No ethics breaches found in Countrywide VIP loans
The House Ethics Committee said Thursday it found no violations among House members whose mortgage loans went through the VIP section of the former Countrywide Financial Corp., the company whose subprime loans helped cause the foreclosure crisis.
The committee said nearly all the allegations of favored treatment involved loans that were granted so long ago that they fell outside the panel's jurisdiction. The committee added, however, that participation in the VIP program did not necessarily mean borrowers received the best loan deal available - and most lawmakers were not even aware they were placed in a VIP unit.
The actions of unnamed House staff members were harshly criticized. Emails indicated they reached out to Countrywide lobbyists for assistance with their personal loans, but those actions also were too old to remain in the committee's jurisdiction. The panel said that if the incidents had been more recent, the staff members could have faced discipline.
Countrywide was taken over by Bank of America in 2008. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reported in July that Countrywide made hundreds of discount loans to buy influence with members of Congress, congressional staff, top government officials and executives of troubled mortgage giant Fannie Mae.
The Oversight report named six current and former members of Congress who received what Countrywide referred to as discounts. All of their names had surfaced previously.
The committee has no jurisdiction over actions that occurred more than six years prior to the current Congress - which began in January 2011.
But even if the statute of limitations had not run out, the committee said, inclusion in the VIP program was not by itself a violation of House rules or laws. The panel said it found that Countrywide's "discounts" applied to standard loan rates that were commercially available elsewhere.
"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," said the statement issued by Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner, R-Ala., and ranking Democrat Linda Sanchez of California.
Even so, the committee said, members must take steps to ensure they are being treated no differently than a member of the public who is similarly situated.
The committee statement added, "Of greatest concern...was email evidence regarding the specific conduct of some employees...who may have reached out to lobbyists or other government affairs officials at Countrywide for assistance with their personal loans."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight Committee, which released the July report on Countrywide, said the finding of possible wrongdoing by congressional employees "clearly indicated that Countrywide's efforts were inconsistent with House rules."
"While short of formally determining a violation, this sends an unmistakable warning to any entity that might try to duplicate Countrywide's lobbying strategy," he said.
Issa added that his committee found that Countrywide employees viewed their VIP program as a tool to build relationships with those positioned to influence the company's business interests, including government officials.