Republican commissioners on the panel created by Congress to probe the roots of the financial crisis leaked documents to partisan allies and shared confidential information with influence peddlers, according to a Wednesday report by Democrats on a Congressional oversight committee.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, sought to investigate allegations that the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was mismanaged by its Democratic majority, misused taxpayer funds, was compromised by conflicts of interest and colluded with Democrats in Congress as they sought to pass a financial reform bill.
Instead, the 400,000 emails and documents obtained by the investigative committee show that Republican commissioner Peter Wallison broke confidentiality rules by leaking documents to Ed Pinto, a colleague of his at the American Enterprise Institute, a prominent right-leaning Washington-based research and policy organization.
The misconduct did not stop there, according to the report. The assistant of Bill Thomas, the panel's vice chairman and another of the four Republican commissioners, shared information about the commission's hearings, targets and investigative direction with one of Thomas's colleagues at law firm Buchanan, Ingersoll, and Rooney, one of Washington's top lobbying shops. In one case, Thomas's colleague, Alex Brill, asked Thomas's assistant in a March 31, 2010, email about an upcoming hearing on Citigroup for his "friend who represents Citi." The bank was concerned it would be unfairly singled out at its hearing, wrote Brill, who is also the chief executive of economic and political consulting firm Matrix Global Advisors.
The partisan bent of the report, its findings and the investigation that led to it lends credence to the central criticisms that have long dogged the panel: A commission led by former politicians rather than prosecutors and economists would never get to the bottom of the financial crisis, and its findings would inevitably be viewed as a political report rather than as an objective look at the companies, policies and practices that caused the most punishing downturn since the Great Depression.
The House oversight committee was to hold a hearing Wednesday on the crisis commission. It was postponed to a future undetermined date, the crisis commission's former chairman, Phil Angelides, said in an email. Thomas and Brill did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.
Wallison violated the commission's ethics rules by leaking confidential information to Pinto on "several" occasions, the report alleges.
In one case, the crisis commission's general counsel concluded that Wallison violated the ethics code by sharing a confidential staff memo with Pinto that used private housing data provided by the Federal Reserve under a confidentiality agreement between the commission and the Fed. Wallison and Pinto both pointed to government housing policies as the primary cause of the financial crisis, a position rejected by the broader committee.
Wallison acknowledged that he supplied Pinto with the confidential staff memo, but said he didn't know it was confidential at the time.
He also said that Pinto deserved to see the memo anyway, as the data its conclusions were based on directly challenged Pinto's data and his claim that the crisis was largely caused by government homeowners policies and subprime lending by mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
"I get this memo criticizing Pinto's data -- what was I supposed to do?" Wallison said. "Pinto should be the one to respond to criticism of his data."
Pinto said Wallison sent him the FCIC memo with a simple question: "What do you think?"
Both men maintain that Fannie and Freddie's subprime mortgage activities directly led to the crisis, despite an avalanche of data that has led government and university economists to conclude otherwise.
Perhaps more distressing to the House oversight committee's Democratic staff was the unauthorized disclosure of information about the crisis commission's investigations to Brill, a Washington influence peddler who once worked as a senior adviser to Thomas when he led the House Ways and Means Committee.
Thomas's assistant, who wasn't named in the Democratic report, shared with Brill internal draft reports; information about internal commission deliberations; plans to investigate foreign banks; and the commission planned treatment of certain companies under investigation, according to internal emails obtained by the House oversight committee.
The committee noted that it could not find any record of Brill working for the crisis commission in an official or advisory capacity. The committee also could not find any record of Brill signing a confidentiality agreement, a requirement of commission employment.
In one instance, Thomas's assistant emailed Brill a draft of a then-confidential staff report on Wells Fargo's 2008 acquisition of Wachovia, a teetering, giant bank that was being battered by turmoil in the financial markets. The assistant also shared information about the crisis commission's possible witness list for its hearing on the issue.
In a response, Brill made a number of suggestions he hoped the assistant would share with Thomas.
In another instance, Brill asked the assistant about the commission's plans to probe foreign banks.
Thomas's assistant not only said the commission was going to investigate these institutions in his reply, but he named them as well, identifying Deutsche Bank, UBS, BNP Paribas, RBS and Lazard Freres as institutions the commission was probing "for various purposes."
In March 2010, Brill asked the assistant about the crisis commission's plans for its upcoming hearing on Citigroup. Brill states on his firm's website that he's helped a "Wall Street investment bank" navigate policy matters in Washington.
"Fyi, just heard from my friend who represents Citi," Brill wrote in an email. "I guess Citi feels afraid that they will be painted as one of the worst offenders of subprime when really they think that they only dabbled in subprime. I don't know the truth in any of this but I guess the titles of the panels make this look like citi is the subprime devil while WMT [Thomas] was explaining to me that Citi is a great target to study because they did a bit of everything and that is more true for Citi than for anyone else. Any thoughts?"
Later that same day, Thomas's assistant replied to Brill, explaining how the commission would likely treat Citigroup officials during their hearing.
"They aren't going to be painted as a particularly bad offender of subprime origination, because they weren't a bad offender in that area," the assistant wrote. "However, they ended up taking $55B in losses associated with subprime and then got $45B in TARP and a government guarantee on $300B of assets. And their risk management re: their subprime exposure was, by any account, pretty awful. And, it is true that they are a good example because they did a little of everything, which means that we can discuss the entire subprime-universe during their hearing. So, while I don't think they will come across as the person who as ripping off the American public, I think they may come across as a pretty poorly managed company."
It's unclear whether Brill passed on this information to any clients or Citigroup representatives, the House oversight report notes.
In an Aug 2010 email to Angelides, the crisis panel's general counsel explained how such unauthorized disclosures could impede the commission's investigation, and open it up to legal liability.
"Disclosure of commission confidential information will gravely impair the commission's ability to conduct its business in the future by making it hard to secure the cooperation of other information providers in accessing their confidential information," he wrote. "And could expose the commission to damage claims for the improper release thereof."