Earlier today, Ryan Grim and Paul Blumenthal posted a blockbuster article in the Huffington Post, titled: The Vultures’ Vultures: How A New Hedge-Fund Strategy Is Corrupting Washington.
It details the secretive community of the dark money groups which represents mercenary hedge funds in their insatiable mission for more and more money. In different aspects, it is merely a microcosm of America in 2016. A culture in which ethics has become so inconsequential, it is not even a nuisance; it simply never factors into the formula.
The first couple of sentences set the stage flawlessly:
WASHINGTON – Take Robert Shapiro.
A Harvard-trained economist, Shapiro is the head of a consulting firm called Sonecon. That business card doesn’t do it for you? He’s got a few more in his wallet:
Senior fellow at the Georgetown University School of Business.
Adviser to the International Monetary Fund.
Director of the Globalization Initiative at NDN, a progressive think tank.
Shapiro, a Democrat, has advised presidents and presidential candidates, and has held powerful government posts. It stands to reason, then, that when he has thoughts on public policy, he can find an outlet ready to publish them.
Recently, he’s had ideas on how the government can address the debt crisis in Puerto Rico and how it can end the conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by moving them into the private market. Before that, he had a take on how to deal with Argentina’s debt crisis. For all three, he produced academic-looking papers, complete with footnotes and charts.
All three situations have one thing in common: If they were resolved the way Shapiro suggested, a variety of bets placed by a select group of the most politically powerful hedge funds would pay off in a huge way. In the case of Argentina, they mostly have. Fights over how to resolve the other two issues are still raging in Washington.
For this article, we called Shapiro to ask on whose behalf he has been waging these intellectual battles. His answer was surprising in its honesty: He’s working with DCI Group, a political dark arts master known to be advocating on behalf of a group of powerful hedge funds that are changing how Washington works.
If you wish to get a perception of what is stimulating Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders voters, it is a drive to take people like Robert Shapiro, remove them from the halls of power, and throw them into a cardboard box on the street. Obviously, that will not be taking place any time soon, but that is what a lot of folks want.
What follows are some supplemental excerpts from the piece, which I strongly advise you read in its entirety.
Shapiro, it turns out, is but one foot soldier in the hedge fund infantry. A review of public documents, tax filings and interviews with people involved finds that in each of the three campaigns, hedge funds have enlisted the same set of lobbyists, political operatives, dark money groups and think-tank experts spanning the political spectrum.
The band that has gotten together for the big three hedge fund jam sessions includes some unlikely allies: There’s DCI Group, the powerhouse lobbying firm. Then there’s the Raben Group, operatives whose specialty is working in the progressive space and lobbying Democrats. There’s the American Continental Group, a bipartisan lobbying firm. There’s 60 Plus and the Center for Individual Freedom, two groups that call themselves part of the conservative movement, but in reality are dark money groups known to run whatever campaign they’re paid to run, and that are happy to conceal the source of the funding. All these groups have roughly nothing in common, other than that they all have united in advocacy campaigns that alternately go up against the Argentinian people, Puerto Ricans and the rest of the American public.
Each of these campaigns appears to have been run by or aided by the DCI Group. We say “appears” because DCI is one of Washington’s great black boxes — news articles that involve DCI routinely include a line informing readers that the organization did not respond to a request for comment. This article is no different.
Old Washington hands involved in these particular fights say that nothing they’ve seen before in politics has prepared them for the mercenary campaigns the hedge funds are now waging.
“There’s something about this that’s almost more disturbing, because you get an issue that’s not particularly a big public issue and people can spend and spend and spend,” said a veteran policymaker who found himself on the wrong end of the hedge funds. “And I don’t know how anybody can compete with it. And then you start losing the narrative and you see groups on the left get bought out and corrupted — really corrupted. I don’t know what to do about it.”
It is so awful, even the critters in Congress are embarrassed by it.
And it’s not ideological, either. If a big group of hedge funds decided to short the health insurance industry, it could easily be in their interests to fund a dark money campaign on behalf of single-payer health care. If they short the big banks, they’ve now become allies with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
In Puerto Rico, the group of hedge funds waging the biggest lobbying campaign own debt that is first in line to be paid off in case of any calamity. (That’s not to say there aren’t other hedge funds that own different sets of Puerto Rican debt lobbying so that they’re the first to be paid; more on them later.) They’re now betting that they can stop Congress from rescuing Puerto Rico by amending bankruptcy laws to allow Puerto Rico to cover its basic expenses before paying out the hedge funds.
Betting that Congress does nothing is often a smart wager. If the island government is forced to pay off creditors first, it will have to take those funds from vital programs threatening the livelihoods of people who live there.
Here is an illustration of the way in which they threaten Congressional aides.
Or even against staffers. In the midst of the debate over how to restructure Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in early 2014, Jim Millstein was sitting down on Capitol Hill with Michael Bright, an aide to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was working on the legislation. Millstein, like other hedge-fund titans lobbying on the bill, had a set of structural recommendations he thought the Senate should take up.
Millstein was worth listening to: While a top Treasury Department official, he had overseen the successful restructuring of AIG after the government bailout. But Millstein had an extra recommendation: The Fannie Mae shareholders needed to be paid out — shareholders like Millstein.
The aide told Millstein he didn’t see why shareholders, who bought Fannie stock for pennies when the government had already bailed it out, needed a windfall. The meeting turned tense. “Don’t worry kid, you’re about to get yours,” Millstein said, according to a Democratic committee staffer later briefed on the episode. Bright, reached for comment, declined to speak for this article.
The DCI Group most famously built its reputation doing the dirty work of the tobacco industry. That long-running operation involved funding “experts” who would question the medical science around smoking, and targeting individual advocates and lawmakers. It pioneered the use of shadow groups that concealed the true source of funding for the campaign, and can be seen as a blueprint for the hedge fund campaigns.
Needless to say it did.
Back in 2007, DCI was instrumental in killing legislation that would have regulated Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a doomed effort that may have prevented the lenders from melting down. It earned $2 million from Freddie Mac for its work.
DCI was also part of American Task Force Argentina, the hedge-fund backed effort that battled Argentina over its default. Raben Group’s Robert Raben and Shapiro led the task force, and Shapiro’s consulting firm was paid at least $450,000. While there are no public filings today, the group is helping run the Fannie hedge-fund operation, according to DCI managing partner Justin Peterson, who has privately talked about DCI’s work. Shapiro, too, said he was working with DCI for his housing policy work.
McGill represented NML Capital, a subsidiary of Elliott Management, the hedge fund connected with GOP megadonor Paul Singer, in the lawsuit against Argentina, along with Aurelius Capital Management. That lawsuit allowed the hedge funds to extract billions from the Argentinian people. It came after the years-long slash-and-burn campaign run from the American Task Force Argentina — a lobbying coalition of Covington & Burling, DCI Group and the Raben Group.
Clearly, perfectly, effectively, will you take a look at that. Who do we find amongst hedge fund mercenary groups? None other than Covington & Burling. That certainly is correct, the law firm that Eric Holder worked at before spinning through the revolving door into government, just in time to serve as Obama’s attorney general in order to protect bank executives from prosecution.
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