WASHINGTON — Countrywide's VIP program not only benefited numerous members of Congress, but also assisted a handful of Capitol Hill staffers and HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson as the mortgage lender built a large web of political influence prior to the financial crisis, according to a congressional report released Thursday.
The Republican staff of the House Oversight Committee, which has been probing the Countrywide VIP program since late 2008, appears to have finally closed the door on the matter with the release of the 136-page report.
The report provides fresh details on how seven sitting lawmakers — Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad, Democratic Reps. Ed Towns and Tom Campbell, and Republican Reps. Howard "Buck" McKeon, Pete Sessions and Elton Gallegly — received preferential treatment from Countrywide.
"The foremost benefit of being a Countrywide VIP was access to discounted loans in the form of waived points. The standard reduction was 0.5 points," the report stated, though it noted that some participants asked not to receive a discount. "Countrywide routinely waived junk fees typically ranging from $350 to $400 for VIP borrowers."
The report also fills in the broader picture about the VIP program, whose participants were referred to internally as "Friends of Angelo," a reference to Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo.
Between 1996 and 2008, when Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America, records from the firm's VIP unit showed 17,879 loans, though some of those records were duplicates, according to the report.
Many of the borrowers were referred by Mozilo himself, he told the congressional committee.
"The referrals I made included people from all walks of life with whom I came in contact, including, for example, prominent business people, doctors and nurses, entertainers, civic and community leaders, taxi or limo drivers, secretaries, a car dealer and his employees, a golf club employee, and gardeners," Mozilo stated in a written response to the committee's questions.
Other customers came from Countrywide lobbyist Jimmie Williams, who indicated that he made the referrals in order to burnish the lender's image in Washington and to make it easier for him to concentrate on lobbying rather than on customer complaints.
"I could walk in an office on any given day and spend the first 30 minutes talking about someone whose loan was mishandled, whose papers didn't come, or who didn't get the rate," Williams told the committee. "I felt that it got in the way of me doing what my real job was, that I was becoming more of an ambassador, also, and that was beginning to wear thin."
The report describes a friendship between Williams and Jackson, who served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President George W. Bush.
According to the report, not only did Jackson receive a VIP loan, but so did his daughter. Williams told the congressional staffers that Jackson referred his daughter to the VIP program because doing so would make Williams look good to other members of Countrywide's management.
"I knew the Secretary, so I think that might have counted for something," Williams told the committee. "Seriously. Even if I just referred it up."
According to the report, the congressional staffers who received VIP loans from Countrywide were House Financial Services Committee Deputy Staff Director Joseph Ventrone; House Financial Services Committee Chief Counsel Clinton Jones III; Joyce Bilbray, chief of staff for Democratic Rep. Mel Watt; Moira Lenehan-Razzurri, legislative assistant to Democratic Rep. Ruben Hinojosa; Maria Meier, executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and Mary Jane Collipriest, communications director for Republican Sen. Robert Bennett.
The report stated that Dodd referred Collipriest to the Countrywide VIP program in 2002, despite a claim from the former Connecticut senator that he was not aware that he was enrolled in the program.
The report also focuses on ties between Countrywide and Fannie Mae. Countrywide gave VIP loans to numerous Fannie Mae officials, and the two firms had a strategic alliance that linked their growth, according to the report.
Other former Cabinet secretaries who received loans from the VIP unit were Democrats Henry Cisneros, who was serving on Countrywide's board at the time, and Donna Shalala, the report stated.
Both Cisneros and Sessions, a GOP congressman from Texas, asked not to receive discounts on their loans, according to report.