House Ethics Committee Punts on Countrywide ScandalOver the holidays, while the American people were busy celebrating Christmas and New Year, the House Ethics Committee quietly swept a major political scandal under the rug. You may recall the Countrywide Financial influence peddling scandal, where at least a dozen members of Congress (and many other key Washington figures) received preferential loan treatment as part of a company VIP program named “Friends of Angelo” for the company’s disgraced former CEO, Angelo Mozillo. Well, on December 27, the House Ethics Committee decided that this scandal is simply “outside its jurisdiction” and took no action. Case closed. The Hill’s Peter Schroeder explains: The House Ethics Committee has decided to close its investigation into preferential mortgages doled out under a controversial VIP program without taking any action.The panel said it was not taking any action on members who received more affordable mortgages under the program, instituted by the now-defunct Countrywide Financial because while allegations surrounding the program and lawmakers involved “serious matters,” they largely fell outside its jurisdiction. For example, many of the allegations pertain to actions outside the Ethics Committee’s statute of limitations — greater than three Congresses ago — and many of those accused are no longer working in Congress either as members or staffers. So, in other words, it took Congress so long to act on this scandal that now many of the transgressors are retired or were bounced from Congress. And whose fault is that?! The Senate Ethics Committee began review of this scandal in 2009 and wasted no time in whitewashing the whole mess. It took the House Ethics Committee four years to “investigate” and then do nothing. The issue of timing aside, the House Ethics Committee stated that it could find no evidence that the majority of the members were aware of the VIP treatment. But this is nearly impossible to believe.After all, according to a stinging report released by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee in July 2012, at least a dozen members of Congress received home loan rates not available to the general public. And they almost certainly knew they were getting a sweetheart deal. In fact, correspondence uncovered by the House Oversight Committee has the words “VIP TEAM” emblazoned at the top of the letter! And then there’s the sworn testimony involving a Countrywide loan granted to former Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT). Dodd, who just happened to be chairman of the powerful House Senate Banking committee, used two “VIP” mortgage loans in 2003 to refinance residences in Connecticut and Washington, DC. And an official who worked in the Countrywide program testified before Congress that Dodd absolutely knew he was receiving special VIP treatment. (Dodd was so impressed with the VIP program he even recommended it to a staffer for a Senate colleague who got her fees waived too.) So here’s the key question: We know how Congress benefited from this program, but what did Countrywide get in return for its largess? Well, at the same time Countrywide was doling out sweetheart mortgage deals, their lobbyists were also pressuring Congress on a wide range of issues pertaining to the mortgage lending industry.For example, according to the House Oversight Committee report, “on June 17, 2008, the same day he acknowledged for the first time that he was a Countrywide VIP customer, Dodd announced that he was bringing to the Senate floor a housing bailout to help Countrywide and other struggling subprime lenders.” And as Politico noted when the House Oversight Committee report was issued, the “Friends of Angelo” program was far more damaging than a waste of taxpayer funds in the form of a quid pro quo mortgage industry bailout. The program also helped to kick off the entire financial crisis by playing a “critical part” in blocking efforts to reform the mortgage lending industry, including the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (Countrywide also gave sweetheart deals to top officials at those GSEs, who were the biggest buyers of Countrywide’s dubious mortgage loan products.) We cover this in some detail in our New York Times best-selling book, Corruption Chronicles. (Have you purchased your copy yet? If not, please click here. And be sure to check out the best-selling book by author Ben Shapiro “Bullies.”): Fannie and Freddie (and federal housing policy, generally) helped create the mortgage backed securities and secondary mortgage markets that collapsed in 2008 because of the loss of confidence in the subprime mortgage market – which was also pushed along by the federal government. Fannie even had a mortgage program it ran with Countrywide called “Fast and Easy.” That’s not the name of a pawnshop, but a government-backed mortgage program! The point is that there is a direct relationship between the Countrywide “Friends of Angelo” program and the collapse of the housing market. As I’ve been saying now for four years, corruption, as much as bad policy, was to blame for the financial crisis. So yes, as the House Ethics Committee acknowledged, the corrupt Countrywide influence peddling scandal was a “serious matter.” And it merited serious investigation. Instead, the House Ethics Committee delayed and then used the excuse of the delay to drop the case. You can read the Committee’s dishonest report here. Washington’s traditional government institutions to enforce the rule of law with politicians and government officials are fundamentally broken. But you can count on us to stand in the gap. This scandal is just more proof of the importance of the independent oversight by your Judicial Watch.
JW in Major Court Battle over Obama’s Osama bin Laden SecretsYesterday (January 10), a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral argument regarding our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit requesting the release of dozens of images of Osama bin Laden’s body taken after he was fatally shot in a Special Forces raid in May 2011. Judicial Watch staff attorney Michael Bekesha argued on behalf of Judicial Watch at the hearing. I was there with many of my Judicial Watch colleagues in the packed courtroom for this historic legal fight. It was quite the scene. The Obama administration sent seven lawyers to participate in the briefing! Media around the world closely covered this week’s court activity, one of our most significant battles against Obama secrecy. JW is asking the Appeals Court to reverse an April 26, 2012, ruling by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg allowing the images to remain an Obama administration secret. The government is hiding behind the bogus claim that JW’s request will somehow harm our national security. But we’re not after any information about equipment or techniques used in the bin Laden raid, or indeed anything that would compromise the safety and security of the country and its citizens. As our lawyers argued to the court: Specifically, Defendants have failed to provide any evidence that all 52 images, including those depicting bin Laden’s burial at sea, pertain to “foreign activities of the United States.” Defendants also have failed to provide any evidence that images depicting the burial at sea actually pertain to “intelligence activities.” Nor have they demonstrated that the release of images of a somber, dignified burial at sea reasonably could be expected to cause identifiable or describable exceptionally grave damage to national security. Look, there is simply no legal precedent for this. President Obama is asking the courts to rewrite FOIA law to allow his administration to withhold documents simply because their disclosure may cause controversy. Interestingly, one of the judges hearing our case yesterday said that a video caused the death of our ambassador to Libya. The court’s misimpression of what really happened (contrary to the Obama administration’s initial lies, the video had nothing to do with the Benghazi slaughter) shows that we can’t trust the Obama administration to tell us that a certain video or photo will cause harm and that the FOIA should be upended to appease terrorists. And – again – do you see the blatant hypocrisy of the Obama administration’s opinion on this issue in light of its decision to leak apparently classified details to the filmmakers behind the new Hollywood blockbuster Zero Dark Thirty, which releases today? The film, which has elicited Oscar buzz, details the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden in incredible detail. So, photos of a dead terrorist? Off limits to the American people. Sensitive or classified details, including the names of the military personnel involved in the bin Laden raid? Hollywood filmmakers are welcome to them, so long as the president looks good. Judicial Watch has led the way in trying to uncover the details of Osama bin Laden’s capture and killing. We’re after the photos and videos. We’re after the details surrounding the bin Laden burial. We want to close the record on one of the American military’s most important victories. We don’t care if the president looks good or looks bad, we simply want information that the American people are entitled to under the law. And we certainly want to get our hands on all of the details behind the Obama administration’s reckless cooperation with Bigelow and Boal, the director and writer behind Zero Dark Thirty.You can click here for a full discussion of JW’s efforts to get to the truth in that scandal, but here’s the bottom line. According to records we uncovered, the Obama White House sought to have “high visibility” in bin Laden-related projects to help the president look strong for ordering the raid that led to the terrorist’s capture and killing. White House officials helped to broker a deal to give two Hollywood filmmakers (Bigelow and Boal) unprecedented and secret access to classified details to craft an honorific film. White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that any classified details were handed over, but Obama administration officials have admitted under oath that the information passed on to the filmmakers could pose a serious risk to national security if disclosed to the public. Judicial Watch has made the argument in court that the Obama administration cannot have it both ways. Either the information passed on to the filmmakers is harmless and should therefore be disclosed to the American people, or the Obama administration improperly and recklessly leaked sensitive information to the filmmakers. Overall, Judicial Watch’s discoveries resulted in an Inspector General investigation into the whole sordid mess, resulting in a criminal referral to the Holder Justice Department. So again, we ask which is more potentially harmful to national security: providing the American people with the photos of a dead Osama bin Laden or leaking classified details regarding the bin Laden raid to filmmakers?