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Is Angelo Mozilo a villain or just vilified?

The former Countrywide chief is awaiting verdicts in the courtroom and history.

August 30, 2009|E. Scott Reckard

When David Gautreaux volunteered to assist at a charity golf tournament in Thousand Oaks two years ago, he was eager to meet the event's host, Angelo R. Mozilo, then chief executive of mortgage giant Countrywide Financial Corp.

An actor and investor who owned Countrywide stock, Gautreaux was stationed at the 12th hole when Mozilo strode onto the green. Gautreaux remarked that Mozilo was winning.

"He turned at me, and his voice was like a bark. He said, 'We better be!' " recalled Gautreaux, who was taken aback. "A charity pro-am is the last place you'd feel compelled to do that -- especially as the host. The host should be the person who wants everybody else to have a great time."

Brash and ultra-competitive, the 70-year-old Mozilo has chafed more than a few people with his drive for dominance since he co-founded Countrywide in 1969. Now, more than a year after the company's near-collapse and humbling takeover by Bank of America Corp., the Bronx native is preparing to defend himself against a civil suit by federal regulators alleging fraud and insider trading.

From a broader perspective, Mozilo is also awaiting the verdict of history: Was he the No. 1 culprit of the financial crisis, as some (including Time magazine) have suggested? Or was he merely an aggressive executive who made mistakes while trying to keep his "baby," as he called Countrywide, atop the heap?

"Mozilo's fingerprints are all over the economic catastrophe we are living. He was the Typhoid Mary of the mortgage business, spreading the exotic-loan disease far and wide," said Dan Pedrotty, director of the AFL-CIO's office of investments. "He was also grossly overpaid, especially considering the fact that he drove his company off a cliff."

Others are more charitable, saying Mozilo's conduct was no worse than that of the industry as a whole.

"By mortgage industry standards, Angelo was a straight shooter," said Guy Cecala, editor of trade publication Inside Mortgage Finance. "Did the company get so large that he couldn't have hands-on oversight of everything, and things got out of control? I think that's what happened."

Regulators have weighed in, and not favorably. Lawsuits in several states, including California, contend Mozilo allowed Countrywide to lure borrowers into unaffordable adjustable-rate loans.

The fraud and insider-trading suit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission alleges Mozilo and his top lieutenants publicly assured investors that all was well while converting Countrywide into a mill for subprime and exotic loans that he denounced in internal e-mails as "toxic" -- and while changing his personal trading plans to unload more Countrywide shares.

There are private lawsuits as well, by the score, and a federal criminal probe to boot.

Mozilo's lawyers have denied any wrongdoing by their client, calling the SEC lawsuit politically motivated and saying the e-mails were taken out of context. But the swirling allegations have forced Mozilo, who at one point was on a Barron's magazine list of most-respected CEOs, into a defensive crouch.

Once a common sight on CBNC being interviewed by anchor Maria Bartiromo, with his gold cuff links and hand-tailored shirts and suits, Mozilo has adopted such a low profile that acquaintances, analysts and members of the public report "Angelo" sightings like fans spotting a movie star, or informants a fugitive: Mozilo in restaurants in Montecito, Calif., where he owns a compound; Mozilo playing cards, seemingly untroubled by all the accusations, in La Quinta, where he has a home at a golf resort.

He didn't respond to calls seeking comment for this article, and his attorney, David Siegel, didn't respond to requests to discuss Mozilo's defense or current activities. Close friends and family members have also declined to speak on the record.

Reached by phone at home by a Times reporter several months ago, he accused the newspaper of distorted coverage of him and of Countrywide. (The SEC lawsuit followed a Times article detailing how, as the mortgage market swooned in late 2006 and 2007, Mozilo had cashed in $138 million in stock options.) "Why should I talk to you?" he demanded before hanging up.

The self-made mortgage mogul's early history has been told frequently, often by Mozilo himself: his mother's motivating him to go to Fordham University instead of cutting meat in his immigrant father's shop; the foot in the door as a 14-year-old messenger for a New York mortgage firm; the ostracism a dark-skinned Italian American endured while working an early mortgage job in the South; the perceived slights by Ivy Leaguers at white-shoe Wall Street firms.

"At least in my generation, when you are Italian in the financial services company you are terribly underestimated," Mozilo told a doctoral candidate at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., attended by at least three of his five children and where Mozilo has served as a trustee.

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