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Gary Horton: A time to refocus on the real scandal

Posted: July 17, 2012 6:13 p.m.
Updated: July 17, 2012 6:13 p.m.

In politics, it seems everyone loves a good scandal. As a teen I grew up in the Watergate era, long to be remembered as the granddaddy of modern-era scandal.Oh, the break-ins, the expletives, the missing Dictaphone tapes. Watergate was political scandal at its salacious, blood curdling, nation-threatening best.

But soon after came the Iran-Contra affair, followed by a series of greater and lesser “bimbo eruptions.” Through said experience, the American public has been both entertained and made accustomed to bad actions by our men and women in high places.

Now, our own Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, with well past 20 years of congressional service, faces an ethics charge of his own. McKeon achieved a dishonorable mention in a recent House Ethics Committee report regarding a special “VIP” home loan he received from Countrywide way back in 1998. McKeon’s opponent is making the usual political hay and has called on Buck to return all “ill-gotten mortgage savings” to the treasury from whence the TARP bailout was funded.

Of course, by comparison to presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and a steady stream of others, McKeon’s $315,000 home refinance is a true yawner of a scandal. Especially when McKeon has openly shared his uneventful closing statement with the world.

If you know McKeon personally, the thought that he would risk a congressional career or the integrity of his faith for a 1 percent on closing costs is quite laughable.

Oh, there’s plenty about McKeon with which to be righteously outraged. But not over this silly loan thing. Still, Americans prefer scandal over substance, so most are happy giving Buck a pass rubber stamping a $600-billion, budget-busting, nation-punishing, belligerent military budget without thought to the deeper moral implications.

While billions and billions of our taxes are blown on weapons we’ll never need and foreign nations we shouldn’t build, we get hot and bothered over a 1-point discount on McKeon’s personal home refi. This short-sightedness is how we get the (bad) government we deserve, while we think we’re being vigilant against corruption and graft.

The facts of McKeon’s “refi-gate” are these: Back in the late 1990s McKeon, like many of us now, was downsizing and delevering his personal finances. He arranged for a refinance on his modest Stevenson Ranch home through Countrywide, which was processed by their “VIP” unit.

McKeon says he doesn’t know how he got hooked in with the VIP group — he has a lot of friends and friends of friends and he certainly was a VIP. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a guy in a trench coat stalking the halls of Congress whispering, “Hey buddy, you need a cheap home loan?”

Anyway, the proof is in the pudding. Is influence bought or sold when there’s no benefit traded or deeds done in secret? McKeon could have gotten the same exact loan anywhere — and perhaps could have done much better.

The record shows McKeon paid some $2,500 in closing costs, and received an interest rate of 6.77 percent — slightly above the national average at the time. His loan had no points. I’ve had loans both with points and without — and McKeon’s no-point loan seems in line since his interest rate was slightly higher than the norm. McKeon borrowed $315,000. $234,000 went toward the mortgage, $34,000 was used to repay a personally guaranteed business loan at Valencia Bank and he cashed out $47,000. McKeon repaid this suspect Countryside loan in full just four years later.

Now, with the subject loan in question a decade later, McKeon openly published the loan’s closing statement — and it looks as innocuous as any one of a zillion other closing statements. Not much of a smoking gun, or even a haze, around this transaction.

Subsequent to this loan, a bill raising the limit for “conforming loans” went to a vote in the House. No doubt, Countrywide benefited from the higher loan limits — but so would Californians and New Yorkers facing higher-priced homes, which then routinely exceeded the lower conforming loan limits. The bill sailed through Congress with a 409 to 14 vote.

Yes, along with 96 percent of all Congress, McKeon voted for this bill that directly benefited his home-buying constituents. However, the crime would have been had Buck not voted for the bill.
Conspiracy buffs can attempt to make much of this “refi-gate,” but on this issue they’ve got the wrong man.

Knowing what I know about practicing Mormons, I believe McKeon’s deeply personal LDS faith renders it most implausible for McKeon to break the letter of this, or any law of which he is aware.

Does this make McKeon a saint? Oh, heavens no. McKeon routinely makes policy decisions which large swaths of the American and global population judge plainly immoral and offensive.

His stubborn support of never-ending, treasury-depleting, soldier-maiming war is infuriating, and is by many peoples’ reasoning, akin to mortal sin. McKeon did not corrupt himself on a home-loan scandal.

But many view him as knowingly or unknowingly complicit in a military industrial scandal of proportions we can hardly comprehend. Remember, Mitt Romney’s own dad once said of the war in Vietnam, “I’d received the greatest brainwashing anyone could get…”

As to the charge of military excess, McKeon replied, “Gary, if you’d seen the things I have, you’d support a strong military, too.” Fair enough; few are privy to the top secret private military briefings McKeon routinely receives.

But in my gut, if I had to choose between a witch hunt over Buck’s $315,000 refi, or a serious inquiry of the 600 billion of American tax dollars expended annually in never-ending wars — I think I know where to look for real scandal.

And the rub is, this scandal isn’t illegal at all.

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. Full Speed to Port appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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