Given its central role in the subprime mortgage debacle, it is no surprise that Countrywide Financial has become politically radioactive.
The most recent evidence for the politically deadly consequences of an association with Countrywide or its corporate officers is the sudden and ungraceful exit of businessman James A. Johnson, a long time Washington insider and lobbyist, from Barack Obama’s vice-presidential selection team.
Johnson was chosen by Obama to lead the group, which also includes Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Eric Holder, that would help him select a running mate. The appointment seemed obvious, if uninspired, since Johnson is an old Democratic Party insider who played a similar role in selecting the vice presidential choices for both Walter Mondale and John Kerry.
But last week, Johnson came under withering fire for his association and possible sweetheart deals with former Countrywide chairman Angelo Mozilo. Specifically, Johnson was charged with having profited from special sweetheart deals on three home loans, with usually preferential mortgage terms, approved by Mozilo as the head of the Countrywide only for his close friends.
Bloomberg.com reports that “Angelo Mozilo, the chief executive officer of Countrywide, the biggest U.S. home lender, may have given Johnson and other friends good deals on mortgages, the Wall Street Journal reported on June 7, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter. The newspaper didn’t provide any specifics on whether favors were granted. Since then, Johnson’s position on the search committee has drawn criticism from Republicans who noted that Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, repeatedly denounced Countrywide for its role in the subprime-mortgage crisis.”
It was soon discovered that Johnson had other political liabilities, including criticism for his role as chairman and chief executive officer of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) from 1991 to 1999, and also faced questions about his role on corporate compensation committees that awarded large payouts to corporate executives.
As New York Times columnist Gail Collins pointed out, “Johnson is the former head of Fannie Mae, which under his direction, according to regulators, engaged in accounting practices that were, at best, sloppy. At the same time, he sat on the boards of five different corporations, where he appeared to serve as cheerleader for the theory that corporate executives deserve to be paid obscene amounts of money. How does someone go up to Barack Obama, who once sponsored a bill to curb excessive executive compensation, and say — ‘You know the vice-presidential search committee? For chairman, how about Jim Johnson? Remember, the guy who tried to give the head of United Health Group $1.4 billion in stock options?'”
Although Republicans are pleased with Johnson’s departure — or at least with the embarrassment to Barack Obama caused by the Johnson episode — John McCain has his own toxic subprime-association worries.
Former Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas), now serving as John McCain’s chief economic advisor, has been called “the father of the mortgage meltdown and financial crisis.”
Gramm spearheaded sweeping changes in federal banking law, including the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, which repealed previous rules separating banking, insurance and brokerage activities, and which some analysts blame for creating the legal framework for the current mortgage meltdown and credit crisis.
In addition, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observed that “According to federal lobbying disclosure records, Gramm lobbied Congress, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department about banking and mortgage issues in 2005 and 2006. During those years, the mortgage industry pressed Congress to roll back strong state rules that sought to stem the rise of predatory tactics used by lenders and brokers to place homeowners in high-cost mortgages.”
Gramm is also under fire for his connection with Swiss investment banking giant UBS, which is the subject of a federal investigation into whether it helped wealthy clients to use offshore accounts to hide as much as $20 billion in assets from the Internal Revenue Service and dodging at least $300 million in federal taxes. Gramm is vice-chair of UBS Securities, UBS’s investment arm.
The New York Times reports that “The case could turn into an embarrassment for Marcel Rohner, the chief executive of UBS and the former head of its private bank, as well as for Phil Gramm, the former Republican senator from Texas who is now the vice chairman of UBS Securities, the Swiss bank’s investment banking arm.”
So far, McCain has rejected calls to remove Gramm from his inner circle. But our guess is that, fairly soon, Gramm will join Jim Johnson in the growing Class of 2008 Ex-Presidential Candidate Advisors Club.
For more on Phil Gramm, John McCain, and UBS, click here.