John Fund @ NRO:
In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi used an old Jedi mind trick on Stormtroopers to deflect them from their real quarry: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” It worked.
It looks as if another mind trick, well known in the Congress — delay and deflection — will now work to make Americans forget one of the biggest scandals of our time: the housing collapse that triggered the 2008 financial meltdown we are still suffering from. We shouldn’t just gaze over the fiscal cliff everyone else is scrutinizing; we should also examine the droids who helped set in motion our current economic mess.
Last week, over the holidays, the House Ethics Committee quietly joined its Senate counterpart in finding that no members or staffers — or at least any it claimed jurisdiction over — broke congressional rules while obtaining “VIP” mortgages from Countrywide. This failed lender at one time provided a huge share of the questionable subprime mortgages issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage lenders that were some of the first players to fall in the 2008 financial collapse.
Fannie and Freddie scooped up Countrywide loans and pooled them and others into mortgage-backed securities that were sold with an implicit taxpayer guarantee that eventually became explicit. The taxpayer guarantee allowed — indeed, encouraged — the lenders to be reckless, creating a moral hazard. In 2008, this set-up helped bring down the whole house of cards built by subprime mortgages.
But far from being dismantled, Fannie and Freddie have avoided insolvency, thanks to massive taxpayer bailouts. Talk of winding them down has faded on Capitol Hill and is being discouraged by the Obama administration. The two entities, along with the Federal Housing Administration, currently back some 90 percent of new mortgages. Talk about there being no consequences for failure.
At least Countrywide had to be sold to Bank of America in 2008; and two years later, Countrywide’s disgraced CEO, Angelo Mozilo, had to pay a $22.5 million fine, the largest ever at that time for a senior executive of a public company, for insider trading and concealing information on Countrywide’s deteriorating mortgages.
But Mozilo avoided criminal charges and to date has never satisfactorily explained Countrywide’s infamous “Friends of Angelo” program, which provided discount mortgages and other benefits to numerous executives at Fannie and Freddie as well as executive-branch officials and up to 30 members of Congress and their staffers. Countrywide wouldn’t have thrived or been allowed to go off the ethical rails without lots of “friends” in government.
Representative Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, issued a report last July concluding, among other things, that Countrywide lobbyists would frequently refer members of Congress and their staff to the company’s VIP desk so they could receive “enhanced customer service.” E-mail evidence was found showing that specific requests for personal loans were made to the VIP desk and quickly facilitated. Issa’s committee found that more than six current and former lawmakers — including retiring Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, and House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, a California Republican — obtained mortgages through the Countrywide VIP program.