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23 Senators refuse to disclose home mortgage details...  Ken Garen
 Jun 24, 2008 16:07 PDT 

Senators' mortgages under microscope


Amid a brewing scandal over special mortgage deals given to two U.S.
senators, Politico last week asked the offices of all 100 senators to
describe the circumstances under which they obtained their own home loans.
Seventy-seven senators have complied so far. Twenty-three have not.

Senators are not required to report in their disclosure forms any financial
information about their homes unless they draw rental income from the home.
But in the wake of questions regarding mortgages obtained by Sens. Chris
Dodd (D-Conn.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) - loans they received through a VIP
program run by Countrywide Financial Corp. - Senate Majority Leader Harry
Reid (D-Nev.) has said that the disclosure rules should be changed so that
senators' mortgage details are made public.

The results of the Politico survey- available here -suggest that may be an
uphill battle.

Many senators who did not provide mortgage information contend that the
details are private. Elly Pickett, a spokeswoman for Sen. Michael B. Enzi
(R-Wyo.), wrote in an e-mail to Politico: "Sen. Enzi's mortgage isn't with
Countrywide, and since that company is at the center of this issue, I fail
to see how having a loan with another company is at all relevant."

Similarly, a spokesman for Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) e-mailed that his boss
did not need to disclose details: "The senator was a private citizen when he
and his wife obtained their mortgage through a local bank, which was not
Countrywide," wrote Thune spokesman Kyle Downey.

Congressional ethics expert Stanley Brand, a Washington lawyer who has
represented ethically challenged lawmakers over the years, said he would
advise clients not to reveal any more information than they have to under
the rules.

"People are going to be questioning and scrutinizing and prying into this
matter in a way that suggests something was given that was not available to
others," said Brand, who represented Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) last year in
connection with his arrest in an airport men's room. "It may pique the
interest of DOJ, the ethics committees and banking regulators."

Despite such concerns, 77 senators did respond to Politico's inquiries.
Twenty-eight reported having no mortgages. According to the Mortgage Bankers
Association, only 35 percent of Americans own their homes outright.

Many senators are able to pay cash, as Reid did when he purchased a
condominium at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington several years ago.

Reid told Bloomberg News this weekend he thinks home mortgages should be
disclosed on Senate financial forms, even as he dismissed some of the
controversy over Senate mortgages as "a press fishing expedition."

Responding to Politico's inquiries, Reid's office said that, while he owns
his Washington condo free and clear, he carries a "tiny" Wells Fargo
mortgage on property back home in rural Searchlight, Nev.

Conrad, who is at the center of the controversy over VIP treatment by
Countrywide, said last week that he also believes mortgage information
should be revealed.

Senate ethics experts say the controversy over the special mortgages
received by Dodd and Conrad has opened a window into the clubby world where
senators can dial up major banking executives and discuss their financial
needs, as Conrad did.

"This short list of senators who did not disclose is where I would start an
investigation," said Keith Ashdown, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common
Sense. By failing to disclose, he said, senators are "not only in the cross
hairs of investigators, but they're also making this a political issue in an
election year, because it looks like they have something to hide."

Disclosing all mortgage details "makes them more inclined to be sure they're
not getting any special deals, because it's being disclosed," said Melanie
Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in
Washington. "Why not just disclose [mortgages] and get rid of a potential

Politico began asking senators about their mortgages on Tuesday, June 17, in
the wake of a Conde Nast Portfolio magazine report on the mortgage deals
given to Dodd and Conrad. Each office that has not yet responded to the
story was given several opportunities to do so.

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