Paul Greenberg

Gosh, what a surprise: A committee of their fellow senators has decided that Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad did nothing unethical when they took out loans from Countrywide Financial on the kind of favorable terms not available to us mere mortals without their financial or political standing -- or a personal connection to the head of Countrywide.

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The very Select Committee on Ethics did recognize that the whole deal looked bad, and gave its colleagues a gentle pat on the wrist for creating "the appearance that you were receiving preferential treatment based on your status as a senator." But in the end one hand washed the other, if not very well.

The senators on the committee have a point: This VIP program -- called Friends of Angelo after Angelo Mozilo, the head of Countrywide at the time -- wasn't restricted to U.S. senators; it seems to have been open to a wide, bipartisan range of politicians with pull as well as anybody Angelo Mozilo took a liking to. To name a select few:

A former secretary of housing and urban development (Alphonso Jackson), a former secretary of health and human services and later university president (Donna Shalala), a former assistant secretary of state and still diplomat (Richard Holbrooke), an adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaign (James Johnson) and so prominently on.

How else could these preferential loans appear but improper? Could it be because they were improper, ethically if not legally?

The surest way to lose the very basic and maybe first definition of ethics -- obligations beyond the law -- is to treat ethics as only a branch of the law rather than a separate realm above it. Which is why the phrase, "ethics law" is something of an oxymoron. Just because something is legal doesn't make it right.

When a member of the U.S. Senate is told he's getting a favor, like a point off his interest rate, that ought to be enough to raise a warning flag -- and keep him from accepting the deal.

Countrywide cast a wide net for its favoritism, but just how wide may never be known. It seems the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (which may prove another oxymoron because it doesn't seem all that interested in either oversight or reform) is refusing to issue a subpoena for Countrywide's records of just who got these VIP loans and why.

The chairman of the committee, it turns out, is one Edolphus Towns, a Democratic congressman from New York, who himself received a couple of loans from Countrywide. What a coincidence.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.