Long-standing ties between a member of Senator Obama's new vice presidential search team and a prominent mortgage executive the senator has pilloried could become a political liability that hampers the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's ability to tap into public ire over the subprime mortgage crisis.
James Johnson, one of three people tapped by Mr. Obama recently to oversee the search for his running mate, took at least five real estate loans totaling more than $7 million from Countrywide Financial Corp. through an informal program for friends of the company's CEO, Angelo Mozilo, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday. The Journal said at least two of the mortgages, among a series of loans made available to people Countrywide officials called "friends of Angelo," were at rates below market averages, though it is difficult to predict a market rate without access to nonpublic information about a borrower's credit history and other factors that can reduce interest charges on a loan.
Among the loans to Mr. Johnson, according to the Journal, were a $5 million home equity line of credit against a house in Ketchum, Idaho, a 5.25% loan of $1.3 million for a home in Palm Desert, Calif., and a 3.875% loan of $971,650 for a home in Washington, D.C. The interest rates applied for the first five years of the loans.
"That reeks most high," a public relations specialist and vocal critic of Mr. Mozilo, Bonnie Russell of Del Mar, Calif., said. "Where's the 'change to believe in' if they're playing the same old game using the same old players?"
On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has criticized Countrywide's executives. "These are the people who are responsible for infecting the economy and helping to create a home foreclosure crisis. Two million people may end up losing their homes," Mr. Obama said in March at a town hall meeting in Lancaster, Pa.
The Chicago Tribune reported that the senator from Illinois "fumed" over a total of $19 million in bonuses set to be paid to Mr. Mozilo and the president of Countrywide, David Sambol. "They get a $19 million bonus while people are at risk of losing their home. What's wrong with this picture?" Mr. Obama asked.
In a written statement issued in March, the senator called the payments "an outrage" and suggested Mr. Mozilo and others had "tricked" homeowners into unaffordable loans. "These executives crossed the line to boost their bottom line," Mr. Obama declared.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee, Danny Diaz, yesterday called the loans to Mr. Johnson "highly questionable" and said they conflicted with Mr. Obama's public comments. "Barack Obama needs to immediately address this matter; otherwise, his rhetoric will continue to prove to be nothing more than complete hypocrisy," Mr. Diaz said.
Aides to Mr. Obama had no immediate response yesterday afternoon to a request for comment for this article. An attorney for Mr. Johnson, Brian Brooks, did not respond to e-mail and telephone messages seeking comment yesterday. However, in a statement to the Journal, Mr. Brooks defended the loans as "well within the band of standard industry practices with regard to price and structure of loans to borrowers of Mr. Johnson's background."
Mr. Johnson vetted vice presidential nominees for Senator Kerry in 2004 and played a similar role for Vice President Mondale in 1984.
From 1991 to 1998, Mr. Johnson served as CEO of the Federal National Mortgage Association, also known as Fannie Mae, which worked closely with Countrywide, one of the nation's leading lenders and loan servicing companies. In 1996, Mr. Johnson named Mr. Mozilo as chairman of Fannie Mae's national advisory council. A 1999 article in the American Banker said the two men had a "close friendship."
Since leaving Fannie Mae, Mr. Johnson has lavished praise on Mr. Mozilo's performance, calling it "remarkably impressive " in a 2003 interview with BusinessWeek. "By strengthening servicing in good times, Countrywide has done a brilliant job of insulating itself for the down cycle," Mr. Johnson told Fortune in 2003.
In recent months, the job has been looking less than brilliant, as Countrywide reported billions in losses, much of it from so-called subprime loans made to borrowers unqualified for typical loans. In 18 months, the firm's stock fell to about $5 from $45. In January, Bank of America agreed to take over Countrywide in a stock deal now valued at about $3.5 billion.
Senator McCain's campaign had no comment yesterday, but the presumptive Republican nominee has also lashed into Mr. Mozilo. "Something's seriously wrong when the American people are left to bear the consequences of reckless corporate conduct, while Mr. Cayne of Bear Stearns, Mr. Mozilo of Countrywide, and others are packed off with another 40 or 50 million for the road," Mr. McCain said in April.
Before Mr. Obama prevailed in the Democratic nominating fight last week, backers of Senator Clinton had argued that her rival was too cozy with those responsible for the subprime mortgage debacle. In an article posted on the Huffington Post Web site in March, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Gerald McEntee, referred to the leaders of companies like Countrywide as "some of the biggest corporate hucksters this country has seen since the dawn of the Great Depression."
Mr. McEntee said records of campaign donations showed Mr. Obama had "taken $1.8 million from the folks who have pushed these loans on unsuspecting working families" and took more from employees of the 10 largest subprime issuers than had Mrs. Clinton or Mr. McCain.
AFSCME also pressed unsuccessfully for Mr. Mozilo's ouster from the chairman's post at Countrywide. Mr. Mozilo's total pay and stock profits of $132 million for 2007 angered the union and many borrowers facing foreclosure. He agreed to give up $37 million in severance pay, but drew fire again last month for using the word "disgusting" in an e-mail reply inadvertently sent to a homeowner facing foreclosure on a Countrywide loan. The executive's reaction seemed to be directed at what he viewed as an organized campaign to flood company e-mail boxes with boilerplate letters, but he apologized after he was sharply criticized on Web sites frequented by borrowers in distress.