Politics & Policy

Friends of Chris and Kent

Oh the agony of life as a U.S. senator, when at any moment a powerful, well-heeled interest might take advantage of you with cut-rate loans.

Editor’s note: This column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: kfsreprint@hearstsc.com, or phone 800-708-7311, ext 246).

It’s not easy being a U.S. senator. People trick you into taking special favors you didn’t even know existed. Shame on these unscrupulous people!

Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, both Democrats, fell victim to the machinations of Countrywide Financial, which gave them breaks on mortgages as part of the “Friends of Angelo” program; the “Angelo” in question is Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo.

Most alleged victims of Countrywide were gulled into taking loans with onerous interest rates and excessive fees. But they don’t know the agony of life as a U.S. senator, when at any moment a powerful, well-heeled interest might take advantage of you with cut-rate loans. Consider the plight of Conrad.

When it was revealed that he got special deals from Countrywide, his rejoinder was that he had never met Mozilo. Subsequently, Conrad admitted he had talked to him on the phone. As he recounts in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Conrad “called a close friend of mine who knew a lot about mortgages for advice. My friend happened to be with the head of Countrywide Financial when I called and put him on the line.”

What an unfortunate coincidence: An innocent loan inquiry and Sen. Conrad gets put on the phone with a CEO with myriad high-stakes interests before Congress. Most people asking about their mortgages don’t get put through to the CEO, but they don’t live with the burdens of senatordom. Conrad was particularly vulnerable because, apparently a financial naif, he’s only chairman of the Senate Budget Committee that sets the parameters for the $3 trillion federal budget.

Countrywide waived a one-point fee for Conrad on a 2004 loan and financed his purchase of an eight-unit apartment building even though the company usually didn’t finance the purchase of buildings with more than four units. Yes, unbeknownst to him, Conrad had been maneuvered into saving more than $10,000: “I did not think for one moment — and no one ever suggested to me — that I was getting preferential treatment.”

Dastardly Countrywide had given it to him anyway. No wonder Democrats have condemned Countrywide so loudly (Sen. Chuck Schumer: “a vulture mentality”; Sen. Barack Obama: “these executives crossed the line”). But Conrad got off easy, considering the misfortune of his colleague Dodd.

The Connecticut senator has been saddled with favors that may save him as much as $75,000 on his mortgages. Dodd says he knew he was part of a VIP program, but figured it was nothing unusual — who in the senate is not “very important”? Dodd can be forgiven his lack of curiosity given that he’s very busy as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and can’t be bothered with questions of who might be trying to influence him with which particular favors.

To his credit, Dodd holds no grudges. Even though Countrywide so badly served him by shaving points off his loans, he is honchoing a $300 billion mortgage bail-out bill that will benefit Countrywide by allowing it to unload its worst loans onto the federal government. When duty calls, Dodd answers.

Bank of America is on the verge of buying Countrywide, and an internal Bank of America “discussion document” from a few months ago happens to coincide with the bailout provisions of Dodd’s bill. According to the Washington Examiner newspaper, Bank of America’s PAC has given Dodd $20,000 since he became chairman of the Banking Committee last year, and Bank of America employees have given him $50,000. This can only be described as a string of very bad luck for Dodd, who — given his selfless gullibility — probably figures everyone is showered with donations from the financial industry.

Times are tough out there. Gas prices are high and the housing market has yet to hit bottom. But keep in mind Sens. Conrad and Dodd, and remember it could be much worse: You could be a U.S. senator.

– Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.

© 2008 by King Features Syndicate


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