Illinois Governor-elect Bruce Rauner accepted more than $140,000 worth of campaign donations from executives affiliated with firms in which Illinois pension systems have investments, according to documents reviewed by the International Business Times. The campaign donations flowed to Rauner despite state and federal rules designed to prevent pension investment managers from donating to candidates for public offices that oversee state pension systems. As governor, Rauner will now appoint the trustees who oversee Illinois’ pension investment decisions.
When IBTimes first presented the campaign finance documents to officials at the Illinois State Board of Investment late last week, they said they had never been asked about the donations. Days later, those officials announced they are now conducting a formal review of the system’s private investment managers to see if they complied with campaign finance disclosure requirements.
The announcement of the review came at the same time the SEC’s top enforcement official publicly suggested that the agency will be be intensifying its scrutiny of the relationship between political contributions and public pension investments. That relationship was a central theme in the Illinois governor’s race when Rauner’s opponents questioned whether his personal campaign contributions and payments by one of his portfolio companies unduly influenced state investment decisions.
Rauner's campaign did not respond to an interview request from IBTimes.
Rauner is a longtime private equity executive whose firm, GTCR, manages public pension money. Financial disclosure documents show he still retains ownership stakes in 15 GTCR entities. Though Rauner said he retired from the firm in 2012, SEC documents show he retains a partnership stake in at least one GTCR subsidiary. The two state pension systems he will now oversee as governor list GTCR as managing state money.
The SEC's 2011 "pay-to-play" rule effectively bars executives at firms that earn fees from managing public pension money from donating to candidates for offices that can influence public pension investments. The Illinois governor appoints trustees to the boards overseeing the $40 billion Illinois Teachers Retirement System and the $13 billion Illinois State Board of Investment.
During his gubernatorial campaign, Rauner raised millions of dollars from executives in the financial sector -- and, despite the pay-to-play rule, some of the money came from executives at firms affiliated with funds that receive state pension investments. That includes:
$1,000 from Mesirow Financial senior managing director Mark Kmety and $2,000 from Mesirow Financial managing director David Wanger. ISBI’s 2013 annual report lists Mesirow Financial as a hedge fund-of-fund manager for the pension system, and lists $271 million in holdings in Mesirow investment vehicles. In an emailed statement, a Mesirow spokeswoman told IBTimes that a separate branch of Mesirow works with the Illinois pension system and that therefore "we do not believe these contributions violate the pay to play laws." Neither Rauner donor from Mesirow Financial "has any relationship with and/or receives any compensation from any state entity, nor do they pursue state business," she wrote.
$2,500 from Sofinnova general partner James Healy. TRS lists Sofinnova as a private equity manager. The system's 2013 annual report says the firm manages $8.1 million of state pension money, and was paid more than $900,000 in fees that year. In June, TRS committed to invest another $50 million of state pension cash in Sofinnova. Healy did not respond to IBTimes' interview request.
$5,000 from Northern Trust's Senior Vice President Brayton Alley. Illinois TRS lists Northern Trust Investments as an equity manager. The system's 2013 annual report says Northern Trust manages $2.3 billion of state money, and made $548,000 in fees from the system that year. A spokesman for the firm told IBTimes, "We are aware of the obligations under various Illinois and federal laws and regulations" and "we are unaware of any violation to such requirements."
$9,600 from employees of the real estate firm CBRE. The 2013 annual reports of TRS and ISBI show a combined $184 million worth of state pension investments in CBRE investment vehicles. A representative for CBRE told IBTimes that the employees are not covered by the SEC rule because they are not involved in state pension business and not employed by the subsidiary of CBRE that does pension investment work.
More than $90,000 in in-kind contributions from John Buck of the John Buck Company, which is listed as an investment manager for TRS. A spokesman for TRS, David Urbanek, told IBTimes that the pension system's investment in the John Buck Company "is now in wind-down mode" and added that "the company is no longer actively managing TRS money." A representative for the John Buck company said, "We do not manage money for TRS."
While some of the contributions are relatively small, the SEC recently prosecuted its first pay-to-play case over donations totaling just $4,500. SEC sanctions can be strong: The rule can compel investment managers to return all fees they have collected from the pension systems after the political contributions were made.
Illinois state law also restricts contributions from state contractors to candidates for governor, though the executive director of ISBI, William Atwood, told IBTimes that the pension systems are exempt from the statute.
In a statement emailed to IBTimes, TRS' Urbanek said that "these investment decisions were all made by TRS independent of any knowledge of any contributions to any candidates." He added that many of the donors are at firms that received state pension investments "long before Governor-elect Rauner officially declared his candidacy and before the individuals working at these firms contributed to his campaign."
But legal experts, former SEC officials and campaign finance lawyers interviewed by IBTimes said the rule applies over the entire life of a pension fund investment because those investments can be terminated, sold off or extended at any time. The point is to prevent political contributions from influencing not just the original decision to invest, but the ongoing choice to continue or terminate the investment.
David Melton of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform said pension "contracts come up for renewal periodically," and that it's therefore "inconsistent with the spirit and purpose of the law" to rely on the argument that the donations are acceptable because they were made after the original investment decision.
The SEC's recent pay-to-play prosecution wasn't concerned with whether the political contributions materially influenced pension funds’ original investment decisions made many years ago, as McKenna and Long's Stefan Passantino recently noted: It was focused more generally on the fact that the contributions were not permissible.
Thomas Barrabi contributed to this report.