Mortgage Group's Next Leader Brings All Kinds of Experience

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The man who will soon head the Mortgage Bankers Association is not just a veteran of the mortgage business. He is also a person who has felt the industry's pain. Personally.

John A. Courson, who will take over as president of the association next year -- lately a million-dollar-a-year job -- went out of business as a mortgage banker in early 2007.

"John did close his company on February 26, 2007," said Cheryl Crispen, the association's spokeswoman. "It was a cash-flow and capital situation. . . . There was a lack of cash."

Courson, 66, is well liked among his peers. He has been active in the association for 20 years, including one year as its elected chairman. He was a mortgage banker for more than 40 years.

He is also a pioneer of sorts. His California-based Central Pacific Mortgage went belly-up like hundreds of other mortgage lenders, though months before last year's subprime mortgage squeeze wreaked havoc on his industry.

Unlike many of the lenders that failed later, in fact, Courson's Central Pacific did not go under because of subprime-lending problems. Those risky sorts of loans were only a sliver of Courson's business.

Courson also has personal experience with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an agency he will have to deal with extensively in his new position. In 2001, he signed a consent agreement with the department to refund to customers extra fees he charged them to run their credit reports.

"In lieu of litigating the matter with HUD," Crispen said, Courson agreed to pay the government $50,000 to resolve the issue and to put aside another $35,000 for consumer refunds.

Lots of other mortgage lenders were accused of the same sort of thing at the time, Crispen said. Getting a whack from the government, apparently, is also a way to bond with his members.

A McCain Bundler

By one estimate, 22 of Sen. John McCain's "bundlers" -- the people who raise tons of money for his presidential campaign -- are federally registered lobbyists.

One of those mega-fundraisers has an additional distinction: He made a cameo appearance in a congressional investigation of now-jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Cassidy & Associates lobbyist Juan Carlos Benitez appeared in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's 2006 staff report on Abramoff's White House activities, according to my colleague James V. Grimaldi.

Benitez, who has pledged to raise between $50,000 and $100,000 for the Arizona Republican's presidential campaign, was identified in the report as someone who got a government job after Abramoff advocated for it.

"Abramoff sought the appointment of Juan Carlos Benitez to be Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices at the Department of Justice, and the President appointed Benitez to that position," the report concluded.

The evidence proffered by the report, however, is one e-mail exchange in which Benitez told Abramoff that he got an interview for the job and he will keep Abramoff informed. Abramoff replied, "Super. Should I call someone to try to get feedback? I was able to get your resume to Rove."

Abramoff was known to exaggerate his successes and often took credit for accomplishments he had nothing to do with.

Benitez played down his connection to the infamous Abramoff. "After months of extensive work by the committee and a report of hundreds of pages from two years ago, my eighth degree of separation from Jack Abramoff amounts to a paragraph," he said by e-mail. "We were not friends. I earned my position at the Department of Justice on my own merits and not the ego of a convicted felon."

So there!

The Real Reformer Is . . .

Both major-party candidates for president are self-described reformers, especially when it comes to campaign finance issues. But actions speak louder than words.

That's why eight watchdog groups led by the Center for Responsive Politics surveyed the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns to see which is the more revealing about its big donors.

The winner, by a hair, is McCain. According to a chart put out last week by the groups, neither candidate provides the precise amounts that his "bundlers" raise -- only ranges -- and they don't ask their national parties to disclose their bundlers either.

What's more, neither candidate makes it easy for visitors to his Web site to find the bundler lists.

But McCain, unlike Sen. Barack Obama, does disclose the amounts his bundlers raise for joint fundraising committees -- money-collecting efforts with other party committees. He also lists the employers and occupations of his mega-fundraisers, something Obama does not do.

That gives him a leg up on the reform-o-meter -- so far.

A Bus Missed

Not to be outdone by other interest groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is launching its own bus tour this summer.

Starting soon, the Chamber will have two buses wending their way to the cities holding the presidential nominating conventions, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Their theme: Vote for Business.

Low-tech bus tours are the latest lobbying craze, as this column reported a couple weeks ago. The Consumer Electronics Association has just started its own bus tour in support of free trade, and a series of other interests have taken to the road as well, including the pharmaceutical industry.

Did I miss anyone else's bus? Please let me know.

Hire of the Week

Not everyone who leaves government cashes in for big bucks. Sometimes medium bucks will do, given the right job.

David H. Moulton, former staff director and chief counsel of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, is now the director of climate change policy and conservation funding at the Wilderness Society.

Moulton, 60, leads the environmental group's efforts to persuade Congress to pass laws that reduce greenhouse gases. He also oversees its advocacy of funding for national forests, wildlife refuges and other public lands.

Moulton's first job on Capitol Hill was with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) at the Joint Economic Committee in 1979. For the last 23 years, Moulton worked for Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in a variety of senior positions. Most recently he set up and headed Markey's panel on global warming.

The Wilderness Society was founded in 1935 to protect wilderness areas and inspire Americans to care for wild places.

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