By Margaret Chadbourn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Democratic member of a congressional oversight panel turned up the heat on its Republican chairman on Tuesday to identify the four GOP lawmakers who got special treatment in the controversial "Friends of Angelo" mortgage program run by the now-defunct Countrywide Financial Corp.
Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter on Tuesday to the panel's chairman, Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, in which he pressed for disclosure of all four GOP congressmen's names. In the letter, Cummings took issue with how Issa has handled the investigation into the Countrywide VIP loan program.
"In response to your subpoena, the Committee obtained information about four previously unknown instances in which Members of Congress received VIP loans, including three current Republican House Members and one former Republican House Member. After discovering that all of these Members are Republicans, you sent a letter on December 16, 2011, referring their cases to the House Ethics Committee," Cummings wrote in the letter dated January 17th to Issa.
The "Friends of Angelo" program's name refers to Angelo Mozilo, the former chairman and CEO of Countrywide, the California-based lender that became a dominant player in the mortgage business during the housing boom. In October 2010, Mozilo agreed to pay $67.5 million in a combined penalty and "disgorgement of ill-gotten gains" to settle SEC charges of fraud and insider trading related to Countrywide's risky subprime mortgage lending practices. At the time, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said the $22.5 million fine was the largest ever paid in an SEC settlement by a senior executive of a publicly traded company.
Issa has waged a high-profile campaign for three years to obtain mortgage files of members of Congress who received special treatment from Countrywide.
POTENTIAL FOR A POLITICAL FIRESTORM
Disclosures about members of Congress getting discounted loans and other financial perks have the potential for a huge backlash in an election year.
Veteran GOP Representatives Howard McKeon and Elton Gallegly, both Republicans of California, have admitted their names are on a list of members of the U.S. House of Representatives who received discounted loans from Countrywide, according to the Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal.
Cummings criticized Issa for reversing course during the investigation after previously saying he would disclose the names of any lawmakers who received VIP loans. Instead, after receiving information about four previously unknown instances of politicians winning favor from the mortgage lender last month, Issa sent the names to the House Ethics Committee.
"Since you failed to consult with me before taking these actions, I have several questions about how you want to proceed with the investigation," Cummings wrote.
The Maryland Democrat called on Issa to name the two remaining loan recipients. Cummings also wanted to know why Issa planned to interview Countrywide officials who were involved in the "Friends of Angelo" loan dealings.
"Rather than publicly identifying the four additional Members who received Countrywide loans or attempting to determine whether they took any official actions on behalf of Countrywide, you chose instead to refer their cases to the Ethics Committee," Cummings wrote.
"These sudden shifts raise key questions about how you plan to proceed with this investigation," he added.
Cummings also asked if Issa intends to schedule public hearings on the investigation and whether he will call on Mozilo to testify.
A spokesman for Issa was not immediately available for comment late on Tuesday.
After the housing bust and widespread defaults on subprime mortgages, the failing Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America in 2008.
(Reporting By Margaret Chadbourn; Editing by Jan Paschal)