheer numbers–4.4 million nationwide, a full 2% of the country’s entire adult population. Notaries acting in bad faith are at the core of an ongoing nationwide scandal involving improprieties in foreclosures in the wake of the mortgage meltdown. Most of the time, though, errant notaries are not evil, just dumb, stupid or ignorant.
Now, I’d say the notary in Klem was a bad actor acting in bad faith. Curiosity getting the better of me, I made inquiries about what happened to this particularly noxious notary, and to others working around Seattle who got into trouble on different matters.
The court opinion, written by Justice Tom Chambers, identified the notary as one R. Tassle, but put the name in quotation marks. To me that suggested the jurat, or notary certificate, couldn’t be read, the notary signed and dated the document long before it was signed by the foreclosure officer, or that the court didn’t believe such a notary existed. Any or all could be true.
The folks in the Notary Public Program of the State Department of Licensing, in Olympia, told me they have no record–ever–of a notary by that name in Washington State. But even though the mortgage foreclosure took place in Washington State, it’s possible the document in question was notarized in a California office of WaMu’s loan trustee, Quality Loan Service Corp., which was also a party to the lawsuit and which according to the opinion countenanced a lot of notarial shenanigans. So I called the folks in Sacramento who regulate California notaries and asked for a check of their decades-long database. No record there, either, of an R. Tassle.
So I can’t hassle Tassle.
But according to a list on the website of Notary Public Program, some 92 notaries across Washington were disciplined over the past year. Not surprisingly, given the state’s population distribution, more than half were in the Seattle area. Using Washington’s Public Records Act, I requested and received paperwork for a sampling of the punishments.
By and large, the violations were minor and so were the sanctions, generally nothing more than a small fine and/or mandatory completion of a notary education course. The reason this is even a penalty is that Washington is one of those states that does not require notaries to either (1) take a course, (2) pass a test, or (3) know the first thing about being a notary. It’s actually a lot harder to get a driver’s license. Besides possessing a beating adult heart, the main requirements for obtaining a four-year appointment as a notary are posting a $10,000 bond, getting unnotarized references from three non-relative residents and paying a $30 fee.
For instance, in separate cases, Sandra Parker Palileo, Andrick A. Schall and Bangmi Yu Sul, all of Seattle, each was fined $100 and ordered to take a notary course. Their offense: notarizing documents without filling out certificates, the small print next to the notary seal on a document identifying the signer, stating the notary knows the signer (often by looking at a driver’s license or other ID) and including the date and place of signing. Richard E. Woodrow, also of Seattle, was fined $100 for notarizing a documents without first verifying the identity of the signer.
But there also were some more significant mistakes.
Michele Jo Ann Rogers of suburban Burien was fined $200 for unprofessional conduct and ordered to take a notary course. The state found that she had notarized her own signature–a big no-no. Sherry L. Van Laak of Des Moines, another suburb, was barred from being a notary for five years for not dating her notary certificate on four occasions and for twice certifying the wrong name as the document’s signer.
Kathleen Soine of Olympia was fined $200 and ordered to take a notary course for notarizing two documents making “demand for performance,” which is not a legal notarial function. “Ms. Soine’s actions in lending her notarial seal to these unauthorized acts assisted in attempts to perpetrate an apparent fraud on one or more third parties,” a written order said.
In separate cases, Jeffry E. Salvaggio of Tacoma and Hope E. Glump, both of Tacoma, each was fined $200 and ordered to take a notary course for calling themselves a “Notary Presenter/Shipper.” Sniffed the state, “There is no such title in the notary law.”
Nicholas D. Harvey of suburban Kirkland was stripped of his notary license for being convicted of attempted theft and then, three months later, saying on his notary public application he had never been convicted of a crime. One cannot be a notary with convictions.
In other states, there are examples of more serious notarial misconduct. A quarter century ago for Forbes, I wrote about how a thief stole a van from Mary Hernandez, a Houston housewife, then got clean title by forging her husband’s signature on the papers and getting a notary to attest to his identity, a core notarial duty. How do you know your spouse didn’t sign in front of the notary, I asked. “My husband had been dead for some months,” Hernandez wailed. In 1996 I wrote a long story for a New Mexico newspaper in which I got a notary to admit she falsely notarized an affidavit submitted as proof a spaceship full of alien beings crashed in 1947 in what the world later would come to know as the Roswell Incident. (In case you wonder, my story, as well as another written a few years later, totally debunked the extraterrestrial element of the Roswell Incident.)
Sometimes the stakes are a lot higher. In 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon donated his pre-presidental papers to the Federal Government and took a $480,000 tax deduction that wiped out his tax liability for several years. But to duck a new law that had eliminated this juicy tax break, documentation of the gift was illegally backdated, with a notary–Frank DeMarco Jr., Nixon’s personal California-based tax lawyer–certifying the bogus date. News accounts that exposed the ploy in 1973–amid the ongoing Watergate coverup and scandal–provoked considerable public resentment. The backdating became one of the proposed articles of impeachment against Nixon, who resigned just ahead of impeachment in August 1974. That was two months after DeMarco resigned his own notarial commission amid pressure from California authorities led by then-Secretary of State Jerry Brown.
In his opinion, Justice Chambers went on at some length about what he called the “importance of the notary’s acknowledgment under the law.” He wrote:
A signed notarization is the ultimate assurance upon which the whole world is entitled to rely that the proper person signed a document on the stated day and place. Local, interstate, and international transactions involving individuals, banks, and corporations proceed smoothly because all may rely upon the sanctity of the notary’s seal. This court does not take lightly the importance of a notary’s obligation to verify the signor’s identity and the date of signing by having the signature performed in the notary’s presence.
Chambers noted that it is a gross misdemeanor crime–official misconduct–for a notary to sign a certificate knowing its contents are false. I say, good luck collaring “R. Tassle.”
As always, I invite anyone mentioned or interested in this post to add their comments below. No notarization required.