By Daniel Golden, Portfolio.com:
Two U.S. senators, two former Cabinet members, and a former ambassador to the United Nations received loans from Countrywide Financial through a little-known program that waived points, lender fees, and company borrowing rules for prominent people.
Senators Christopher Dodd, Democrat from Connecticut and chairman of the Banking Committee, and Kent Conrad, Democrat from North Dakota, chairman of the Budget Committee and a member of the Finance Committee, refinanced properties through Countrywide’s “V.I.P.” program in 2003 and 2004, according to company documents and emails and a former employee familiar with the loans.
Other participants in the V.I.P. program included former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, and former U.N. ambassador and assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke. Jackson was deputy H.U.D. secretary in the Bush administration when he received the loans in 2003. Shalala, who received two loans in 2002, had by then left the Clinton administration for her current position as president of the University of Miami. She is scheduled to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 19.
Holbrooke, whose stint as U.N. ambassador ended in 2001, was also working in the private sector when he and his family received V.I.P. loans. He was an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
James Johnson, who had been advising presidential candidate Barack Obama on the selection of a running mate, resigned from the Obama campaign Wednesday after the Wall Street Journal reported that he received Countrywide loans at below-market rates.
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.