Obama at first downplayed vetter Johnson problem. Chicago’s Carol Felsenthal new “Clinton in Exile” book looks into Obama veep vetter Holder role in Marc Rich pardon.

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WASHINGTON — Presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama — after first downplaying questions about the ethics of his chief vice presidential vetter Jim Johnson, the former Fannie Mae chief — on Wednesday accepted his resignation.

“Jim did not want to distract in any way from the very important task of gathering information about my vice presidential nominee, so he has made a decision to step aside that I accept,” Obama said in a statement.

“We have a very good selection process under way, and I am confident that it will produce a number of highly qualified candidates for me to choose from in the weeks ahead. I remain grateful to Jim for his service and his efforts in this process.”

Johnson, Caroline Kennedy and former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder were the three-member team Obama tapped to vet potential running mates.

On June 5, Obama told reporters traveling with him that “there is no decision that I am going to make that is more important before the November election. I intend to do it right and I’m not going to [do it] in the press.”

But that was before Saturday’s Wall Street Journal report that Johnson obtained below-market mortgages from Countrywide, the national home lender under investigation for subprime loans — and a company singled out by Obama for contributing to the housing market crisis.

The apparent sweetheart deal, coupled with rehashes of Johnson’s lucrative pay packages while at Fannie Mae — executive boondoggles are another Obama target — exploded on the Internet, cable political shows and into mainstream newspapers.

On Monday, Obama brushed aside questions about Johnson and Holder. Republicans started using Johnson to bash Obama’s holier-than-thou anti-lobbyist drive, throwing Holder into the mix because of his role in the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich by President Bill Clinton.

“I mean, first of all, I am not vetting my VP search committee for their mortgages. . . . I would have to hire a vetter to vet the vetters,” Obama said.

In a new book about Bill Clinton, Clinton in Exile by Chicago author Carol Felsenthal, Holder — then the No. 2 man in the Clinton Justice Department, with responsibility for pardons — was seen as “so ambitious to be attorney general in the expected Gore administration” that he “played ball” with a Gore confidant, Jack Quinn, who was Rich’s lawyer. Felsenthal wrote that Holder ”adamantly denies there was any secret deal.”

(Holder, also a former federal prosecutor, headed the team that indicted former Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Dan Rostenkowski.)

Several people I talked to in Obama’s orbit were surprised that Obama tapped Johnson. For a candidate running on a change platform and against Washington, Johnson is an insider’s insider. He vetted vice presidential contenders for Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.

Alex Conant, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said if Obama “is concerned his campaign’s ties to special interests are distracting from his VP search and message, why is Eric Holder still on his search committee,” adding “Obama’s hypocritical attacks show he can’t stand up to his own standard — and that he just isn’t ready to make change.”

Shot back Obama spokesman Bill Burton, “We don’t need any lectures from a campaign that waited 15 months to purge the lobbyists from their staff, and only did so because they said it was a ‘perception problem.’ ”

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