Interview with Wayne Bell, former Real Estate Commissioner of the DRE
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
By Summer Goralik
When I worked as a Special Investigator for the California Department of Real Estate (DRE) between 2008 and 2014, I had the wonderful opportunity and privilege to work with Wayne Bell, the former Real Estate Commissioner of the DRE. Mr. Bell began working for the DRE in 2006 as the Chief Counsel, and I met him in 2009 when we were both presenters at a statewide DRE training. Many of my proudest achievements at the DRE would not have been possible without his support along with his remarkable commitment to add real value and protect the public. For example, I worked with Mr. Bell in connection with many rewarding initiatives and projects, including the training and certification of DRE investigators under Proposition 115, enabling them to testify to their investigative work for the benefit of law enforcement partners pursuing law violators at criminal hearings.
Moreover, Mr. Bell’s impressive resume, career, and accomplishments are extensive, and I know that my high praise and opinion of him are shared by many, including those who know him, have worked with him, or followed his leadership when he was the Commissioner of the DRE. Notably, it has been four years since Mr. Bell was de-commissioned as Real Estate Commissioner, which I wrote an article about back in 2018. Fast forward to 2022, I asked Mr. Bell if I may interview him about what he is doing now, his prior work as Real Estate Commissioner, and other questions about his career and life. Fortunately for me, as well as other interested readers and fans of Mr. Bell’s work, he kindly obliged and our interview can be read below.
Interview with Wayne Bell:
SG: When and why did you decide to work in the public sector?
WB: When I think back on my childhood, I remember having discussions with my dad about the immense value of an efficient, effective, and open government. My father also served on a Los Angeles Central City Advisory Council. Also, one of my mom’s cousins worked for the Office of Strategic Services, which was the intelligence agency of the U.S. during World War II, while another had done labor-related work with the FDR administration. During high school, I got to represent my school one year at the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office on what was known as Boys’ Day. Additionally, in 1976, while I was an undergraduate at UCLA, I was a research assistant for Professor John Bollens of the Department of Political Science. He had a national reputation in the field of public administration and was a recognized expert on State, metropolitan and local government. Professor Bollens was enthusiastic about the public sector, and the possibilities of government, and he enhanced my interest. Finally, I had a wonderful experience working with the CA Governor’s Office as an intern, and I always reflected positively on that experience.
SG: What was your first paid government job?
WB: My first paid government job was as a Governor’s Office Intern in 1976. If I recall correctly, I was paid the vast sum of $600 per month, and had an apartment on University Avenue in the Campus Commons area of Sacramento across the river from Sacramento State University. There were 22 interns, and we were each assigned to work on a project under a Cabinet agency. I worked under the Health Agency and looked at the delivery of health care in under-served areas of the State. The Cabinet Secretary to the Governor, David Fox, oversaw the internship program. He was later appointed by Governor Brown as Brown’s second Real Estate Commissioner. And one of the interns was Jeff Franklin, who later became a screenwriter, director, and producer. He is best known as the creator of the TV series Full House.
SG: Do you miss government and public sector work? Do you think you might ever return? Or do you have any plans to retire?
WB: Performing service for the public is truly an honor, and I recommend it highly for anyone who cares about civic issues, the analysis and resolution of public challenges, and/or improving their government. I miss doing positive work for the State of California, and I miss many of my colleagues, and some of the many problems that we grappled with. The public good is an important concept and goal, and I would do it again.
As far as retirement, I have no plans to discontinue adding value where I can. I have a real estate broker license, which is not due to expire until January 10, 2027, and I plan to renew that license. I am also a California-licensed and active lawyer. As long as I can be of assistance, do work that I consider meaningful, and advocate on the correct side of issues, I will not retire. But I am not certain what I will do next.
SG: If you ever did return to public service, where might you want to work?
WB: I would welcome the opportunity to return to public service, help solve any public problems, and/or to work in (or lead) a team or collaborative effort to advance good government. Years ago, I heard that a former U.S. Senator from Georgia was fond of saying, “For our friends, there is good government. For everyone else, there is just government.” I think that is just plain wrong. There should be good government for everyone.
The areas which are of great interest to me - and in which I have experience are - housing, addressing the issues of homelessness, real estate, and consumer protection. Additionally, I have a background in mediation and facilitated communication, and would be more than happy to provide such services.
SG: It’s been four years since you were “de-commissioned” as the State’s Real Estate Commissioner and Chief Officer of the DRE. Looking back, I am curious what are some of the things that you did or made happen that you are most proud of - both as the Real Estate Commissioner and former Chief Legal Counsel? Any regrets or things that you wish you would have done differently, or things you wish you were able to do, had you not been separated from service as Commissioner?
WB: Starting with your last question, I have absolutely no regrets with regard to my service at DRE/CalBRE, including any decisions I made. I dutifully followed and enforced the law, served the administration as I promised to do, conducted outreach to - and created open lines of communications with - consumers and members of the real estate industry, always focused on consumer protection, and sought open and honest communications with the employees of DRE. Moreover, I wrote extensively (including alerts for licensees and consumers), spoke throughout the State, and always provided truthful testimony to the Legislature. The English translation of the motto of Northeastern University, a school attended by my son Seth, is “Light, Truth, Virtue”. I sought to apply all of those things to my job and to the operations of the DRE.
As Chief Counsel, the thing that stands out for me was my very active engagement in collaborative, cross-sector, and inter-governmental efforts to identify and combat multiple varieties of mortgage and real estate fraud (including that pertaining to foreclosure rescue services - which was rampant for a time, timeshare resales, short sales, rental housing and prepaid rental listing services, and the recordation of false and/or forged real property instruments). You joined me in many of those efforts, and I thank you for that Summer.
For the 5.5 years that I was the State’s Real Estate Commissioner, and Chief Executive over the DRE (and the California Bureau of Real Estate - or “CalBRE” or the “bureau”), I believe that I well represented the agencies before the California Legislature and State, federal, and local government entities, professional organizations, stakeholders, licensees, consumer groups, the media, and the general public. I also set out the key goals, objectives, and priorities for the bureau/department, including the following: (i) to continually seek to improve, add public value, champion public protection (and inform consumers about predatory and unlawful conduct, and fraud avoidance) in real estate matters, promote outreach, positive engagement and a dialogue, and/or problem solving, to, among and through consumer, real estate brokerage, public sector, residential subdivision/home builder, real estate and mortgage education, and mortgage broker groups, and to be unsurpassed as a California consumer protection agency, (ii) to lead in statewide efforts to fight real estate and mortgage fraud and unlicensed real estate activities, (iii) to help ensure a competent and law-abiding real estate marketplace, (iv) to bring those persons who are not deliberately out-of-compliance with the law, or who are not willful violators or the law (and whose misconduct is not “substantial” or “serious” and does not involve dishonesty, fraud or misrepresentation), back into compliance, and (v) to properly balance, prioritize, and adjust the various operations and units of the bureau/department.
There were many more initiatives and accomplishments, but I will spare you and your readers the details. But to answer your first question about regrets, I have none. I worked as hard as I could, and did as much as I could, for the public, our employees, the real estate industry, and the administration.
SG: If you had an opportunity to serve as Real Estate Commissioner again, would you have any interest in doing that? If so, what would you want to accomplish or what would be some of your goals or focus areas?
WB: I would have an interest, but seriously doubt that such an opportunity will present itself. And I would only consider such an appointment if I could select the Chief Deputy Commissioner, and have control of the budget and disbursements from the real estate fund. I would want to bolster the enforcement unit, re-engage - including having meaningful and continual discussions - with organized real estate about issues of concern, and have meetings with DRE staff (in the various offices and statewide) about trainings they need (or want) and issues that they feel need to be addressed in order to improve DRE and what it does. Moreover, I would consider task forces to focus on important and meaningful issues that are identified by the industry and DRE staff. In the area of subdivisions, I would immediately seek meetings with representatives of the building industry to ascertain if there is anything DRE could do (or assist with doing) which could help facilitate the building of much needed housing.
SG: If you had to give an unprepared speech to real estate agents tomorrow, what would you talk about?
WB: I would first talk about the fiduciary duty that real estate licensees have by reason of their agency relationships, and underscore that the duty requires licensees to put their client’s interests ahead of their own. Many licensees know the term but do not understand the specifics of the duty. Then I would tell them that they can elevate the practice of real estate by being professional, ethical, and by treating their clients and other real estate agents respectfully and civilly. And that includes returning calls and keeping clients and others informed. Finally, I would emphasize the critical importance of reporting bad and unlawful behavior by other licensees. If there is no such reporting, corrective action will likely never be taken or imposed.
SG: Do you have any concerns about the real estate industry and things that you see as a consultant, lawyer and expert witness?
WB: I see much of what I saw as Commissioner. Compliance, good practices, and client-centric practices by the best licensees, including efforts to stay current with the real estate law and regulations. But of concern are licensees who mislead clients, act negligently or willfully to the detriment of consumers, fail to communicate with clients, convince clients that pocket listings have the greatest potential benefits regarding sales prices (when the licensees know that is not true for the particular property(ies)), convert (steal) trust funds, and/or fail to perform services required by the relevant agreement controlling the engagement.
SG: Recently I have seen the DRE interpret the law quite rigidly and more strictly than they did when I worked at the DRE (2008-2014). For example, I have seen them administratively prosecute brokers for agents who engaged in non-compliant advertising and used unlicensed fictitious business names. Have you witnessed any of these activities or have an opinion about it?
WB: Yes, I am aware of at least two cases brought by DRE against real estate brokers and designated agents for such advertising violations and/or unlicensed fictitious business names. In the pleadings, DRE was seeking the revocation of (or some severe sanction against) the licenses of the brokerage and/or the designated agents. While strict enforcement of laws is always within the discretion of the enforcers of those laws, my view was and continues to be that DRE should focus its limited resources on the very bad (non-compliant and/or illegitimate) licensees who cause actual consumer harm, and not on legitimate brokerages and their officers where there are or may be technical violations which could be corrected through citations and fines, or corrective action letters. The punishment sought should always fit the violations. Where violations are technical and do not cause damages to consumers, the punishment should not be revocation. DRE must be proactive in alerting licensees of the violations it is seeing - and what DRE believes are appropriate remedies. Also, DRE must be fair and reasonable in - and act in good faith with regard to - its administrative prosecutions. The real estate law and regulations generally require willfulness and intention (relative to bad behavior) before the sanction of revocation is imposed.
SG: I really enjoyed the advisory that we co-wrote together on deed fraud. Have you stayed in the know on any deed fraud issues or have you been contacted by people or groups in the industry regarding this topic?
WB: I too enjoyed working with you on that advisory, and believe our advisory continues to offer important advice to homeowners. I do follow the news and any relevant cases pertaining to deed fraud matters. I have posted a number of pieces on the issue on my LinkedIn page. And I am contacted on this issue from time to time, mostly by lawyers.
SG: Do you still keep in contact with former DRE colleagues? Does anyone call you for advice or guidance?
WB: I do keep in contact with former DRE colleagues, including Tom Pool and Dan Sandri. Some of the communications are via phone, and others are via text and/or email. Recently I had lunch with two DRE lawyers and John VanDriel, whom I considered my closest legal advisor. I do get calls from some folks at DRE on occasion, and they will ask for my advice and/or counsel. And I get calls and inquiries from real estate licensees and/or their counsel on a variety of issues, and I keep in touch with some former executives of the CA Association of Realtors.
SG: I attended a DRE forum a few years ago (I believe right before COVID hit), and I stood up at the end of the meeting for the open mic questions and I suggested that the DRE come up with a broker self-evaluation questionnaire specifically designed for property management brokers. That questionnaire would provide an outline of questions to help property management brokers hone in on some of the most important issues that these brokers are usually found violating when they are audited. I also think we could do this for broker-controlled escrows and mortgage loan brokers. Anyway, I didn’t get much reception, but afterwards, an auditor came up to me and agreed with my suggestion.
I should point out that my suggestion is strongly tied to the fact that many of DRE's enforcement actions are, and have always been, in the area of property management. You can look at the fiscal stats and monthly enforcement data on DRE’s website for proof. I just think that sometimes DRE audits can be nuanced; they are not straightforward and the things that auditors are looking for, and which brokers are being judged on, can’t necessarily be expected or anticipated, just by knowing the letter of the law alone.
My question to you is, do you have any opinions regarding my suggestion? Other thoughts?
WB: The suggestion is a good one, and it should have received some thoughtful consideration. I always believe it is a true shame when good ideas are presented but then die. What you characterize as a questionnaire with questions, I would re-frame as a checklist offered for brokers and their associates to review, scrutinize and use in connection with their real estate activities. I know that DRE auditors use a checklist of sorts when they conduct audits. Why not share those lists and issues for review with real estate brokers? In my view, checklists can only help brokers perform better and avoid overlooking items that auditors/investigators are looking for. I always argued that DRE’s investigators should have used checklists that tracked the requirements of the real estate law and commissioner’s regulations. If brokers had such checklists (or the self-evaluation questionnaires you describe), they would be able to ascertain if they are overlooking something and understand the major issues they should focus on. Of course, checklists cannot cover all matters, and they cannot be a substitute for a knowledge of requirements, or for inattention. But in my view, they would be of a benefit for brokers, and could help with compliance.
Renewed Arts and Housing Foundation Inc.:
SG: Tell me about Renewed Arts and Housing Foundation Inc. and your current role there as Vice President and Legal Counsel?
WB: The Foundation was formed a number of years ago by my brother who lives in Beverly Hills. After I left State service, it offered me a place to practice law, and to offer advice, counsel and guidance regarding low and moderate income housing assets and fine art paintings and other assets that are in or might be added to the Foundation’s corpus. The Foundation helps to perform services in connection with low and moderate income housing developments, and fine art and historical works. Many years ago I was a member of the Board of Trustees (and Secretary) of The Ralphs/Food 4 Less Foundation (1995-1999).
SG: In addition to your VP/legal counsel position at Renewed Arts, do you perform any kind of real estate related work now? Or other work?
WB: Recently I analyzed and commented on a Sub-surface Mineral Rights Agreement involving several thousand acres. I worked on the sale of a multi-family building in Los Angeles. Also, I provided advice and counsel to a San Francisco law firm pertaining to an underground State regulation, and have given counsel to lawyers representing respondents in California administrative actions. I have also been retained as an expert witness by the California Department of Justice in connection with a criminal matter they are pursuing regarding an unlicensed loan modification scheme. I have been admitted to the Round Table Group (formerly Thomson Reuters Expert Witness Services) consortium of scholars, practitioners, and expert witnesses.
Beyond the above, I have engaged in civil litigation, pursued to discipline a professional standards - ethics code violations - matter against a California Realtor in San Luis Obispo, have been involved with a limited conservatorship appointment for a family member, and have worked on two community land use issues.
I have another project that will probably not be completed until the end of the year. After that, I plan to consider next steps - and the next chapter - of my life.
Background and Legal Career:
SG: Where were you born?
WB: Sometimes when I am asked this question, I tell people I was born in Scientology’s “big blue” headquarters building in Los Angeles. That is actually true, but it needs an explanation. I was born in Los Angeles, at what was known as the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. It was located at Sunset Boulevard where Sunset intersects Fountain Avenue. Intriguingly, it is now painted blue and serves as the headquarters for the Church of Scientology. In the early 1960s, the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital merged with the Mount Sinai Hospital to become the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center near Beverly Hills.
SG: What made you want to become a lawyer?
WB: There were three primary things that propelled me toward the legal profession: my father, my mother, and my mother’s family. My dad wanted to be a lawyer when he was young, but his own father died at 39 years of age, when my dad was just 9 years old. That and the Great Depression stopped my father from any education beyond high school, as he had to work from a young age to help support his mother. But my dad thought the rule of law and the practice of law were important for society, and believed that I would like being a lawyer. He took me to a couple of criminal trials, would share information about legal cases in the news, filled me with information about famous trial lawyers (such as Clarence Darrow and Jerry Giesler), bought me books about lawyers, and took me to the movie To Kill a Mockingbird (in 1962), where Atticus Finch is a heroic and truth-telling lawyer. And my father always told me that a good lawyer could marshal facts and evidence in support of truth and justice, and to help those who lack power, or could not advocate for themselves. My mom worked as an assistant to and secretary for three lawyers when she was in her early 20s, and she told me she thought the lawyers were great and helped many clients protect their rights. Interestingly, two of the men she worked for became law professors, and the other a Superior Court Judge before whom I appeared as a young lawyer. With regard to my mom’s family, it included some storied legal practitioners. My mother’s Aunt Muriel (my great aunt) was one of the first women lawyers in the State of Michigan, and my mom’s Uncle (my great uncle) Jim was a Judge. One of her cousin’s was General Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan, and another the President of the Michigan State Bar. Our cousin Stephen was a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. In addition to many legal services he performed for them, he would seek and obtain injunctions in federal courts against para-military training by right-wing hate groups. He later became a law professor. All the above steered me toward the practice of law.
SG: If you hadn’t gone to law school, what would have been your second career choice?
WB: Teaching public policy, policy analysis, and government would have been a career path/choice had I not chosen to practice law. I have always found those areas to be of great interest, and important for Americans - including policymakers - to understand.
SG: Did you enjoy working as a lawyer in the private sector (prior to entering the public sector)?
WB: For the most part, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. At the first firm where I worked as a lawyer, I did some corporate work, some tax work, and then focused on civil litigation. The work was engaging, and I enjoyed many of the matters. I was in court for hearings on many mornings. The firm had some entertainment clients, and I clearly recall being in an enjoyable meeting with - and discussing the creation of a corporation for - Christopher George, who had starred in the television series The Rat Patrol, a favorite of mine. While the work I did was extremely time-consuming (I worked 7 days a week and long hours every day) and detail oriented, one great memory I have of that firm is that as sunset neared, there would be a call for all of the lawyers and staff to gather in the conference room to watch the sun go down. And since we were on the 40th floor of 2049 Century Park East in Century City, the view toward the ocean was spectacular. After working in Century City, I then joined a civil litigation firm in Westwood, and enjoyed the legal work there, as well as my colleagues. Thereafter I worked as a lawyer in private businesses, acted as a legal consultant, and did legal and project management work for a developer of senior housing. And while doing my legal work for pay, I also performed a large volume of pro bono (and per gratis) legal work and did much volunteer work, including service on boards of directors.
Fun and Lighter Questions:
SG: What kind of music do you like?
WB: The music I listen to is highly influenced by my mood. When I feel stressed, I turn to classical music. I also will listen to jazz on certain occasions. Then I adore Ol’ Man River as performed by Paul Robeson, and Walkin’ After Midnight by Patsy Cline. As a Southern CA beach aficionado growing up (while I grew up in the hills of Sherman Oaks, my dad’s mom lived on Navy Street in Venice and my mom’s mom lived on 3rd Street in Santa Monica - and I spent a lot of time at the beach and in the water), I loved Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, and the Surfaris (Wipeout). But my favorite music has to be Acid Rock. Some of the bands - performers - I loved were (and still are): The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Janis Joplin, Iron Butterfly, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Count Five, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead.
SG: Favorite book that you are reading or have read recently? Favorite movie?
WB: I recently picked up, read, and really enjoyed the book Fortunate Son by John Fogerty. He and Creedence Clearwater Revival are also favorites of mine. I also have been perusing A Higher Loyalty by James Comey, and Is this Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld. As far as movies, I don’t see many these days. But I did have the chance to see the House of Gucci on a recent cruise. I thought Lady Gaga and Adam Driver were great as Patrizia Reggini-Gucci and the ill-fated Maurizio Gucci, respectively, though the movie is quite depressing. The last movie I saw in a theater was Elvis, directed by Baz Luhrmann. I thought Austin Butler gave a stellar performance, had the look and moves of Elvis, but was deeply disappointed in Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker. My mom’s cousin Paul Nathan co-produced a number of Elvis Presley movies, and I had heard Tom Parker speak about Elvis. Parker had a southern-style accent, and the weird accent used by Tom Hanks was just plain wrong and strange.
SG: If you could sit down and speak with any public, famous or historical figure, who would that be, and is there a particular question that you would ask them?
WB: President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 - 1945). I would ask him if he thought that his paralysis from the waist down as a result of polio - which occurred in 1921 at 39 years of age - caused him to have a greater compassion for and understanding of - and led him to advocate more strenuously for - those people who were dispossessed, disadvantaged, and in need of help.
SG: If you could live in a different era or time period, when would that be and why?
WB: If I could be transported to another time period and place(s), it would be Boston and Philadelphia several years before, during, and immediately after the American Revolution. The war of independence from the British Empire has always fascinated me, and the leading American colonists were brilliant, brave, and the ideas they advanced - in creating a republic founded on the consent of the governed - were monumental. To be in places where one could meet and interact with American greats such as George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, and other key American colonists would be phenomenal. I have toured Lexington and Concord, the site of the Boston Massacre and the tea party, Bunker Hill, and have been to Independence Hall, and all of those places are profoundly exciting.
SG: Do you have any favorite foreign travel destinations?
WB: I loved being in and traveling through jungles (Kenya, the Amazon, parts of the Yucatan), many Caribbean islands, the Coral Route (from the Bay of Islands and Auckland, to Fiji, the Cook Islands, and the Tahitian Islands), Europe, and Central and South America (the latter mostly via ships).
SG: Anything interesting you would be comfortable sharing about yourself and that you think might surprise people?
WB: I will share a few things, some or all of which people tell me they find surprising (or interesting):
I met Nikita Khruschev, the Premier of the Soviet Union, at the Ambassador Hotel on September 19, 1959. Khushchev arrived at the hotel for a banquet hosted by Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson after a luncheon at 20th Century Fox. My parents took me there to see if we might see the Soviet leader. At some point, we were told that Khruschev wanted to meet some American children. I was 5 years old at the time and I was chosen, along with two other boys, to meet him outside of the hotel entrance near the Cocoanut Grove. I remember vividly walking up to him and the giant smile he had. He shook our hands, and there was some coverage on the evening news. The only photo I have is of Kruschev walking toward me.
Another thing, while I was an undergraduate at UCLA, I worked on some occasions as a parking valet at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills. My friend and classmate Chris Priga was a regular valet there and he invited me to work with him. For me, that was truly another world and time. I have memories of meeting Peter Lawford, Jim Brown, James Caan, Hugh Hefner, and a number of other celebrities of the time. And I clearly recall all of the plain clothes security folks carrying .38 specials.
Finally, I am a “super face recognizer” according to test results from the University of New South Wales, and am able to remember and match faces better than some computer systems. Amazingly, my son Seth has this same skill.
SG: Do you have a favorite quote du jour?
WB: Yes. It is by T.S. Eliot and reads:
“To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.”
It was a pleasure interviewing Mr. Bell and I thank him for granting me this interview and providing such thoughtful and candid responses. If you don't already, please follow Mr. Bell on LinkedIn.
Summer Goralik is a Real Estate Compliance Consultant and licensed Real Estate Broker (#02022805). Summer offers real estate brokers a variety of consulting services including assistance with California Department of Real Estate investigations and audit preparation, mock audits, brokerage compliance guidance, advertising review, and training. She helps licensees evaluate their regulatory compliance and correct any non-compliant activities. Summer has an extensive background in real estate which includes private sector, regulatory and law enforcement experience. Prior to opening her consulting business in 2016, she worked for the Orange County District Attorney's Office as a Civilian Economic Crimes Investigator in their Real Estate Fraud Unit. Before that, Summer was employed as a Special Investigator for the DRE for six years. Among many achievements, she wrote several articles for the DRE, four of which were co-authored with former Real Estate Commissioner Wayne Bell. Prior to her career in government and law enforcement, Summer also worked in the escrow industry for nearly five years. For more information about Summer's background and services, please visit her website, www.expertdrecompliance.com