Wall Street is one of the biggest sources of funding for presidential campaigns, and many of the Republican Party's potential 2016 contenders are governors, from Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Perry of Texas to Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. And so on Thursday, the GOP filed a federal lawsuit aimed at overturning the pay-to-play law that bars those governors from raising campaign money from Wall Street executives who manage their states' pension funds.
In the case, New York and Tennessee's Republican parties are represented by two former Bush administration officials, one of whose firms just won the Supreme Court case that invalidated campaign contribution limits on large donors. In their complaint, the parties argue that people managing state pension money have a First Amendment right to make large donations to state officials who award those lucrative money management contracts.
With the $3 trillion public pension system controlled by elected officials generating billions of dollars worth of annual management fees for Wall Street, Securities and Exchange Commission regulators originally passed the rule to make sure retirees' money wasn't being handed out based on politicians' desire to pay back their campaign donors.
“Elected officials who allow political contributions to play a role in the management of these assets and who use these assets to reward contributors violate the public trust,” says the preamble of the rule, which restricts not only campaign donations directly to state officials, but also contributions to political parties.
In the complaint aiming to overturn that rule, the GOP plaintiffs argue that the SEC does not have the campaign finance expertise to properly enforce the rule. The complaint further argues that the rule itself creates an "impermissible choice" between “exercising a First Amendment right and retaining the ability to engage in professional activities." The existing rule could limit governors' ability to raise money from Wall Street in any presidential race.
In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, a spokesman for one of the Republican plaintiffs suggested that in order to compete for campaign resources, his party's elected officials need to be able to raise money from the Wall Street managers who receive contracts from those officials.
"We see (the current SEC rule) as something that has been a great detriment to our ability to help out candidates,” said Jason Weingarten of the Republican Party of New York -- the state whose pay-to-play pension scandal in 2010 originally prompted the SEC rule.
The suit comes only a few weeks after the SEC issued its first fines under the rule -- against a firm whose executives made campaign donations to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat. The company in question was managing Pennsylvania and Philadelphia pension money. In a statement on that case, the SEC promised more enforcement of the pay-to-play rule in the future.
“We will use all available enforcement tools to ensure that public pension funds are protected from any potential corrupting influences,” said Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC Enforcement Division. “As we have done with broker-dealers, we will hold investment advisers strictly liable for pay-to-play violations.”
That aggressive posture could play a significant role in Republican presidential politics, especially for Christie.
In April, PandoDaily reported on campaign contributions flooding into New Jersey and the Christie-led Republican Governors Association from employees of financial firms doing business with the state's pension fund. That included donations directly to Christie's campaign. It also included a $10,000 contribution to the New Jersey Republican State Committee from Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Charlie Baker just months before Baker's firm, General Catalyst, was given a pension contract by the Christie administration.
Baker responded to the revelation by arguing that despite listing himself as a partner in General Catalyst, he is not affiliated with the firm. There is now a New Jersey investigation into the Baker contribution, and the Massachusetts attorney general has called for an SEC probe into the matter.
A Christie aide admitted to Businessweek,“There is no way around [the SEC pay-to-play rule] and there are no loopholes."
Yet despite the data showing Christie and the Republican Governors Association, which he heads, taking money from employees of Wall Street firms doing business with New Jersey, the same Christie aide insisted to Businessweek that his boss has complied with the law. He added that "life would be easier" if the pay-to-play rule was overturned and governors were allowed to raise money from the Wall Street firms that get state pension deals.