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House Ethics Committee closes book on Countrywide loans

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Closing the book a story that had caused some embarrassment for two local members of the Congress, the House Ethics Committee has concluded that no violations of law or standards of ethical conduct were violated by members who received so-called "Friends of Angelo" mortgages from Countrywide during the time Angelo Mozilo was chairman of the now-defunct lending institution.

Retiring Rep. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley and Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita, who now represents Simi Valley, were among the recipients of those loans. Both asserted that they not only did not receive special treatment, but were unaware that their loans were part of any special program initiated by Countrywide.

The Ethics Committee's report substantiates those assertions.

It reads, in part:

"It appears the V.I.P. Loan unit was initially established for the purposes of originating, processing, and funding home loans as a courtesy to senior-level employees and V.I.P. customers, but it increasingly grew in scope and size. A large subset of V.I.P. loans referred by Angelo Mozilo, former Countrywide C.E.O., were known as the "Friends of Angelo" or F.O.A.

"During the mortgage boom that occurred from late 2002 through 2004, the V.I.P loan unit handled thousands of loans worth billions of dollars for a very broad spectrum of individuals, large numbers of whom had never met, let alone befriended, Mr. Mozilo.
Overall it appears that V.I.P.s were often offered quicker, more efficient loan processing and some discounts. However, it also appears that all V.I.P. loans, including F.O.A. loans, were required to meet the same underwriting standards and conditions for resale on the secondary market as non-V.I.P. loans.

"Furthermore, there is evidence on the record that the discounts offered to V.I.P.s and F.O.A.s were not the best deals that were available at Countrywide or in the marketplace at large. In sum, participation in the V.I.P. or F.O.A. programs did not necessarily mean that borrowers received the best financial deal available either from Countrywide or other lenders.

"Therefore, mere inclusion in one of these programs is not, in and of itself, a violation of any rules, laws, or standards of conduct governing members, officers, or employees of the House of Representatives. In addition, insofar as the widely available and indisputable evidence indicates that loan 'discounts' or 'discount points' are labels applied to standard and publicly available terms in every day arms-length negotiations with commercial lenders, they are not the kind of 'gift' which would be, in and of itself, outside the realm of reasonable market rates for commercially available loans."

The issue created a bit of a political headache for McKeon this fall when his Democratic challenger Lee Rogers used it in campaign material designed to portray McKeon as corrupt. He was helped in that regard by statements that had been made about the loan program by Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who in media interviews had referred to the loans as "bribes."

McKeon's office today released a statement saying that the Ethics Committee report underscores what the congressman had said all along about the loan.

The statement notes that McKeon paid more than $2,500 in closing costs and paid an interest rate of 6.75 percent, which was about a quarter percentage-point above what was the national average at the time. "Congressman McKeon is pleased that the conclusions made by the Committee on Ethics confirm what he has always known to be true," the statement said.

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Over the last 25 presidential elections, Ventura County voters have backed the winner 24 times, or over 95 percent of the time. It is one of only a handful of counties in the nation that has been such a predictable bellwether.
about Timm Herdt
Timm Herdt
The Ventura County Star's Sacramento Bureau Chief Timm Herdt on state issues and politics from Sacramento to Ventura County. He can be contacted at therdt@vcstar.com
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