Scott Mooneyham column: Fighting for the little guy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 9, 2008

RALEIGH ó- In this job, you don’t come across too many saints. Actually, in this job, you come to believe there is no such thing.
Maybe there isn’t. But one person who I’ve come across who might merit at least a little consideration is Martin Eakes.
I haven’t run into Eakes in quite a long time. But nearly a decade ago, we had many lively conversations about the state of home lending, politicians and the political process as it then existed at the North Carolina General Assembly. At the time, Eakes was cajoling and twisting the arms of legislators to get them to pass North Carolina’s landmark anti-predatory lending law.
Eakes is a Yale-educated lawyer who co-founded the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham. He also helped establish the Center for Responsible Lending. In both roles, he’s been a fierce advocate for homeownership by the working class and consumer protections that prevent lenders from taking advantage of borrowers.
It’s an advocacy that has taken him all over the country. In those Wall Street boardrooms ó at Citigroup, at Goldman Sachs, at JPMorgan Chase ó they know who Martin Eakes is. They don’t like him.
These days, that’s as ringing an endorsement as anyone can receive.
So it should come as no surprise that Eakes was before a U.S. Senate committee just a few weeks ago testifying about oversight of the financial firms tapping the $700 billion bailout funds approved by Congress. It wasn’t the first time he has testified before Congress. It probably won’t be the last.
If more people had listened to Eakes ó as then-Attorney General Mike Easley and then-state Sen. Roy Cooper did in 1999 when they backed the state’s anti-predatory lending legislation ó at least some of this financial meltdown might have been averted.
Eakes will tell you, contrary to what some people are selling these days, that lending to the working class didn’t cause the financial crisis, that the Community Reinvestment Act being pointed to by some cynical hucksters predated the crisis by 30 years.
No, the main cause was unscrupulous lenders putting together loans with terms, fees and prepayment penalties that made them impossible to repay and ultimately left taxpayers holding the bag.
A few years back, I did Eakes an evil turn. Knowing that he’s not much of a publicity seeker, despite occasionally finding it, I sent an e-mail to Melanie Sill, then the executive editor of The News & Observer of Raleigh, recommending that Eakes be named the paper’s Tar Heel of the Year.
I don’t know how influential my e-mail was, but Eakes received the honor and was the subject of an accompanying story.
A couple of weeks ago, four men robbed and beat Eakes as he was leaving his Durham office. He received some serious injuries, but is on the mend. Not surprisingly, he was back in his office the next day.
Bad things do sometimes happen to good people.
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Scott Mooneyham is a Raleigh-based columnist for Capitol Press Association.