Portfolio’s Promise

Excellent reporting blows open the Countrywide scandal

Portfolio’s August cover story is a devastating follow to its scoop that broke the “Friends of Angelo” Countrywide VIP loan scandal last month. This great piece is in keeping with the magazine’s hit or miss nature since its launch, but an enticing example of what could be.

It’s a not-terribly-well-edited, but superbly reported portrait of old-fashioned corruption, plain and simple. Angelo Mozilo didn’t bribe senators with hundred-dollar handshakes; he just had loan officers save them thousands by eliminating fees and lowering interest rates. The evidence is smoking-gun—emails among Countrywide executives obtained by the author, Pulitzer-winning reporter Dan Golden.

Beyond providing evidence of favor-peddling at all levels of government, the emails also helpfully reveal how top Countrywide officials, including Mozilo, describe the various loan-origination and other fees they charged millions of customers: “junk” and “garbage.”

This would be the “junk” and “garbage”—Countrywide’s terms—piled up on account balances across the country, including the ones burdening non-V.I.P.s now in foreclosure. Gretchen Morgenson reported in The New York Times this weekend that the average mortgage loan has $700 of this “junk,” up half in the last few years. In December she reported those totaled $17 billion a year. What a waste.

For the elite, however, life is good. A California appeals judge, for instance, asks country-club buddy Mozilo for $1.9 million in loans. Mozilo personally approves it, telling Robert Feinberg—the loan officer for the VIP program and Portfolio’s key source here— that it’s “golden” and the judge gets thousands of dollars in loan discounts from Countrywide. The judge just happened to have a class-action lawsuit against Countrywide before him at the time, and he and his two fellow judges ruled in favor of the lender.

There’s plenty more, all documented in Countrywide emails, including ones targeted to key Congressional staffers and Feinberg’s boss Doug Perry helpfully spells out why they’re getting the treatment. One was “an adviser to ranking Republican members of Congress responsible for legislation of interest to the financial services industry and of importance to Countrywide.” Another “reports directly to Congressman Mel Watt, who introduced predatory-lending legislation to address unscrupulous lending practices, and they do view Countrywide as a trusted adviser.”

Here’s what Countrywide said about a loan for Franklin Raines, the former chief of Fannie Mae:

“Per Angelo, Frank needs to refi.” Perry notified Feinberg, “One point off, no junk.”

And the magazine has more details on what the VIP’s, which among politicians seem to have been nearly all Democrats, got:

According to Feinberg and company documents, V.I.P.’s nearly always received better deals than those available to most borrowers. Countrywide often waived up to two points and eliminated fees amounting to hundreds of dollars for underwriting, processing, and document preparation. Internal company emails often referred to these fees as “junk” or “garbage.” If interest rates fell while a V.I.P. loan was pending, Countrywide provided a free float-down to the lower rate, eschewing its usual charge of half a point. Some V.I.P.’s who bought or refinanced investment properties were given the lower interest rate reserved for primary residences. Because Mozilo informally preapproved his F.O.A.’s, many of them barely bothered to document their assets and enjoyed exceptions to normal procedures or shortcuts around them.

This story is breaking wide open thanks to Portfolio’s aggressive reporting. The magazine still has some major issues—we’re still unsure what its mission is and apparently, so are its staffers. But its way forward is clear. As the Golden story makes clear, it will rise or fall on the talent of its reporting staff.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.