After a yearlong investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee has dismissed complaints against Senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) for their participation in Countrywide's "Friends of Angelo" VIP loan program. (I can't say this is unexpected, since the House and Senate members who sit on the congressional ethics committees aren't exactly known for taking fellow lawmakers to task.) Informing Dodd and Conrad they'd been cleared of wrongdoing, the committee gave the Democratic senators the mildest of rebukes:
While the Committee finds no substantial credible evidence as required by Committee rules that your Countrywide mortgages violated Senate ethics rules, the Committee does believe that you should have exercised more vigilance in your dealings with Countrywide in order to avoid the appearance that you were receiving preferential treatment based on your status as a Senator.
The ethics committee also told the lawmakers that participating in "a program with the name 'VIP' should have raised red flags for you"—a major understatement if you ask me.
Following the ethics committee's decision, Dodd released a statement saying he was "pleased and gratified" that he'd been cleared.
I’ve said all along that I welcomed a close examination of my mortgages, and I’ve also said all along that Jackie and I received the same mortgages that anyone else could have received.
After a year-long investigation in which it deposed witnesses and pored over 18,000 pages of documents, the bipartisan Ethics Committee has concluded that we violated no rules when refinancing our mortgages. There was no “sweetheart” or special deal; the allegations are and have always been false.
But I will say this. I understand that my reaction to those false allegations only served to foster cynicism. And that was my fault.
I’m confident the people of Connecticut will be glad to know that I’ve been cleared. But I also want them to know that I’ve learned from this experience.
And what has he learned?
Because, it’s not enough to hold yourself to a high ethical standard, you have to be ready and willing to respond to attacks on your integrity in a way that allows the public to feel confident that they were right to trust you in the first place.
So, to recap, the lesson Dodd's learned has nothing to do with allowing himself to receive special treatment due to his powerful position, but with how to respond when he does wind up in such ethically dubious predicaments. Conrad, at least, offered a modicum of contrition.
While I should have shown more vigilance in the appearance of these transactions, the committee has concluded I did nothing unethical, and that is the truth.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed the complaints, was none to pleased with the outcome. In a biting news release, CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said:
Apparently, clearing the senators was insufficient penance for the committee for having the audacity to investigate in the first place. Like a battered woman who explains she brought the beating on herself, the committee faulted itself for failing to ‘provide more guidance to the Senate community about issues surrounding mortgage negotiations.’ Over a year has passed since CREW filed its complaint and the committee became aware of this issue. Now would be a good time for the committee to start proactively providing its promised advice.
Now that Dodd and Conrad are off the hook, what does that mean for a broader investigation into Countrywide's influence-peddling loan program? Though Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has been fiercely investigating the failed mortgage lender for more than a year, including examining the VIP program, House oversight committee chairman Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) has put the kibosh on a full committee investigation. One of the reasons he cited for doing so was that the ethics committee was conducting its own investigation. Of course, that investigation centered solely on Conrad and Dodd, sparing other lawmakers who may have received favorable treatment from Countrywide. Issa, for one, believes there are many other VIP loan recipients out there on both sides of aisle. "This is a pretty vast attempt to influence government that did not benefit the American people in this meltdown of the economy around the world," he has said.
Without Towns' cooperation, though, Issa can't subpoena a trove of Countrywide documents from Bank of America, which took over the mortgage company in 2008. According to Issa, the company literally has the records "packed and ready to go." And here's the kicker: Towns may himself be a benificiary of Countrywide's VIP loan program. The Wall Street Journal reported today that Towns "received two home loans from the lender," the supporting documentation for which "contain a Countrywide address and branch number that correspond to the VIP program." The New York Democrat has not denied the report either. His spokewoman told the Journal that if he did receive a VIP loan, "it was without his knowledge," adding, "as far as he knew, he was just getting a loan as a regular person."
If this isn't evidence that Countrywide's loan program needs to be thoroughly investigated, I'm not sure what is. Though perhaps Towns' committee is no longer the place to do it.
Follow Daniel Schulman on Twitter.