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McCain, RNC On Offensive Against Obama Associates

While Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee are hammering away at Sen. John McCain’s ties to lobbyists, the McCain campaign is firing back. The McCain camp’s new blog cites a weekend story from The Wall Street Journal about Jim Johnson, former CEO of the federally sponsored lender Fannie Mae, whom Obama just named to a panel set up to vet potential vice presidential candidates. The Journal reported that Johnson, who left Fannie Mae during a 2004 accounting scandal, received several loans at below-average interest rates from the troubled financial firm, Countrywide. The loans in question were handled through a special program for friends of Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo. According to The New York Sun, Johnson received three loans totaling $7 million. The WSJ article does not allege any laws were broken:

There is nothing illegal about a mortgage firm treating some borrowers better than others. But if Fannie Mae officials received special treatment, that could cause a political problem for the government-sponsored, shareholder-owned company.

Its code of conduct, a spokesman said, "requires the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest and prohibits acceptance of substantial gifts, including loans with preferential terms, from an organization seeking to do business with the company without prior review and approval by the company." The spokesman said the code has been in effect since the early 1990s.

As for Countrywide, "I think it is potentially an accountability and internal controls issue," securities lawyer John Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher said. A comparison of the Fannie Mae officers’ terms with interest rates prevailing when they got their loans raises the possibility Countrywide gave them preferential terms. But it’s impossible to tell for sure from public documents. An array of other factors also can account for lower-than-average rates, including a borrower’s income, total assets and credit score; how big the loan is compared with the home’s value; and how many "points" a borrower may have paid upfront in order to get a lower rate.

Still, the revelations could prove politically damaging to the Obama campaign, which has criticized Countrywide and its officers for their role in the subprime lending crisis. Sensing an opening to attack the presumptive Democratic nominee on the ethics of his associates, the Republican National Committee issued the following statement:

"Barack Obama routinely rails against lobbyists and corporate insiders, yet his campaign is stocked with both. Now it turns out that the man leading his vice presidential selection team is receiving highly questionable loans. With millions of Americans struggling to pay their mortgages, it raises serious questions about Obama’s judgment when we learn members of his campaign leadership are receiving favors that the average American would never get. With Obama discussing the economy today, he needs to stand up and address the mortgage scandals within his campaign."

These revelations come hot on the heels of last week’s conviction of Antoin Rezko, a longtime Obama fund-raiser, on 16 felony corruption charges. While none of the charges were related to Rezko’s relationship with Obama, the RNC was quick to pounce, immediately setting up a Website with links to stories about the verdict and Obama’s connection to the Chicago businessman. Less than one week after Obama apparently secured the Democratic nomination, the campaign — on both sides — is getting nasty. It’s going to be a long, hot summer.

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