Legal eagle to enforce real estate settlement act

May 11, 2004

Gary Cunningham takes over HUD enforcement division

By Samantha Peterson
Inman News

Gary Cunningham sees his new role at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a good fit for both his professional background and his interests.

He worked as a private-practice attorney specializing in real estate, finance, construction and corporate law. He served as general counsel for the development of the $300 million St. Louis convention center, home to the St. Louis Rams football team. He also worked for a construction firm in St. Louis.

And most recently, he spent about a year at the U.S. Department of Justice helping with the appointment of judges and working on enforcement of laws under the department's purview.

He brings those experiences with him as HUD's new deputy assistant secretary for regulatory affairs and manufactured housing. In short, Cunningham is HUD's chief enforcement officer of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act.

"I'm committed to housing and the mission of housing," the St. Louis native said. "It's bringing fairness and a level playing field to the marketplace. We help consumers. We try to make sure they're treated fairly and identify instances where laws might have been violated by lenders or anybody else. I'm just very interested in that kind of mission."

Cunningham said he wants to ensure businesses can still compete and earn profits. He just wants them to do it using good, fair business practices. He looks at the job as a way to take his private-sector experience and make a difference in the public sector.

Just beginning his second month on the new job, Cunningham spends much of his time getting up to speed on current policies and statutes and pending cases. He is looking at previous cases that have been settled and consumer complaints to get a sense of what to focus on next.

Cunningham already plans to hone in on cases dealing with referral fees or companies charging fees for services that weren't rendered. Helping individual consumers is part of the job, but he also wants to look for "programs and practices that may be more widespread and serious."

He'll also have a chance to think about new ways to help consumers as HUD ponders changes to RESPA. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson in March withdrew controversial proposed changes to the law, but promised that RESPA would be reformed.

Cunningham reiterated that commitment and belief that certain parts of the law need to be changed, but said he didn't know when a new proposal might be on the table. Closing costs need to be simplified, he said, so home buyers can compare different offers. Fees and services need to be more transparent, he said.

At the same time, he wants to make sure HUD recognizes consumer-friendly innovations the real estate industry implements. Balancing those different demands is what Cunningham envisions as the most difficult aspect of the job.

The bottom line, though, will be whether consumers are helped or hurt, Cunningham said.

A colleague, Richard McClure, president of UniGroup, said Cunningham has "excellent people skills and a tremendous ability to size up a problem and to develop solutions that work for different stakeholder groups."

McClure has known Cunningham for more than 20 years, including a time when the two worked together at UniGroup, the parent company of United Van Lines, Mayflower Transit and other subsidiaries. McClure said Cunningham's new job is a good fit for him, especially since it fits with his interest in public service.

That interest extends back to Cunningham's time as a law student at George Washington University. He met his wife of 34 years, Jane, in Washington while they both were working in congressional offices. Jane Cunningham is now a member of the Missouri state legislature.

Part of the allure of his return to Washington was the chance to do "what you want to do when you grow up," Cunningham said. He has an apartment in the city and also maintains a house in Missouri, where his wife lives.

When the legislature is not in session, Jane Cunningham visits her husband in Washington. Otherwise, the two meet up on the weekends, every four to six weeks, in St. Louis, Washington or a third city closer to the University of Texas at Austin, where their two sons attend school.

Cunningham has some advice for brokers and agents who want to stay out of trouble.

"Just be fair with people," he said. "Treat your clients fairly, the way you want to be treated. Give them good service, and tell them what your charges are going to be upfront and why they're going to be what they are. And when you get to the closing table, charge them what you told them you were going to charge them."

Copyright: Inman News Features

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