Angelo Mozilo cannot believe it.
Six years after he lost control of the largest mortgage lender in the U.S., and days after news that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles plans to sue him, the Countrywide Financial Corp. founder is baffled by a new effort to punish him, proud of past triumphs and incensed by criticism.
“You’ll have to ask those people, ‘What do you have against Mozilo, what did he do?'” he said in a 30-minute call with Bloomberg News before Labor Day, one of his few interviews since the firm’s downfall. “Countrywide didn’t change. I didn’t change. The world changed.”
Interviews with Mozilo, 75, and three friends show what retirement looks like for a chief executive officer linked to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Remaining out of public view like Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s Richard Fuld or Jimmy Cayne of Bear Stearns Cos., Mozilo has submitted plans for Old West-style offices in California, taught students in Italy about finance, invested in a building in the Arizona desert that houses a Taco Bell and written about his life so that his grandchildren will “know the truth.”
He remains a defender of Countrywide, even after Bank of America Corp., which bought it in 2008, agreed last month to pay more than $16 billion to end probes into mortgage-bond sales on top of about $55 billion in fines that came before. Mozilo doesn’t understand why he and his firm, blamed by lawmakers and authorities for lax underwriting and predatory lending, have been seen as villains.
“No, no, no, we didn’t do anything wrong,” he said, adding that a real estate collapse was the root of the crisis. “Countrywide or Mozilo didn’t cause any of that.”
Mozilo, who lives in a 12,692-square-foot house in Santa Barbara, Calif., defended the size of a lender that did $408 billion of originations in 2007 and had a $1.5 trillion servicing portfolio.
“What’s wrong with that?” he said. “Should Amazon be condemned for being the biggest in their space?”
Mozilo won’t be the CEO of a public company again under terms of a $67.5 million settlement in 2010 with the Securities and Exchange Commission. According to regulators, Countrywide didn’t tell investors it was creating increasingly risky mortgages, while Mozilo expressed doubts to colleagues. “We are flying blind on how these loans will perform in a stressed environment,” he wrote in an email about one product.
Still, with no major executives imprisoned for roles in the crisis, the Justice Department created a team to probe mortgage-security fraud. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles is preparing to bring a civil case against Mozilo over the excesses of the subprime-mortgage boom, two people familiar with the plans told Bloomberg News last month.
He focused on his career’s highlights in the interview, recounting one business magazine calling Countrywide “The 23,000% Stock” and another naming him one of the most respected CEOs in the world.
“Go back and you’ll see that Countrywide was one of the most admired companies in the country,” he said. Mozilo added that he has “no idea” why the government is going after him again. “It’s unfortunate, but I try to make the best of it.”
Mozilo, who earned more than $500 million from 1999 to 2008, according to compensation-research firm Equilar Inc., has been paying attention to markets.
“I don’t have a job, so I have to earn some money, and I do it through investments,” he said. Real estate is still the best option, he said. “Tides go in and out. This is just another tide.”
Public records provide evidence of his faith. One investment is a stake in a building that houses a Taco Bell outside Phoenix. Mozilo said he hasn’t eaten there because he stays away from chicken and beef.
Another is a project in Templeton, a small Southern California town where he’s requested permits to build a two- story retail and office building on a vacant lot. Architectural sketches show a style suited for a quaint Western main street.
“It’s a throwback to a century ago,” Mozilo said. “I love America. I love everything about America.”
He talks investments with his friend Ken Langone, a founder of Home Depot Inc. “Equities, asset-backed deals, railroad cars, oil and gas,” said Langone, 78. “Private equity, structured finance, you name it.”
Mozilo decided to teach undergraduates what he knows about finance last year. The former trustee of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, said he spent about two weeks in Italy at Gonzaga-in-Florence, housed in the Mozilo Center overlooking a 16th-century Medici garden.
“I taught them the basics of finance based on my own experiences,” he said. “I really enjoyed being among them. It was very refreshing for me.”
Even if Mozilo isn’t ready to publish a book about his career, he has written about his life for his five children and 10 grandchildren. David Remnick’s Muhammad Ali biography “King of the World” and Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken,” about a runner-turned-war-prisoner, are recent favorites. Mozilo, known for a deep and seasoned tan, said he’s playing less golf.
Two of his friends, former Countrywide director Robert Donato and fellow mortgage-industry veteran Howard Levine, praised his spirit. Levine, a friend for at least 50 years, said Mozilo gives a $5 bill to each homeless person he sees on New York’s Fifth Avenue when they visit from California.
His lawyers have told prosecutors that Mozilo is ill, The New York Times reported last month.
“I’m 75, so I have some health issues that I’m managing,” he said in the call. “I have not gotten my death notice yet.”
He excused himself after half an hour to tend to guests. Asked for a word that describes the state of his life, he offered one before hanging up: “Peace.”