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OUR OPINION: Conrad earns benefit of the doubt

Where there's smoke, there's sometimes fire. And a blaze could yet be discovered that consumes the Senate seat of Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., over his Countrywide Financial loans. Then again, where there's smoke, there's not always fire, as any hom...

Where there's smoke, there's sometimes fire.

And a blaze could yet be discovered that consumes the Senate seat of Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., over his Countrywide Financial loans.

Then again, where there's smoke, there's not always fire, as any homeowner knows. Sometimes, there's just smoke.

That's the room North Dakotans are in as more becomes known about the senator's loans. Is there smoke? Yes.

Is it thick, billowing and oily black?

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Not even close. It's light and hard to see.

So, is there fire?

As best we can tell, the answer is no.

And smoke alone -- especially smoke this thin --

shouldn't be enough to ruin Conrad's career.

Conrad's in national and North Dakota news because of the testimony of Robert Feinberg, a loan officer who worked in Countrywide's "VIP" department. Feinberg told congressional committees that Conrad knew he was getting preferred rates on his Countrywide loans.

Conrad denies that. Let's be clear: Conrad doesn't deny being treated well by Countrywide. U.S. senators get treated well everywhere they go. Moreover, senators who pay their bills on time get treated especially well by banks, as do creditworthy doctors, lawyers, successful actors, CEOs and others in high income brackets.

Remember, Countrywide's VIP program embraced thousands of customers, including Walter Cronkite, former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke and the late film director Robert Altman.

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What Conrad denies is knowingly accepting unreasonably good treatment -- treatment so cozy that it would have raised red flags.

Those flags would have signaled, "This is a below-market offer. It's being extended because you are a senator, and Countrywide hopes for congressional favors in return."

So far, the evidence bears Conrad out.

None of the claims of special treatment rise to that level. Instead, they're a fee waived here and an exception made there, of a kind and a dollar value that seem likely to be extended to any high-income, creditworthy individual.

Mind you, Countrywide itself seems to have hoped its VIP program would curry favor. For example, a Countrywide lobbyist e-mailed headquarters in 2002 that a staff lawyer for the U.S. House deserved "specialized handling," Portfolio magazine reported last year.

The lawyer was "an adviser to ranking Republican members of Congress responsible for legislation of interest to the financial services industry and of importance to Countrywide," the lobbyist noted.

Other e-mails describe other customers in similar terms. But this chatter seems to have taken place behind the scenes, given the facts that:

n The actual deals themselves seem unexceptional.

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n To a person, the VIP customers who've been interviewed -- including former Cabinet members, former White House staffers and a California appeals court judge -- express surprise that their Countrywide dealings involved anything other than good service.

n No "smoking gun" evidence has emerged that counters the judge's, staffers, Cabinet members, senators and others' claims.

n And while the Securities and Exchange Commission has filed charges against Countrywide's top execs, the charges have nothing to do with the above. Instead, the SEC alleges that the executives defrauded investors by misrepresenting the company's health.

If Countrywide's VIP customers were being charged with accepting bribes, that would be one thing. But that's not happening. Instead, those customers -- including Conrad -- are claiming they did nothing wrong; and so far, law enforcement as well as the customers' employers, professional boards and other "juries" seem to agree.

Conrad's jurors are the voters of North Dakota, and we're not surprised that they're giving him the benefit of the doubt. He has earned it. His long career has been untouched by scandal, no small achievement for a powerful person living in the public eye. He's respected by his Senate colleagues and is ably playing a pivotal role.

He has served his state and country well, in other words. Those accomplishments over the decades count for a lot. Right now, they help explain that while North Dakotans are following the Countrywide story with care, they seem quite willing to take Conrad at his word.

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