The scandal involving special “sweetheart” loans to politicians and Washington insiders by Countrywide Financial is both heating up and widening.
Earlier this week, James A. Johnson was forced to step down as head of Barack Obama’s vice president selection team when it was revealed that he had profited from special deals on three home loans with Countrywide that were approved by Countrywide founder Angelo Mozilo only for his “close friends.”
At that time, we wrote that “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.”
Now it appears that Mozilo had a much larger circle of “close friends” in Congress and in recent Democrat and Republican administrations than was originally supposed, and that sweatheart loan deals were given by Countrywide to a wide array of Washington politicians and big-shots.
The “Friends of Angelo” list is now known to include Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Senator Kent Conrad (D-N. Dak.), Bush’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson, former Clinton Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and former U.N. ambassador and Clinton Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke.
According to Portfolio.com, which broke the story:
“Most of the officials belonged to a group of V.I.P. loan recipients known in company documents and emails as “F.O.A.’s”—Friends of Angelo, a reference to Countrywide chief executive Angelo Mozilo. While the V.I.P. program also serviced friends and contacts of other Countrywide executives, the F.O.A.’s made up the biggest subset. According to company documents and emails, the V.I.P.’s received better deals than those available to ordinary borrowers. Home-loan customers can reduce their interest rates by paying “points”—one point equals 1 percent of the loan’s value.”
“For V.I.P.’s, Countrywide often waived at least half a point and eliminated fees amounting to hundreds of dollars for underwriting, processing and document preparation. If interest rates fell while a V.I.P. loan was pending, Countrywide provided a free ‘float-down’ to the lower rate, eschewing its usual charge of half a point. Some V.I.P.’s who bought or refinanced investment properties were often given the lower interest rate associated with primary residences.”
“Unless they asked, V.I.P. borrowers weren’t told exactly how many points were waived on their loans, the former employee says. However, they were typically assured that they were receiving the ‘Friends of Angelo’ discount, and that Mozilo had personally priced their loans.
“The V.I.P. loans to public officials in a position to advance Countrywide’s interests raise legal and ethical questions. Countrywide’s ethics code bars directors, officers and employees from ‘improperly influencing the decisions of government employees or contractors by offering or promising to give money, gifts, loans, rewards, favors, or anything else of value.’ Federal employees are prohibited from receiving gifts offered because of their official position, including loans on terms not generally available to the public. Senate rules prohibit members from knowingly receiving gifts worth $100 or more in a calendar year from private entities that, like Countrywide, employ a registered lobbyist.”
So far, neither Senator Dodd nor Senator Conrad have admitted any wrongdoing, and both claim that they did nothing for Mozilo or Countrywide in return for their sweetheart deals.
Dodd, who is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, claims that he never inquired or even wondered whether his special status with Countrywide might be related to his position as a senator or as Banking Committee chairman.
“Well, I don’t know we did anything wrong here,” Dodd said at a press conference. “I negotiated a mortgage at a prevailing rate, a competitive rate. If anyone had said to me, ‘We’re giving you some special treatment here,’ I would have rejected it. So no, I don’t feel at this point that I have any obligation. I did what I was supposed to do. I did what millions of other people did.”
Conrad, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, has said that he gave the money he saved on his special deal with Countrywide to charity.
We hope that Congress vigorously investigates this scandal, and that it fully exposes those who benefited from special deals with Countrywide while they were on the public payroll.