By Peter Stone, Center for Public Integrity, and Michael Isikoff, NBC News
Special to msnbc.com – updated 1/5/2011 6:54:16 AM ET
A small network of hedge fund executives pumped at least $10 million into Republican campaign committees and allied groups before November’s elections, helping bankroll GOP victories that this week will change the balance of power in Washington, according to a review of campaign records and interviews with industry insiders by the Center for Public Integrity and NBC News.
Bitterly opposed to President Barack Obama’s economic and regulatory policies — including proposals to increase taxes on some of their profits — top Wall Street hedge fund moguls were unusually energized during last year’s election. They held multiple fundraisers and coordinated strategy to direct what appear to be unprecedented sums into the coffers of GOP and allied political committees, according to industry and GOP fund raising sources.
Many substantial donations from the hedge fund executives escaped public notice either because they were made late in the campaign (and therefore weren’t reported until after the election) or were funneled through third-party groups, obscure “joint fund raising committees” and newly created political nonprofits that are not required to disclose donors.
The net effect has been to give the hedge funds important new allies at a time they are fending off regulations mandated by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and an aggressive Justice Department investigation into insider trading.
A prime example is Rep. Scott Garrett, a little known Republican from northern New Jersey who this week is slated to become the new chairman of the House Financial Services subcommittee on capital markets, a key panel that has direct oversight of the industry. A staunch foe of the regulation of Wall Street, Garrett has threatened to cut funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission and roll back some provisions of Dodd-Frank.
Throwing in with apparent winners As it became increasingly clear late last summer that Republicans were likely to capture the House, the partners at Elliott Management Corp., a $17 billion Wall Street hedge fund that specializes in distressed foreign debt, mobilized to boost Garrett’s political fortunes. One of the firm’s senior officers threw a fundraiser for Garrett. The firm’s executives and one of their spouses wrote checks totaling $195,800 to two of the congressman’s political fund raising committees, campaign records show.
Of that amount, $45,000 was donated by nine Elliott executives to the congressman’s leadership political action committee Supporting Conservatives of Today and Tomorrow. As first reported by the The Record newspaper, another $150,800 was donated to a newly created entity called the Scott Garrett Victory Committee, which was registered by a GOP fundraiser using a post office box in Athens, Ga.
As a so-called joint fund raising committee that shared its proceeds with the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, it was permitted under campaign finance rules to accept donations in excess of the standard $2,400 limit on contributions to individual candidates.
Elliott executives — one of whom wrote a check for $35,000 — ended up providing about 96 percent of all the funds raised by the Garrett committee, according to the review of campaign records by CPI and NBC.
“This is particularly appalling,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes transparency in campaign finance. “No one in America will believe that Representative Garrett can provide impartial oversight of the hedge fund industry after taking these huge amounts of money from one (hedge fund) company.”
Garrett’s office did not respond to repeated phone calls and e-mails requesting comment.
A political ally of Garrett, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the contributions from Elliott executives were largely at the request of Keith Horn, Elliott’s chief operating officer, who is a constituent of the congressman and has been raising money for him for years. Horn declined to comment, but a spokesman for Elliott stressed that the firm “does not make donations to political candidates or parties. Some individual Elliott employees raise funds and donate to candidates and party organizations, both Democrat and Republican, at the federal and state levels.”
The contributions to Garrett were only a small portion of a tidal wave of hedge fund contributions to GOP candidates aimed at boosting the industry’s fortunes in Washington.
A central player in the effort was Paul Singer, Elliott’s publicity-shy chairman who has emerged as one of the Republican Party’s most powerful behind-the-scenes moneymen. (A fervent libertarian, Singer is also a major donor to pro-Israel causes and gay rights groups.) During last year’s election, Singer held fundraisers for GOP Senate candidates in his Central Park West apartment and, with other Elliot executives, donated nearly $500,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, making the firm’s executives among the largest contributors to that group.
Another key industry player in directing funds to the GOP was Steven Cohen, the multibillionaire chairman of SAC Capital Advisors in Stamford, Conn. His firm, generally considered among the most successful hedge funds, recently received a subpoena seeking information related to a major Wall Street insider trading probe being conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, according to a source familiar with the probe. An SAC spokesman declined to comment for this story.
Other important figures in the hedge fund campaign effort were Ken Griffin, president of Chicago’s Citadel Investment, Bruce Kovner of Caxton Associates in Princeton, N.J., Robert Mercer, co-chairman of Renaissance Technologies, which is headquartered on Long Island in New York, and John Paulson, the chairman of Paulson & Co. of Manhattan.
A dinner for donors The executives appear to have coordinated their efforts. At a dinner at Cohen’s palatial Greenwich, Conn. home late last August, Singer, Kovner and other hedge fund executives discussed the upcoming elections and their political contributions, according to an industry source who requested anonymity. At least one GOP operative was in attendance, the source said. (Griffin, Kovner, Mercer and Paulson all declined comment for this story.)
Among some of the more notable donations:
The magnitude of the industry donations are particularly notable because at least some of the hedge fund executives have in the past given generously to Democrats and some members of their firms continued to do, albeit in much smaller amounts, in last year’s election. Cohen, for example, has been a major donor to Connecticut’s Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, the retired former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. And the Chicago-based Griffin was a “bundler” for President Obama in the last election. Paulson was a significant donor and fundraiser for Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, donating $30,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as late as June 2009. But in 2010, he switched heavily to the Republicans. With other members of his firm and his wife, he contributed over $450,000 to various GOP accounts.
The new enthusiasm for the GOP was spurred in large part by hedge fund managers’ opposition to many of the tax and regulatory economic policies of Obama and congressional Democrats. Some hedge fund executives, along with others from private equity funds, were especially exercised about a measure that passed the House this year before stalling in the Senate. That bill would have taxed their profits, known as carried interest, as ordinary income rather than capital gains. If enacted, the legislation would increase taxes on many executives from a marginal rate of 15 percent to 35 percent. The industry also is concerned about some provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial services reform law, such as those that will require registration and greater disclosure by hedge funds and impose tighter rules on the trading of derivatives.
But the animus of hedge fund titans toward Obama and the Democrats was also driven by what they viewed as politically charged rhetoric that stigmatized them.
“Look, it was the demonization, the anti-hedge fund rhetoric,” said one Wall Street hedge fund executive who was instrumental in helping to arrange donations to the GOP.
“These guys,” he added, “manage billions of dollars from pension funds, from investors, local governments.” When Obama last year attacked the industry as “speculators” and criticized their role in Chrysler’s bankruptcy, many executives went ballistic. “It was the cheap-shot, class-warfare rhetoric that pissed them off,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The new GOP-controlled House may be far friendlier to the hedge fund industry, as some of its key allies are now poised to inherit important leadership positions. Incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia has been a key critic of the “carried interest” proposal and recently vowed to “reign in the regulatory policies” under the Dodd-Frank law to block it. In the last two years, Cantor’s campaign committee; his leadership political action committee, the Every Republican is Crucial PAC; and the Cantor Victory Committee, a joint fundraising committee he headed, all received substantial contributions from hedge fund partners. Among them: $31,400 from Cohen and executives at SAC, $32,400 from Blue Ridge Capital and $50,200 from Gruss Investments. Six top executives at the giant private equity firm KKR also contributed $55,000 to Cantor’s joint fundraising committee.
Asked for comment, Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the majority leader, said that Cantor “has made clear that the new Republican majority will use the oversight process and all means at its disposal — including the power of appropriations — to expose and repeal regulations that kill jobs and are barriers to capital formation and economic growth.”