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Opinion: Columnists

Issa report exposes the wink and nudge of 'congressional ethics'

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An investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform demonstrates why the House and Senate Ethics committees are as useless as the proverbial screen door on a submarine.

The oversight committee -- which is chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. -- reviewed more than 120,000 documents and interviewed legions of witnesses during its three-year probe of how Angelo Mozilo's Countrywide Mortgage gained sufficient influence to block reforms that could have prevented or significantly lessened the Great Recession of 2008.

It's a sordid tale that includes sweetheart mortgage deals for key Senate Democrats, three former Clinton administration Cabinet secretaries, and several strategically placed congressional aides from both sides of the aisle.

The committee estimates that more than 17,000 special mortgages were issued via Mozilo's "Friends of Angelo" VIP program at Countrywide between 1996 and 2008. Among the many recipients, two stand out in the Issa report.

Sen. Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who chaired the powerful Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, initially claimed not to know about his preferential treatment. He was cleared by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics in August 2009, but he then retired in 2010 after the public learned how close a friend of Angelo he had been. Dodd received waivers of all fees on two mortgages whose combined worth was nearly $800,000.

The Issa panel says Dodd must have known more than he has let on so far, because he also "referred Mary Jane Collipriest, communications director for Senator Robert Bennett, to the VIP unit when she refinanced her mortgage in 2002. Countrywide waived processing and junk fees for Collipriest." ("Junk fees" is a trade term for assorted upfront lender charges.)

Collipriest's immediate boss was then the second-ranking Republican on the banking committee. She became Bennett's chief of staff in 2006.

Dodd helped launch the bailout mania that seized Washington in 2008. The Issa report said "on June 17, 2008, the same day he acknowledged for the first time that he was a Countrywide VIP customer, Dodd announced that he was bringing to the Senate floor a housing bailout to help Countrywide and other struggling subprime lenders.

"Dodd's plan, known as the Dodd-Shelby bill, allowed mortgage lenders to dump up to $300 billion of their worst loans on to taxpayers via a new Federal Housing Administration refinancing program."

The Issa report notes that shortly thereafter, this newspaper "obtained a 'confidential and proprietary' document" that made clear the bailout section of Dodd's measure was exactly what Countrywide wanted.

Then there is the case of Maria Meier, who last year became a senior adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Meier's ascent to that position was helped by Countrywide, among others, according to the Issa report.

In 2004, Meier was executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. A Countrywide lobbyist referred her to the Countrywide VIP program. The year before, the caucus had launched a program to encourage lenders to grant mortgages to more Hispanics.

By writing checks to the caucus for as much as $150,000, supportive lenders like Countrywide got special consideration, including, for example, official news releases from the congressional group promoting the donor's commercial products to the Hispanic community.

In 2006, Meier left the caucus to join the Dewey Square Group, a lobbying outfit, to work with two former Countrywide vice presidents. Meier did not respond to a reporter's request for comment.

It's a felony to offer a financial inducement like favorable mortgage terms in return for any official act. But the Issa report suggests Countrywide skirted the law by not explicitly offering the sweet deals as quid pro quos.

In other words, winks and nudges, and everything is OK.

Mark Tapscott is executive editor of The Washington Examiner.

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