Fingerprint Registry goes to Senate Floor — likely today

In the past few days, the subprime mess has morphed into a Congressional ethics scandal. Portfolio magazine has revealed that Senate Banking Comittee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Kent Conrad- D-N.D., as well as former Bush administration Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson, received special “VIP” loans from embattled mortgage lender Countrywide Financial. Compared with loans for ordinary folk, these special mortgages may have allowed the “VIPs” to pocket thousands of dollars in savings. And they raise questions as to whether Countrywide was trying to influence these officials with improper and/or illegal gifts.

Given all the housing troubles, you would think this would call for an investigation. But policing itself is not what Congress has in mind when it comes to cleaning up the housing market. Instead of subpoenaing those officials who took the VIP loans, or even Countrywide executives such as CEO Angelo Mozillo, Congress instead is ramming through a housing bailout bill that would, among other things, forcibly collect the most personal data of thousands of law-abiding Americans. The data are their fingerprints!

That’s right, even with all the outrage expressed after OpenMarket broke the story of the fingerprint provision in the bill that cleared the Senate Banking Committee — the nearly 400 comments, the links by the Drudge Report, and the pathbreaking follow-up story by CNET ace tech policy reporter Declan McCullagh — Senate leaders have kept the privacy-invading provision in the bill that is headed to the floor.

None other than committee Chairman and reported Countrywide VIP mortgage holder Dodd, along with Ranking Republican Richard Shelby, R-Ala, issued a press release yesterday announcing that they “have completed bipartisan legislation that includes major efforts to address the housing crisis.”

But what’s not said in the press release is that the final bill that the Senate will be voting on — possibly as early as today — still contains the provisions establishing the controversial fingerprint registry for workers even tangentially connected to the mortgage and real estate industries. Simply go from Dodd and Shelby’s press release to the language of what they call the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 and do a text search of the word “fingerprint.” You’ll find the same old provisions that came out of the committee requiring individuals working even tangentially in the mortgage and real estate industries to send their prints to the feds.

To recap, the language states that “an individual may not engage in the business of a loan originator without first … obtaining a unique identifier.” To obtain this “identifier,” an individual is required to “furnish” to the newly created Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System and Registry “information concerning the applicant’s identity, including fingerprints for submission” to the FBI and other government agencies.

And the requirements would cover a broad swath of individuals involved with mortgage lending. The amendment defines “loan originator” as anyone who “takes a residential loan application; and offers or negotiates terms of a residential mortgage loan for compensation or gain.” It states that even real estate brokers would be covered if they receive any compensation from lenders or mortgage brokers.

This definition of “loan originator” is so broad that even many part-time and seasonal employees may have to submit their prints to the Fed. But ironically, Countrywide CEO Mozillo may not face this requirement since he may not be considered a “loan originator” who directly deals with customers. And I don’t know of any requirement that members of Congress submit their print to a database, but maybe we should ask them to, particularly if they vote for the bill containing this provision.

And to top it off, there is virtually nothing in this bill about security procedures that would apply to this database to prevent identity theft or other abuses of the fingerprint data.

I’ve heard from a reliable source that the full Senate may be voting on this as early as this afternoon. If you would like to discuss this with your state’s Senators and their staff, you can let your fingers do the walking and call them. Just dial the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to be connected to the office of your Senator.