Paul Greenberg

Chairman Towns denies getting any special treatment, but without a look at Countrywide's records, how can the public be assured of that? If the congressman has nothing to hide, why isn't he going after the records that would vindicate him? Somehow we don't expect him to answer such questions till, like Sens. Dodd and Conrad, public pressure forces him to.

Lest we forget, Sen. Conrad tried to brazen out this scandal at first, declaring: "I never met Angelo Mozilo. I have no way of knowing how they categorized my loan. I never asked for, expected or was aware of any special treatment. ... From what we have been able to determine, it appears that we were given a competitive rate."

Only later did it emerge that the senator had spoken with Angelo Mozilo by phone about getting a mortgage. The loan officer at Countrywide who was in charge of such loans testified that both senators knew very well they were getting special treatment. Indeed, that it was standard practice to tell recipients of such loans they were getting a preferred rate.

Well, sure. What's the point of doing influential people a favor if they don't know about it? Let it be noted that Countrywide didn't just give Sen. Dodd a VIP loan; it also contributed some $20,000 to his political campaigns.

Sen. Dodd now has acknowledged that he should have leveled with the public sooner about his relationship with Countrywide -- "I think (my silence) contributed to people's cynicism and distrust that maybe I wasn't telling the truth...." Ya think?

What is most obviously missing from both these senators' approach to ethics, or rather their avoidance of it, is their neglect of what may be the most basic, and is surely one of the first, ethical injunctions ever recorded: Build a fence around the law, said an ancient sage. That is, don't even come close to stepping over the line. Or appearing to.

Something else seems to have escaped these two U. S. senators -- namely, that they are U.S. senators. Which means their getting a loan at a preferential rate through the head of a corporation like Countrywide, which was very much dependent on favorable treatment by the government before it came crashing down at great expense to the taxpayers, is quite different from a private citizen's getting a mortgage at the same preferential rate.

Why? Because the private citizen is in no position to return the favor through political influence. Which is why the ethical standards expected of public officials are higher. Or at least should be. That crucial distinction used to be well understood. I'm not so sure it is now.


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.


 

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