Angelo Mozilo and the back of the bus

Are we unfairly discriminating against the much-beleaguered former CEO of Countrywide?

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 23, 2009 7:32PM (EDT)

Things I learned from Connie Bruck's New Yorker (not freely available online) profile of Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide, the nation's biggest mortgage lender at the height of the housing boom.

  • "Wall Street's white-shoe bankers had long looked down on Mozilo, the mortgage banker from Los Angeles, with his gold necklace, white-collared shirts, hand-tailored suits, and fancy cars. They disliked his swagger, and they didn't invite him to join their private clubs."
  • "The former news junkie is so angered by the media's coverage of him that he has given up the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and reads only the Financial Times."
  • "'He was always this Italian guy people didn't want to accept.' She went on, 'When he tans he gets really dark. My mother told me that when he worked in Florida he was asked to sit in the back of the bus.'"
  • "...[P]robably because problems with home mortgages have affected so many people, Countrywide and its C.E.O. have become fixed in the public mind. And Mozilo's flashiness and reactive personality make him easy to caricature."

In case you haven't guessed by now, Bruck's treatment of Mozilo, while not exactly fawning in the best Ken Auletta New Yorker CEO profile tradition, isn't exactly aggressive. Bruck's an excellent reporter and unearths a lot of new detail about Mozilo's rise and fall, but through it all, there's an undertone that suggests, maybe we've all been a bit too hard on the guy. You see, he really did want to give everybody -- especially those with a history of being discriminated against -- a chance to buy a home. Maybe he pushed a little too hard for market share, and left the day-to-day running of the company to executives who were a bit wanting on the scruples front, but still and all, he's not as bad as he's been made out to be.

Yeah, well, I don't think Mozilo became the cartoon villain of the subprime housing bust because he was "easy to caricature." I think it's because in late 2006 and 2007, when he knew exactly how unlikely it was the loans Countrywide had been making would ever be paid back, he repeatedly amended his personal stock trading plans to allow him to unload as much Countrywide stock as possible while the getting was good. He cleared around $140 million from those sales.

While his company and the housing sector were imploding, setting the stage for the worst global economic disaster since the Great Depression, he was walking away with $140 million, even as he lied repeatedly to the general public about the financial state of his company. You won't find too many other credible nominees for the role of "most involved with making the mess while profiting to the tune of more than $100 million."

No wonder Mozilo refuses to read the Times and the Journal. Must be hard facing up to the guilt and shame, every bit of which he deserves.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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