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Investment firms pay to play with state retirement funds

On June 23, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum pulled in a bundle of campaign checks from a single address in Pittsburgh. In all, $28,000 in checks from that address made their way to McCollum's campaign for governor.

Many donors listed their occupations as homemaker, investor or student. They can be traced to people connected with Federated Investors, which last year was awarded a lucrative contract with the Florida State Board of Administration — a board that McCollum helps oversee.

In 19 months since getting that contract, how much has Federated made in fees? More than $3 million.

It's business as usual at the SBA, which has a ton of public money to invest — about $132 billion — on behalf of hundreds of Florida cities, counties and state organizations, and on behalf of the pension fund for a million current and retired teachers, police officers and other public servants.

Investment firms want the SBA's business because the fees for managing the money run into the millions. The firms are happy to spend a few hundred thousand if it might help get the job.

So what do they do? Some financial firms pay to play. They contribute to the campaigns of politicians who oversee pension funds, with an eye toward getting business from the public investment agencies.

Federal and state investigators — but not in Florida — are investigating pay-to-play around the country. They're looking into how investment companies use middlemen and lobbyists as well as donations to parties, political fundraising groups and nonprofit organizations that make it hard to track their efforts to influence the decision makers.

The companies deny any wrongdoing, and Ash Williams, who took over as the SBA's executive director last year, says Florida has no pay-to-play problem. He says the SBA has an excellent reputation.

"Under my watch there has been no connection between political contributions and any investment decisions made by the SBA,'' Williams said. "Our processes focus on investment merit, and there is no place for political intrusion."

Yet the money churns back and forth. Here are some glimpses how:

• With personal contributions limited to $500, bundled contributions from relatives of employees at a firm is a tried-and-true method.

The day before and the day after McCollum got his $28,000 in 56 bundled checks from Pittsburgh, Gov. Charlie Crist's campaign for U.S. Senate received a mini-bundle: six Pittsburgh donations totaling $14,400. The donations tied to Federated Investors arrived 16 months after Crist, McCollum and the third SBA trustee, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, approved a big contract with the SBA.

• Investment firms and contractors donate through intermediaries, a double win: Unlike personal contributions, there are no caps, plus it's harder to trace the source of the money.

Federated executives are among the six-figure givers to a Florida political party, as is an executive from Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., the giant private equity firm. Companies that donate through political fundraising arms include Bank of America.

All three companies have lucrative contracts with the SBA.

• The campaigns of legislative leaders with influence over public investments get bundles of contributions from Wall Street, too.

Executives of Kelso & Co., a New York private equity firm, rained 100 campaign checks on a dozen key members of the Florida Legislature, including those who help write laws concerning the SBA. Kelso donated most of the money three months after the SBA gave the company a contract to manage $100 million in pension funds.

The SBA has no guidelines for political giving, which is awkward because all three of its trustees are running for higher office. But it's also awkward because the trustees have a "fiduciary duty'' to see that the SBA runs in the best interest of its constituents — the state and local governments whose money it invests and the state and local employees whose retirement funds it safeguards.

A teacher might ask: I thought you were making decisions to protect my pension, but I see that you accept campaign contributions from firms and people who want SBA business. Are you looking out for them or for me?

• • •

What would the trustees tell the teacher? Sink and McCollum would not be interviewed.

Said Crist: "I'm always looking out for the people, I can assure you of that. … There is no pay-to-play with Charlie Crist. … It's not part of me.''

The SBA runs one of the country's largest public pension funds, a $110 billion behemoth. The agency backs proposals that would require companies in which it invests to disclose contributions and publish guidelines on political giving.

But the SBA has no such guidelines for itself.

Williams, the agency's executive director, says they're not comparable situations. For the companies in which the SBA owns stock, contributions are done at stockholder expense. But the SBA has no equity in the Wall Street investment houses; if they make contributions, it's not at the SBA's expense. So Williams says the existing laws already address political contributions.

The agency has a rule against conflicts of interest by its staff, but no similar rule for trustees.

It has no rule that requires lobbyists for investment firms to disclose detailed information about their fees or activities.

It has no rule that prohibits political parties and Florida lawmakers from soliciting contributions from companies seeking or doing business with the SBA.

Williams, who took over a year ago, says Florida already has rules to govern political contributions and lobbyists.

• • •

Federated Investors is one of the country's largest investment managers. Chairman John F. Donahue, a big Republican donor, is from Pittsburgh.

The SBA trustees tapped Federated to restore integrity and transparency to the Florida local government investment pool after revelations of bad investments led hundreds of local agencies and school districts to yank billions from the pool.

About 16 months later came the bundle of checks to McCollum and Crist.

The mini-bundle of $14,400 to Crist's campaign for U.S. Senate came from six people. Three had their employer/occupation reported as "FED INVESTMENTS, INC/INVESTMENTS,'' and three as "N/A/HOMEMAKER.'' All were associated with Federated.

SBA spokesman Dennis Mac­Kee said Federated won the deal through a competitive process.

McCollum campaign spokeswoman Shannon Gravitte connected the Pittsburgh donations to Federated's chairman: "It looks to me that Donahue asked family members to contribute as well, which is not uncommon."

None of the contributions was made in the company's name. The donors included some of Donahue's family. All listed 1001 Liberty Ave., Pittsburgh, as their address. That is the address of Federated Investors Tower.

"Our employees may choose to participate in the political process and neither we nor they comment on those contributions,'' said Federated spokesman J.T. Tuskan. "We do not track the private contributions of employees and their families."

Crist said Friday that he had no contact with Federated and that he "never recommended that anyone get any kind of investment advantage with the SBA, ever.''

When anyone gives him a contribution, he said, "the only thing they should expect is a thank you note and good government.''

Speaking for Attorney General McCollum, Gravitte said he never got calls or talked to anyone from Federated about the contract or seeking a hearing on other company products. "McCollum knows Jack Donahue as a long-time fundraiser for the Republican Party who lives part-time in Naples,'' Gravitte said.

• • •

Florida has a $500 cap on individual contributions, but for a federal campaign, like Crist's bid for the U.S. Senate, the limit is $2,400. Contributors can give $4,800, half designated for the primary, the other half for the general election.

The federal Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a rule that would bar investment advisers from managing public funds for two years if they make a campaign contribution of more than $250 to politicians with influence over those funds.

Several big investment firms told the St. Petersburg Times they already prohibit political contributions, to avoid even the taint of pay-to-play. Employees must get company clearance before making a personal contribution.

One such company is the Blackstone Group, in the news last week announcing that it will pay $2.7 billion for Tampa's Busch Gardens and nine other theme parks. The company already owns half of Universal Orlando.

Blackstone's chairman and chief executive is Stephen Schwarzman, who is ranked as one of the wealthiest people in America by Forbes magazine.

Since 2006, Blackstone has won the right to invest $800 million of Florida pension money in private equity and real estate deals. In the ensuing three years, it made $10 million in fees.

In 2005, Schwarzman donated $500 to Crist's campaign for governor.

Shortly after, a Blackstone spokesman said, the firm barred political donations to all state officials in pension funds' "chain of command.''

So why did Schwarzman, the boss, send two $2,400 checks to Crist's Senate campaign just this May?

Oops, spokesman Peter Rose said — the contributions were a mistake. The firm originally overlooked them because they were for a race for federal office, not a state race. But now Blackstone has asked Crist's campaign to give back the $4,800.

"If they want a refund, they're welcome to have one,'' Crist said. He said he doesn't know Schwarz­man.

• • •

Government rules that limit contributions from individuals don't apply to political parties. Financial firms, their employees and other vendors that have business with the SBA have made larger contributions to Florida's political parties. Sometimes six-figure large.

In 2002, two Federated executives gave the Florida GOP $280,000. That was five months after the SBA trustees — led then by Gov. Jeb Bush — awarded Federated a deal to run a money market account for Florida's retirement system. MacKee says the contract was never executed.

Said Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell: "It's absurd to imply any political contributions impacted Gov. Bush's leadership of and participation on the (SBA) board.''

Also in 2002, the Florida GOP received a $100,000 contribution from Henry Kravis, a founder of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. In 2008, the SBA agreed to invest about $56 million in a fund run by KKR and has paid about $1 million in fees.

KKR spokesman Ken Mehlman said Kravis made the donation because he respects and supported Jeb Bush, who was running for re-election that year.

"The notion there was some kind of connection (to investments) is literally absurd,'' said Mehlman, who managed the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush.

He also said KKR now restricts executives from state and local political donations, and "it's unlikely (Kravis) would have made that contribution'' today.

Some firms keep on giving.

State election records say that last year, JPMorgan Chase & Co. gave the Democratic and Republican parties in Florida a total of $40,000. In that year and the following year, the investment giant earned more than $9 million in management fees from the SBA.

Companies have other ways to make large contributions.

Bank of America gives through a trade association that lobbies for the financial industry. It also uses a political action committee to pool contributions from employees into a single account.

Since 2006, Bank of America's PAC gave $52,500 to Florida's Democratic Party, $96,000 to the state Republican Party and $20,000 to the PAC of the Florida Bankers Association.

SBA trustee Sink, who is running for governor, spent 26 years in banking, retiring in 2000 as head of Bank of America's Florida operations.

During her 2006 campaign for chief financial officer, she received at least $9,200 in contributions from people connected to Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., including outgoing CEO Ken Lewis and ex-CEO Hugh McColl. She also got $500 directly from the company, $500 from the company's PAC and contributions from employees in Florida.

In the last three years, Bank of America has earned more than $3 million in banking and brokers fees from the SBA.

• • •

Kelso & Co., the New York City private equity firm, wasn't new to Florida. It got a contract to manage $50 million in pension funds in 2004. The deal to manage an additional $100 million came in 2007.

Three months after, 10 Kelso executives bundled checks to 11 Florida lawmakers, including those with influence over pensions and investments. Total: $35,500.

Plus, state records show, state Sen. J.D. Alexander, now the Senate budget chief, got 10 donations totaling $5,000 in February 2008. Alexander said he never heard of Kelso or the donors. He said he got the checks at a Republican Party fundraising reception.

"The party solicits a lot of the donors,'' he said. "And they collect all the checks and deliver them to the campaign.''

Like Alexander, Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater got nine checks for $4,500, according to elections records. Now a candidate for chief financial officer (and a spot on the SBA board), Atwater also said he was not familiar with Kelso.

"I don't know what would have been their intentions,'' he said, though the company probably wanted to show support for "fiscally, prudent responsible leaders who wanted to keep Florida on the right course.''

Atwater said he can't recall having a conversation with anyone interested in discussing oversight of the SBA.

In the last three years, records show, the SBA has paid Kelso about $3.1 million in fees. Kelso executives did not return messages seeking comment.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, now a member of key finance committees, says he doesn't know Kelso or its executives, either, and chided himself for not remembering who gave him ten $500 checks. It was the Kelso executives.

"It tells me it was a bundle deal. … They might have done a thing where a pile of checks were solicited by me or somebody. … (Or) somebody got a hold of these people with this private equity firm and probably said, 'We're trying to get some Republican people elected.' ''

Bennett and his colleagues say they never get involved in investment decisions. But they can write laws allowing the SBA to broaden its investment options.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the SBA executive director typically tells lawmakers what the agency needs. But Fasano was blunt about the plus that contributions from investment firms bring to the table:

"They do it for the same reason everyone else does it: access.''

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy and staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report.

McCollum letter favors more advisers

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has not been available to be interviewed this year for the stories the St. Petersburg Times has published about accountability problems at the State Board of Administration and his oversight role as a trustee.

The Times asked to interview him for today's story about the influence of money and political contributions. His office spokeswoman said that, because the questions involved political contributions, the request to speak to McCollum should be directed to his political campaign for governor.

The campaign spokeswoman said she was trying to accommodate an interview but said Thursday that she would not be able to make him available because he was traveling to a funeral out of state. She asked what specifically she needed to respond to, and the Times provided written questions. On Friday morning, the spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office provided the Times with letters that McCollum sent to Florida's House speaker and Senate president. McCollum's letters said he wants to work with the legislative leaders on expanding the number of people on a council that advises the SBA on investments and wants annual audits.

"Finally,'' McCollum wrote, "the current ethics policies of the State Board of Administration call for high levels of conduct for State Board employees and should be codified to ensure their continued, and strengthened, application.''

Investment firms pay to play with state retirement funds 10/11/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 11, 2009 3:59pm]
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