Sen. Bennett agrees to help Ethics panel in probe of Countrywide mortgages

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) has agreed to assist the Senate Ethics Committee in a potential investigation of his staffers participation in a controversial VIP mortgage lending program at Countrywide Financial Corp.

Senators or Senate employees received 30 Countrywide loans that offered sweetheart deals or special treatment, according to a letter Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sent to Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerCalifornia House Republicans facing tougher headwinds House and Senate water bills face billion difference Boxer, Feinstein endorse Kamala Harris in two-Dem Senate race MORE (D-Calif.).

Issa did not provide specifics about the loans in the letter but noted that borrowers on a dozen loans listed their place of employment as the office of “Senator Robert Bennett.”

Issa, the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel, received the information from Countrywide after a hard-fought battle to convince chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) to issue subpoenas to Countrywide.

Bennett, who lost his June primary, did not have a Countrywide loan and said he did not know whether his staffers did or whether those aides are still working for him. If the Senate Ethics committee decides to investigate, Bennett said he would cooperate.

“I've never had a Countrywide mortgage and I do not inquire into the personal financial dealings of my staff,” he said. “I have no idea which of them have mortgages and with whom. The loans were apparently issued several years ago, and we have no names, so I do not know if these staffers are still employed by my office. Should the Senate Ethics Committee decide the matter warrants an inquiry, I will certainly assist them in any way, and require that my staffers do the same.”

The Senate Ethics committee has already investigated allegations that Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) benefited from the Countrywide VIP program. The panel cleared the senators of any wrongdoing but warned them that they should have exercised better judgment and should have questioned why they were being put in the “Friends of Angelo” VIP program.

Any potential ethics committee investigation could ensnare other senators’ offices.

Besides the loans listing Bennett’s office as their employer, 18 others identified “U.S. Senators” or “U.S. Senate” as their place of employment, according to Issa’s letter to the ethics committee.

“The pervasiveness of discounted loans and preferential treatment for Senate employees sheds new light on the purpose and policies of Countrywide’s VIP program,” Issa wrote. “Furthermore, a high concentration of VIP borrowers in specific Senate offices is prima facie evidence that Countrywide strategically targeted Members positioned to help the company during a critical period.”

The Senate Ethics committee is prohibited from commenting on existing or potential investigations.