Tag Archives: crime

State of Washington Fines Countrywide for $1 Million for Discriminatory Lending — Will Seek to Revoke Countrywide’s License to Do Business in State

Washington Governor Christine Gregoire today announced plans by her state to fine Countrywide Home Loans $1 million for discriminatory lending.

In addition, the company will be required to pay more than $5 million in back assessments the company failed to pay.

Gregoire also announced the state is seeking to revoke Countrywide’s license to do business in Washington for its alleged illegal activity.

Joining Gregoire at today’s announcement was Deb Bortner, director of consumer services at the Washington state Department of Financial Institutions (DFI), and James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

“The allegation that Countrywide preyed on minority borrowers is extremely troubling to me,” Gregoire said. “And I hope to learn eventually just how much this may have contributed to foreclosures in our state. The allegation offers evidence that Countrywide engaged in a pattern to target minority groups and engage in predatory practices.”

“That’s why we intend to bring the full weight of the state on Countrywide to rewrite home loans for minority borrowers who may have been misled into signing predatory mortgages,” the governor noted. “My job is to protect hard-working Washingtonians, and protect them we will.”

DFI is required to examine every home-lender licensed in the state of Washington. The agency conducted its fair lending examination of Countrywide last year. At that time, DFI looked at roughly 600 individual loan files and uncovered evidence that Countrywide engaged in discriminatory lending that targeted Washington’s minority communities. The agency also found significant underreporting of loans during its investigation.

“The Urban League is seeing far too many families caught up in the mortgage crisis who are being steered into bad loans,” stated James Kelly. “Today’s announcement from the governor is consistent with her message of protecting Washingtonians from national mortgage instability.”

DFI sent Countrywide a statement of charges on June 23, notifying the company of the fine and the back assessments the state plans to pursue.  Washington says that the investigation continues.

We have written on the disproportionate impact that the mortgage meltdown and housing crisis has had on minorities.

Washington’s action against Countrywide comes on the heels of lawsuits for fraud, deception, and unfair trade practices filed against Countrywide by the states of Illinois, California, and Florida.

 

Advertisements

Florida Joins States Suing Countrywide

Florida has joined Illinois and California as states suing subprime lender Countrywide Financial for deceptive and unfair trade practices.

The Florida lawsuit claims that Countrywide put borrowers into mortgages they couldn’t afford or loans with rates and penalties that were misleading.

As in the Illinois and California actions, Countrywide CEO Executive Angelo Mozilo was also named as a defendant.

Here you can read the complaint filed Broward County Circuit Court in Attorney General, Department of Legal Affairs, State of Florida v. Countywide Financial Corp., Countrywide Home Loans Inc., and Angelo Mozilo.

Here you can read our earlier reports on the Illinois and California lawsuits against Countrywide.

In filing the lawsuit, Florida Attorney General William “Bill” McCollum said that “It is unthinkable that a company would try to take advantage of someone’s dream of homeownership. Florida homeowners who are trying to protect their homes from foreclosures shouldn’t have to worry about their mortgage brokers or lenders unfairly profiting at their expense.”

“Similar to other mortgage lenders, Countrywide attempted to generate large numbers of mortgage loans for resale on the secondary mortgage market. In doing so, the company purportedly originated loans with little concern about whether the borrower could afford and maintain payments on these loans. In the process, the company allegedly eased or ignored its own underwriting standards and encouraged borrowers to enter into “teaser” rates while concealing or misrepresenting that much larger payments would become due.”

According to Marc Taps of Legal Services of North Florida, “Our legal services programs throughout the state have seen a large number of clients who are now in default on mortgages written by Countrywide. It appears to us Countrywide did no due diligence and accepted applications which were patently fraudulent and reflected no ability on the part of the borrowers to make the required payments. We cannot help but conclude that the most financially unsophisticated segment of the population was targeted by the brokers who knew Countrywide would write these mortgages.”

The lawsuit also claims that Countrywide hid any potentially negative effects of “teaser” loans, including rising rates, prepayment penalties and negative amortization, which borrowers would inevitably face if they were making minimum payments or trying to refinance.

Traditionally, lenders require borrowers to document income and assets, but investigators with the Attorney General’s Office believe Countrywide offered reduced or no documentation loan programs to increase its loan sales. Countrywide also allegedly paid greater compensation to brokers for loans with higher interest rates and prepayment penalties because it could sell those loans for higher prices on the secondary market.

The Florida Attorney General’s Office also asserts that “[Countrywide’s] deceptive marketing practices were supposedly designed to sell costly loans while hiding or misrepresenting the terms and dangers. Countrywide’s deceptive sales practices resulted in a large number of loans ending in default and foreclosure, with the company reporting earlier this year that more than 25 percent of its subprime loans were delinquent. The Attorney General’s Office received more than 150 complaints about Countrywide, prompting a subpoena in February and ultimately leading to today’s lawsuit.”

In a sign that the growing state legal assault on Countrywide is a bipartisan project, McCollum is the first Republican state attorney general to sue Countrywide.

As we’ve observed before, Countrywide’s expanding legal troubles do not bode well for Bank of America, which plans to acquire Countrywide.

Adding to the pressure on Bank of America to abandon the Countrywide deal, McCollum vowed that he would go after Bank of America’s assets to pay for the damages owed by Countrwide if the sale goes through.

Florida asks consumers who believe they have been victimized by Countrywide to call the Attorney General’s fraud hotline at 1-866-966-7226 or  file a complaint online at: http://myfloridalegal.com.

 UPDATE:

The state of Washington is expected to file a lawsuit against Countrywide soon, accusing Countrywide of discriminating against minority borrowers. The state wants to fine the mortgage lender and revoke its license to conduct business in the state.

Greed, Power and Sex: Con-Artist with “Vatican” Connections Indicted for Scamming the Rich and Famous

Here’s a story about greed, power and sex that’s a mixture of The Da Vinci Code, Bonfire of the Vanities, Moliere’s Tartuffe and Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man

It is about a scam and a scammer.

We’ve written about scams and how to avoid them

We don’t like scammers, especially those who prey on the desperate and the vulnerable, such as people facing foreclosure. 

But sometimes a scammer is so outrageous, so inventive, so over-the-top, and his victims so well-heeled and incredulous, that we have to admit at least an ambivalent admiration.

One such scammer is Raffaello Follieri, one of the very few scammers we’ve seen who deserves the name con-artist.

Follieri’s story reads more like a novel than a crime report.

For months, Americans who were in-the-know knew Follieri as a suave and sophisticated Italian businessman, real estate mogul, socialite, philanthropist, and Vatican representative.

He was none of these, except Italian.

Using charm, good looks, unbelievable gall, and a network of gullible and greedy New York socialites, Washington insiders and Hollywood A-list connections, Follieri moved easily in exclusive circles of money, power, and glamor. He lived in a $40,000 a month Fifth Avenue apartment and travelled the world, going to parties, conferring with the Pope (he said), and receiving awards for his generosity. 

Among those who fell under Follieri’s spell was actress Anne Hathaway.

Another was billionaire entrepreneur Ron Burkle, Burkle’s investment business Yucaipa Companies LLC, as well as Burkle’s friend, former President Bill Clinton.

Then the scam collapsed.

According to the New York Times,  “Raffaello Follieri, from San Giovanni Rotondo on the spur of Italy’s boot, is alive and kicking in his $40,000-a-month duplex on Fifth Avenue. Age 29, he used empty claims of church ties to befriend Douglas Band, a top aide to Bill Clinton. Band then smoothed the way to Clinton’s moneyed entourage, including the California billionaire Ronald Burkle.”

“Mr. Follieri received an onstage thanks from Mr. Clinton after pledging $50 million to the Clinton Global Initiative. The money has not been paid.”

“Mr. Follieri’s business cachet — his link to the Catholic Church — was contrived, the government said. It consisted of an administrative employee at the Vatican whom he paid.”

“Mr. Follieri also hired a relative of a former Vatican official as well as his own father, claiming that his father had a special relationship with the Vatican. In an apparent effort to build ostensible ties to the church, Mr. Follieri also met with clergy and traveled with a monsignor.”

In another story, the Times further explains that “Attractive and charming, [Follieri] rapidly moved into the world of billionaires and political figures. His entree was helped when he met and befriended Douglas Band, a top aide to Bill Clinton who brought Mr. Follieri into contact with the former president and Mr. Burkle.”

“That relationship birthed the unhappy union of Burkle’s Yucaipa investment operation, of which Clinton is a senior adviser, and the Follieri Group in a venture to acquire Catholic Church property Follieri said he’d get on the cheap.”

“From mid-2005, Burkle plowed $55.6 million into this enterprise, only to conclude Follieri was devoting a chunk of it to good living. A suit filed by Yucaipa in Delaware in May contends Follieri has been ‘systematically misappropriating the assets’ to indulge in ‘massive charges for five-star lodging’, ‘dog care’ and ‘inappropriate jet travel’ for himself and ‘his actress girlfriend’.  That’s Anne Hathaway, of The Devil Wears Prada.”

Burkle’s lawsuit against Follieri was dismissed after Follieri agreed to pay back more than $1.3 million.

Then, last week, Follieri was arrested in New York and charged with 12 counts of fraud and money laundering.  He could get life in prison.

The charges against Follieri include:

  • Six counts of wire fraud and each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
  • Five counts of money laundering with each count  carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.
  • One count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years behind bars.

According to the press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “From June 2005 through June 2007, FOLLIERI ran a fraudulent real estate investment scheme, falsely claiming that he had close connections with the Vatican that enabled him to purchase Catholic Church properties in the United States at a substantial discount. FOLLIERI claimed that the Vatican formally appointed him to manage its financial affairs and that he met with the Pope in person when he visited Rome, Italy.”

“In reality, FOLLIERI’s connections consisted of an administrative employee at the Vatican who was paid by FOLLIERI; FOLLIERI’s hiring of a relative of a former Vatican official; meetings with clergy, FOLLIERI’s travels with monsignors; and a reporter for a news publication in Italy. None of these connections entitled FOLLIERI to purchase Church real estate at below-market rates.”

“Based on his fraudulent representations about his ties to the Vatican, FOLLIERI was able to access and misappropriate hundreds of thousands of dollars in investor money to live a luxurious lifestyle, including expensive restaurants and clothes;dog walking services; an opulent apartment in Manhattan that leased for approximately $37,000 per month, overlooked Rockefeller Center, and had views of Central Park; medical expenses for his girlfriend at the time and his parents,including a “house call” by FOLLIERI’s physician which cost privately chartered airplanes to various locations around the world.”

“In addition, FOLLIERI stole money from an investor by falsely claiming, among other things, that FOLLIERI needed money for an office in Italy that did not exist, and claimed that he spent over $800,000 for “engineering reports” relating to real estate that did not reflect engineering work and were almost worthless. FOLLIERI caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulently obtained proceeds to be wired to a bank account in Monaco that he controlled in order to hide and conceal the source and control of the funds. From late 2006 through early 2007,FOLLIERI’s scheme started to unravel, and FOLLIERI’s principal investor cut its ties to FOLLIERI and fired him.”

The Times reports that “Judge Henry B. Pitman set bail at $21 million, to be secured by $16 million in cash and property and guaranteed by five financially responsible persons. Mr. Follieri had to surrender all travel documents and was ordered confined to his home in Manhattan with the exception of legal, religious and medical needs. Any trips must be made with an electronic-monitoring device.”

And Anne Hathaway has gotten smart and is no longer taking his phone calls.

 

Windfall for Lender – Or Will Natural Gas Discovery Benefit Victims of Ed Okun’s 1031 Tax Group Scam?

There’s a new ripple in the story of indicted 1031 exchange scammer Edward Okun, the 1031 Tax Group, and their victims.

Cordell Funding is a Miami-based hard money mortgage lender. Last fall, Cordell Funding sued Okun to recover $17 million it had loaned to Okun before his fraud-riddled real estate empire collapsed into bankruptcy actions and criminal indictments.

Cordell Funding initially sued Okun in a New York state court, but a federal judge transferred the suit to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan, where Gerard McHale, the court-appointed Chapter 11 trustee of Okun’s 1031 Tax Group, was selling off Okun’s assets.

As part of that bankruptcy case, McHale turned over the rights to several Okun properties to Cordell. One of the properties that McHale turned over to Cordell was the Shreveport Industrial Park, a nearly empty 42-year-old, 956,735-square-foot Class C industrial distribution building at 9595 Mansfield Road in Shreveport, Louisiana.

It wasn’t worth much — certainly not the $17 million that Cordell said it was owed by Okun.

Then natural gas was discovered in the area. 

In fact, it was discovered that under the Shreveport Industrial Park is the largest onshore natural gas field in North America.   It could hold as much as 20 trillion cubic-feet equivalent of natural gas reserves.

The mineral rights lease for the Sheveport Industrial Park is now valued at somewhere between $30 and $60 million.

And property values for the area have soared.

It looks like Cordell Funding got a windfall from the bankruptcy court. 

But when the natural gas field was discovered, bankruptcy trustee McHale went back to court to have the bankruptcy judge of the 1031 Tax Group vacate the order giving Cordell Funding rights to the Shreveport property. At the same time, McHale has asked the bankruptcy judge to approve a mineral rights lease with PetroHawk Energy for the benefit of the 1031 Tax Group victims.

Now whether Cordell Funding or the hundreds of creditors of the 1031 Tax Group gets the millions of dollars from the Shreveport natural gas discovery will be determined by the bankruptcy court.

UPDATE:

For the latest on Ed Okun (new federal indictments, plus the indictments of Laura Coleman and Richard B. Simring), click here.

California Sues Countrywide for Mortgage Deception

California has joined Illinois today as states suing beleaguered subprime mortgage giant Countrywide Financial Corp. for deceptive loan practices.

In a lawsuit filed this morning in Los Angeles Superior Court, California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued Countrywide Financial, its chief executive Angelo Mozilo, and president David Sambol, for engaging in deceptive advertising and unfair competition by pushing homeowners into mass-produced, risky loans for the sole purpose of reselling the mortgages on the secondary market.

The lawsuit alleges that Countrywide Financial used deceptive tactics to push homeowners into complicated, risky, and expensive loans so that the company could sell as many loans as possible to third-party investors. 

The complaint also alleges that the company marketed complex and difficult to understand loans with very low initial or “teaser” interest rates or payments. Countrywide employees, including loan officers, underwriters, and branch managers–who were under intense pressure to process a constantly increasing number of loans–misrepresented or obfuscated the fact that borrowers who obtained certain types of loans would experience dramatic increases in monthly payments.

Here you can read the complaint filed in California v. Countrywide Financial Corp, Full Spectrum Lending, Angelo Mozilo, and David Sabol.

According to the Calfornia Attorney General’s Office, “In the past, lenders like Countrywide sold home loans to customers and held the loans in their own portfolio, an incentive to maintain strong underwriting standards. Countrywide, however, sold its loans to third-parties in the form of securities or whole loans, often earning more profit for riskier loans. The business model generated windfall profits for Countrywide.”

“The company pushed these loans by emphasizing a low “teaser” or initial rate, often as low as 1 percent for pay option ARMs. Countrywide obscured the negative effects–including rising rates, prepayment penalties and negative amortization–which would inevitably result from making minimum payments or trying to refinance. The company misrepresented or hid the fact that borrowers who obtained its home loans–including exploding adjustable rates and negatively amortizing loans–would experience dramatic increases in monthly payments.”

“In an effort to rope in as many customers as possible, Countrywide greatly relaxed and liberally granted exceptions to its mortgage lending standards. Traditionally, lenders required borrowers to document income and assets but Countrywide offered reduced or no documentation loan programs to increase its loan sales. Angelo Mozilo and David Sambol actively pushed for easing underwriting standards and granting exceptions to documentation requirements.”

“In Countrywide’s 2006 annual report, the company touted the massive growth of its loan production from $62 billion in 2000 to $463 billion in 2006–three times the increase of the U.S. residential loan production market, which tripled from $1.0 trillion in 2000 to $2.9 trillion in 2006. 26 percent of Countywide loans were for California properties. The company sold an ever-increasing number of loans in an effort to gain a 30 percent market share of loan originations and then sell its loans on the secondary market, as mortgage-backed securities or pools of whole loans. Countrywide’s securities trading volume increased from $647 billion in 2000 to $3.8 trillion in 2006.”

“Countrywide routinely sold loans based upon a borrower’s stated income and without verifying the information. Loan officers memorized scripts that marketed low payments by focusing on the potential customer’s dissatisfaction, saying, for example, ‘Which would you rather have, a long-term fixed payment, or a short-term one that may allow you to realize several hundred dollars a month in savings?’ The loan officer did not state that the payment on this new loan would exceed the payment on the current loan.

“Countrywide paid greater compensation to brokers for loans with a higher interest rates, as well as prepayment penalties, because it could sell those loans for higher prices on the secondary market. Countrywide also paid rebates to brokers who originated loans with prepayment penalties, adjustable rates and high margins.”

“Countrywide operated an extensive telemarketing operation in which it touted its expertise and claimed to find the best financial options for customers. Customer Service representatives at Countrywide call centers were required to complete calls within three minutes, often processing sixty-five to eight-five calls per day. Employees who did not meet quotas were terminated. The company’s deceptive marketing practices, designed to sell costly loans while hiding or misrepresenting the terms and dangers, included:

  • Encouraging borrowers to refinance or obtain financing with complicated mortgage instruments like hybrid adjustable rate mortgages or payment option adjustable mortgages;
  • Marketing complex loan products by emphasizing a very low “teaser” rate while misrepresenting the steep monthly payments, increased interest rates and risk of negative amortization;
  • Dramatically easing underwriting standards to qualify more people for loans;
  • Using low or no-documentation loans which allowed no verification of stated income;
  • Hiding total monthly payment obligations by selling homeowners a second mortgage in the form of a home equity line of credit;
  • Making borrowers sign a large stack of documents without provider time to read the paperwork; and
  • Misrepresenting or hiding the fact that loans had prepayment penalties.”

“As the secondary market’s appetite for loans increased, Countrywide further relaxed its standards to finance borrowers with ever-decreasing credit scores. Countrywide employees routinely overrode the company’s computerized underwriting system, known as CLUES, which issued loan analysis reports recommending or discouraging loans based on factors such as a consumer’s credit rating. As the pressure to produce loans increased, Countrywide set up an entire department in Plano, Texas, at the direction of Mozilo and Sambol, where employees could submit requests for underwriting exceptions. In 2006, 15,000 to 20,000 loans a month were processed through this exception process.>

“Countrywide’s deceptive sales practices resulted in a large number of loans ending in default and foreclosure. According to Countrywide’s February 2008 records, a staggering 27 percent of its subprime mortgages were delinquent. Overall, approximately 20,000 Californians lost their homes to foreclosure in May 2008 and 72,000 California homes were in default, roughly 1 out of 183 homes.”

“Despite receiving numerous complaints from borrowers claiming that they did not understand their loan terms, Countrywide ignored loan officer’s deceptive practices and loose underwriting standards. Countrywide also pushed its borrowers to serially refinance, repeatedly urging borrowers to obtain home loans to pay off their current debt.”

The California Attorney General’s Office asks that consumers who believe they have been victimized by Countrywide Consumers should file a complaint by contact the Attorney General’s Public Inquiry Unit in writing at Attorney General’s Office California Department of Justice Attn: Public Inquiry Unit P.O. Box 944255, Sacramento, California or through an online complaint form available at http://ag.ca.gov/contact/complaint_form.php?cmplt=CL

 

Illinois Sues Countrywide and Mozilo For Fraud and Deception

In the first state action against Countrywide Financial, the Attorney General of Illinois is suing Countrywide and its chief executive, Angelo Mozilo, claiming that the company and its executives engaged in unfair and deceptive practices that defrauded borrowers by selling them costly and defective loans that quickly went into foreclosure.

Here you can read the complaint in Illinois v. Countrywide Financial Corp., Countywide Home Loans Inc., Full Spectrum Lending, Countrywide Home Loans Servicing LP, and Angelo R. Mozilo

The lawsuit, which will be filed on Wednesday in Cook County, accuses Countrywide and Mozilo of improper underwriting standards, structuring loans with risky features, and misleading consumers with hidden fees and fake marketing claims, including its still heavily advertised “no closing costs loan.” 

The complaint also alleges that Countrywide created incentives for its employees and brokers to sell questionable loans by paying them more on such sales.

The lawsuit asks for an unspecified amount of monetary damages and requests that the court require Countrywide to rescind or reform all the questionable loans it sold from 2004 through the present. 

In addition, the lawsuit asks the Court to require that Mozilo personally contribute to paying the damages.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan also asks the court for 90 days to review any loans currently in foreclosure or moving toward foreclosure.

The complaint states that Countrywide was the largest lender in Illionis from 2004 through 2006, selling about 94,000 loans to consumers in the state. The company operated about 100 retail branch offices in Illinois and its loans were also offered by Illinois mortgage brokers. Countrywide also purchased loans through a network of 2,100 correspondent lenders in the state.

The complaint also describes dubious practices in Countrywide’s huge servicing arm, which oversees $1.5 trillion in loans. 

For example, the complaint alleges that an Illinois consumer whose Countrywide mortgage was in foreclosure came home to find that the company had changed her locks and boarded up her home, although no judgment had been entered and no foreclosure sale conducted, and that It took a week for the homeowner to regain access to her home.

Attorney General Madigan claims that “People were put into loans they did not understand, could not afford and could not get out of. This mounting disaster has had an impact on individual homeowners statewide and is having an impact on the global economy. It is all from the greed of people like Angelo Mozilo.”

The lawsuit is being filed on the same day that Countrywide’s shareholders will meet to decide whether to agree to a sale of the company to Bank of America.

We’ve written before about why we think that Bank of America will ultimately pull out of the deal

Adding to the arguments that we earlier made against Bank of America’s purchase of Countrywide, the New York Times notes that “The lawsuit adds to the considerable legal risks facing Bank of America as it prepares to absorb Countrywide in a takeover announced in January. Countrywide and its executives have been named as defendants in shareholder lawsuits, and the company’s practices are the subject of investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the F.B.I. and the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees loan servicing companies.”

In addition to the Illinois lawsuit, at least three lawsuits against Countrywide have been filed by offices of the U. S. Trustee, part of the Department of Justice that monitors the bankruptcy system,  contending that Countrywide’s loan servicing practices were an abuse of the bankruptcy system.

Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo also has troubles of his own. 

Mozilo is the subject of a Securities and Exchanges Commission investigation into his sales of Countrywide stock before the price imploded; from 2005 to 2007 Angelo R. Mozilo sold much of his Countrywide stock realizing $291.5 million in profits.

And, as we’ve reported, Mozilo is at the center of the new controversy regarding recent revelations that politically connected “Friends of Angelo,” including  U.S. Senators Christopher Dodd (D- Conn.) and Kent Conrad (D-N. Dak.), as well as members of both the current Bush and previous Clinton administrations, got special “V.I.P.” loans with extremely favorable terms from Countrywide.

In the last three quarters, Countrywide reported $2.5 billion in losses, and in the first quarter of 2008, total nonperforming assets reached $6 billion, almost five times that of the same period last year.

UPDATE:

California has also sued Countrywide for deceptive practices. 

You can read the story here.

You can also read the complaint in California v. Countrywide Financial Corp, Full Spectrum Lending, Angelo Mozilo, and David Sabol.

 

The “Friends of Angelo” — Countrywide’s Sweetheart Loans to Washington Big-Shots

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.