Watchdog group: Boxer not transparent over all Countrywide mortgages

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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A watchdog group is questioning whether Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer could have been more transparent over a year ago in voluntarily disclosing the extent of her past mortgages with the company Countrywide.

But Boxer aides strongly argue that the watchdog group’s complaints are without merit and suggest the questions are suspiciously timed, considering how the California senator is locked in a tough re-election fight.

Boxer, as chairwoman of the Senate Ethics Committee, led a yearlong investigation beginning in 2008 into whether two Democratic senators acted improperly by being part of a VIP Countrywide program that gave influential clients favorable treatment.

At that time, Boxer told reporters that she had not been a part of the company’s VIP program and did not currently have any Countrywide mortgages. She did, however, volunteer to news outlets that, in the past, she had paid off two Countrywide mortgage home loans.

But one watchdog group says she wasn’t disclosing enough. According to extensive research provided to The Daily Caller by the non-partisan Foundation for Ethics in Public Service, Boxer conducted business with Countrywide on another property too — as co-signer of a house with her son. The group argues that if you add up all the transactions, including re-finances, on those three properties, Boxer has actually signed for at least seven Countrywide mortgages.

Leslie Merritt, the executive director of the watchdog group, said Boxer was “less than candid, if not lying” about her dealings with Countrywide by not disclosing more. But Boxer’s office maintains they honestly answered the question when reporters asked how many personal home mortgages she had.

“Senator Boxer disclosed more information than she was asked to disclose — even though Senate rules do not require any disclosure of a lawmaker’s mortgages,” said Boxer spokesman Zachary Coile, who strongly pushed back against this story.

Boxer’s committee eventually cleared Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Kent Conrad of North Dakota of wrongdoing. The committee, however, chided the senators for not being more sensitive to the appearance of impropriety.

Boxer’s office is skeptical about the motives of Merritt’s organization.

“It is suspicious, to say the least, that a North Carolina-based group that never raised any concern at any point during the Countrywide VIP investigation – which ended more than a year ago – is now pushing these false assertions three weeks before a federal election,” Coile said. Merritt, however, says the group wasn’t established until after the investigation, and regrets that a like-minded group didn’t investigate Boxer further.

Over the years, Boxer used Countrywide (also called America’s Wholesale Lender in some cases) to finance three separate properties in California and Washington, according to local filings and deeds tracked down by the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service:

— From 1993 to 2006, Boxer and her husband made four mortgage transactions (including re-financings) on a home in Marin County, Calif.

— From 2001 to 2007, the Boxers had two mortgage transactions on a condo in Washington D.C.

— And from 2002 to 2003, Boxer and her husband co-signed a mortgage for their son’s house in Alameda County, Calif.

While they argue Boxer could have volunteered more information, the watchdog group acknowledges that there’s no evidence to suggest Boxer’s mortgages were illegal or questionable in anyway.

“We’re not saying those Countrywide loans are wrong,” said Frank L. Perry, a former FBI agent who directs investigations for the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service.

Coile said Boxer “received market rate mortgages that she obtained through a local branch office, just like millions of other Californians. She never received any special treatment, and any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

But Boxer, Merritt said, should have also recused herself from participating in the investigation to avoid any appearance of impropriety on her part. “If there’s not a conflict there, I don’t know what is,” Merritt said.

After recent press inquiries about this matter, Boxer wrote a letter to John Sassaman, the chief counsel and staff director for the Senate Ethics Committee, asking for guidance. In a letter provided to TheDC by Boxer’s office, Sassaman responded that recusing herself was not necessary.

“Because neither you nor any family member had a Countrywide loan at the time of the Committee’s preliminary inquiry, and since no information came to the Committee through its extensive investigation that any loan identified with you had ever been handled by the V.I.P. loan unit, you were not required to have recused yourself from consideration of the matter,” he wrote.

Still, the watchdog group is concerned about her participation in future investigations over Countrywide. According to a report last month, Boxer’s committee has re-opened its investigation and is looking into new information on whether any senators or staffers received special deals from Countrywide.

If that’s the case, the group says, Boxer “should be asked about and fully comment on these apparent conflicts that belatedly have come to light.”

In one survey done by Politico during the initial investigation, seven senators — including Boxer — voluntarily admitted to having had mortgages with Countrywide. The other six included Dodd, Conrad, Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, and Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig — none of whom served with Boxer on the Ethics Committee.

“Close-knit groups, like the Senate, rarely self-police effectively, but the minimal expectation is that any ethics proceedings should be unconditionally transparent,” Merritt and Perry write in a report.

The two argue that the media is also at fault for not spending more time covering Boxer’s personal business with Countrywide when the allegations against Conrad and Dodd first came to light in 2008. That underscores the need, they say, for disclosure forms to be “tightened up.”

This is one topic the watchdog group and Boxers’ office appear to agree on. Merritt and Perry’s report call for “financial disclosure laws that require complete financial transparency,” and Coile says, Boxer “has been a leader” in trying to do that.

“Senator Boxer has twice sponsored bipartisan legislation with other members of the Ethics Committee that would require all senators to list their home mortgages on their financial disclosure forms,” he said.