- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Despite their denials, influential Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad and Christopher J. Dodd were told from the start they were getting VIP mortgage discounts from one of the nation’s largest lenders, the official who handled their loans has told Congress in secret testimony.

Both senators have said that at the time the mortgages were being written they didn’t know they were getting unique deals from Countrywide Financial Corp., the company that went on to lose billions of dollars on home loans to credit-strapped borrowers. Mr. Dodd still maintains he got no preferential treatment.

Mr. Dodd got two Countrywide mortgages in 2003, refinancing his home in Connecticut and another residence in Washington. Mr. Conrad’s two Countrywide mortgages in 2004 were for a beach house in Delaware and an eight-unit apartment building in Bismarck in his home state of North Dakota.

Robert Feinberg, who worked in Countrywide’s VIP section, told congressional investigators last month that the two senators were made aware that “who you know is basically how you’re coming in here.”

“You don’t say ‘no’ to the VIP,” Mr. Feinberg told Republican investigators for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, according to a transcript obtained by the Associated Press.

The next day, Mr. Feinberg testified before the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, an indication the panel is actively investigating two of the chamber’s more powerful members:

c Mr. Dodd heads the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and is a major player in two big areas: solving the housing foreclosure and financial crises and putting together an overhaul of the U.S. health care system. A five-term senator, he is in a tough fight for re-election in 2010, partly because of the controversy over his mortgages.

c Mr. Conrad is chairman of the Budget Committee. He, too, shares an important role in the health care debate, as well as on legislation to curb global warming.

Both senators were VIP borrowers in the program known as “friends of Angelo.” Angelo Mozilo was chief executive of Countrywide, which played a big part in the foreclosure crisis triggered by defaults on subprime loans. The Calabasas, Calif.-based company was bought last July by Bank of America Corp. for about $2.5 billion.

Mr. Mozilo has been charged with civil fraud and illegal insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He denies any wrongdoing.

Asked by a House investigator whether Mr. Conrad, the North Dakota senator, “was aware that he was getting preferential treatment?” Mr. Feinberg answered: “Yes, he was aware.”

Referring to Mr. Dodd of Connecticut, the investigator asked:

“And do you know if during the course of your communications” with the senator or his wife “that you ever had an opportunity to share with them if they were getting special VIP treatment?”

“Yes, yes,” Mr. Feinberg replied.

Dodd spokesman Bryan DeAngelis said Mr. Feinberg has repeatedly made allegations of special treatment that were not true.

“As the Dodds have said from the beginning, they did not seek or expect any special rates or terms on their loans and they never received any. They were never offered special or sweetheart deals and if anyone had made such an offer, they would have severed that relationship immediately,” Mr. DeAngelis said.

Mr. DeAngelis also repeated Mr. Dodd’s statements from February that an independent report showed the terms received by the senator and his wife were widely available at the time.

The ethics committee determines whether senators violated standards of conduct. The outcome of the investigation could hinge on whether the mortgage violated strict limits on gifts to lawmakers or ran afoul of other Senate rules.

Mr. Feinberg could face criminal prosecution if shown to have made false statements. He was questioned closely by three of the ethics committee’s six senators: Chairman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat; the panel’s senior Republican member, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia; and Sen. Jim Risch, Idaho Republican, said Elana Goldstein, one of Mr. Feinberg’s attorneys who accompanied him to both closed-door committee appearances.

Countrywide VIPs, Mr. Feinberg told the committees, received discounts on rates, fees and points. Mr. Dodd received a break when Countrywide counted both his Connecticut and Washington homes as primary owner-occupied residences - a fiction, said Mr. Feinberg. Mr. Conrad received a type of commercial loan that he was told Countrywide didn’t offer.

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