Countrywide used VIP program to sway Congress: report
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A VIP mortgage program run by now-defunct Countrywide Financial Corp was used to influence lawmakers with the aim of killing legislation that could hurt the company's profits, a congressional report released on Thursday said.
The report from the House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee provided new details about the program, which offered discount loans to "VIPs," and it named dozens of congressional staffers that benefited.
The company, which was once the biggest U.S. mortgage lender, granted hundreds of loans between 1991 and 2008 through the VIP program, the report said.
Recipients included lawmakers, their staff, top government officials and executives of government-controlled mortgage company Fannie Mae, according to the report.
"The VIP loan program was a tool used by Countrywide to build good will with lawmakers and other individuals positioned to benefit the company," it stated. The loans often had reduced interest rates and eliminated certain fees, the report added.
In the years leading up to the 2007 housing market boom and bust, Countrywide VIPs were able to "affect dozens of pieces of legislation" being considered in Congress, including measures to reform giant mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it said.
The two companies, rescued by the government in 2008, have drawn nearly $190 billion in taxpayer funds to stay afloat.
Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the panel, has waged a high-profile campaign for three years to obtain mortgage files of members of Congress who received special treatment from Countrywide.
Countrywide, acquired by Bank of America Corp in 2008, was a California-based lender that became a dominant player in the mortgage business during the housing boom. Both the company and its long-time chief executive, Angelo Mozilo, became synonymous with the risky lending practices that set the housing market up for its downfall.
In a letter provided by his lawyer, Mozilo denied using the VIP program to sway policy decisions and said he did not recall many of the details about the origination and the pricing of those loans.
"The VIP unit primarily gave focused customer support and cost-effective processing and service," he wrote. "I personally was proud to have people of prominence select Countrywide to be their lender of choice."
FRAUD, INSIDER TRADING CHARGES
In October 2010, Mozilo agreed to pay $67.5 million in a combined penalty to settle Securities and Exchange Commission charges of fraud and insider trading related to Countrywide's risky subprime mortgage lending practices.
The congressional report said a Countrywide lobbyist, Jimmie Williams, would route individuals in Congress who needed a loan to the VIP program. Those with problems with existing loans were referred to a select customer-service unit, the report said.
Williams used the program to "create a favorable impression of the company on Capitol Hill," it said. A lawyer for Williams was not immediately available to comment.
An earlier report by the Republican staff of the Oversight Committee described Countrywide's effort "to establish and develop relationships with potentially influential borrowers in government and industry."
Thursday's report did not identify new members of Congress receiving loans as so-called "Friends of Angelo." At least six current or former lawmakers from both parties were previously identified.
They included former Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, according to the report.
The VIP unit also processed loans for Reps Howard "Buck" McKeon; Pete Sessions; former Oversight Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns; and Elton Gallegly, the report said.
Sessions requested that he not receive any special benefits and did not receive a discounted loan, the report said.
Gallegly's office said in a statement that he never asked for nor was he ever aware of any preferential treatment from Countrywide for a single loan in 2004 that he paid off less than a year later.
A spokesman for Towns said the New York lawmaker stood by previous statements that he did not knowingly receive any preferential treatment.
Conrad said in a statement the matter had been thoroughly reviewed.
"The Senate Ethics Committee spent a year and a half reviewing every last page of my loan history with Countrywide. They determined - unanimously, Democrats and Republicans - that I received no preferential treatment and in no way acted unethically. That is the truth," he said.
Dodd, who now heads the Motion Picture Association of America and has said previously that he did nothing wrong, also was cleared by the ethics panel in 2009.
McKeon's office said in a statement he was unaware of the "Friends of Angelo designation" and has been "completely upfront and transparent" about his 1998 loan.
"Mr. McKeon shares Chairman Issa's interest in determining if there was any wrongdoing by Countrywide," the statement said.
(Reporting by Margaret Chadbourn; editing by Maureen Bavdek and Todd Eastham)
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