Biting a Feeding Hand

Members Want Mortgage Probe

Posted June 27, 2008 at 5:33pm

Correction Appended

Several Republican lawmakers said last week that they will keep recent campaign contributions from Countrywide Financial — even as those Members call for House investigations into the mortgage company over allegations it gave sweetheart loans to VIP borrowers, including two Senate Democrats.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Countrywide Financial contributed to nearly three dozen Members’ campaign funds or leadership political action committees in the first few months of 2008, including more than a dozen GOP lawmakers who in recent weeks have signed on to letters requesting hearings.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and rank-and-file Republicans have rallied for the Financial Services Committee to hold hearings into Countrywide’s VIP program, arguing that the allegations should be resolved before the housing bill — which could include a financial benefit for firms including Countrywide — reaches the chamber.

“It is extremely troubling that these revelations of preferential treatment have emerged at a time when Congress is considering multiple legislative proposals affecting the mortgage lending industry,” Boehner and others, including Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who sits on Financial Services, wrote in a mid-June letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The letter also stated: “The inherent conflict of interest suggested here alone should merit closer scrutiny, but when members of congressional committees with primary jurisdiction over mortgage issues are implicated, further Congressional scrutiny becomes compulsory.”

But Pelosi and Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) have resisted that idea, asserting that any investigation of the Senators’ mortgage deals from Countrywide is a matter best left to the Senate Ethics Committee.

Some of the same lawmakers who signed the letters to Pelosi and Frank said they have no qualms about accepting campaign contributions from the mortgage lender, which is soon to be acquired by Bank of America.

A spokesman for Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who sits on Financial Services, said the Congressman would not be influenced by the $2,000 contribution he received from Countrywide’s PAC in early May.

“Anyone who donates to Congressman Price’s campaign supports his views, not the other way around,” spokesman Brendan Buck said. “Congressman Price continues to seek a hearing on whether or not there are any improprieties.”

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), another Financial Services Committee member, also received $2,000 in May, as well as a March donation of $1,000. A spokesman said she will also hold onto those funds.

A Boehner spokesman said the Minority Leader, whose campaign received $2,500 from Countrywide in April, will decide what to do with the money if and when the House holds hearings on the VIP program, and what the disposition of those hearings are.

“We’ll make a decision on that once we see what the hearings reveal,” spokesman Michael Steel said. “There are a lot of unknowns about this situation, which is why we hope that Chairman Frank will begin those hearings as soon as possible.”

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Hensarling, who has led the demand for hearings, said Members need to “know all of the facts before passing judgment.”

“It’s important to remember that contributions from individuals and political action committee participants to Congressman Hensarling reflect their support for his agenda, not vice versa,” Dayspring added. Hensarling received a $4,000 donation in mid-May.

A spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), whose campaign received $2,000 in mid-April, similarly shrugged off suggestions the donation should be given to charity or otherwise refunded.

“Mr. Blunt voted against the housing bailout bill that Countrywide strongly supported — seems like a bad return on investment on their part,” spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said.

Similarly, Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) spokeswoman Pepper Pennington said: “Just like his thousands of other individual donations, the contribution from Countrywide also has no influence on Rep. Feeney’s principles or legislative activity.”

Feeney’s campaign received two donations from Countrywide in April, worth $4,000 and $1,000 respectively.

Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) campaign received a $1,000 donation from Countrywide Financial in May but said she will keep the funds.

“Countrywide’s meager $1,000 donation represents .065 percent of the money she’s raised,” Bachmann spokeswoman Mary Vought said. “It’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the $731,586 Countrywide has distributed to more than 175 Members. … Regardless of the amount, though, the fact of the matter is Bachmann can’t be bought. She came to Washington as a reformer, and calling for an investigation into this company is part of her agenda to change business as usual.”

Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) Every Republican Is Crucial PAC received $3,000 in mid-May, but a spokeswoman could not be reached for comment last week.

Among those Republicans who endorsed the hearings but have received Countrywide contributions recently are Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), whose campaigns each received $3,000 in May; and Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), whose campaign received $2,000 in May. Those offices did not respond to requests for comment last week.

Rep. Scott Garrett’s (R-N.J.) office directed calls to his campaign staff, who did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Garrett received $4,000 from Countrywide in April and $1,000 in March.

Correction: July 1, 2008

A statement from Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) office was omitted.