Financial Press Perennially Surprised by “Placement Agents”

The financial pages this morning are filled with the disclosure by Calpers that money-management firms seeking business from the big California pension fund paid $50 million to a firm run by a former Calpers director acting a middleman, or “placement agent.”

The fear is that big firms—in this case, Leon Black’s Apollo Management LP is named—may have been involved in another pay-to-play scandal.

Here’s the Journal this morning:

These so-called placement agents came under scrutiny in March, when New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced two arrests. In that case, a connected middleman allegedly received kickbacks for helping investment firms gain access to billions of dollars of New York pension money.

Actually, these so-called placement agents came under scrutiny ten years ago. Here’s the Journal from 1999:

The Connecticut state treasurer has moved to unwind or cancel $561.5 million in investments made by her predecessor and will seek “reparations” from investment firms ultimately implicated in a widening corruption scandal.

Denise L. Nappier, the current treasurer, said in a statement that her office also plans to force investment-services firms to disclose fees paid to consultants or placement agents who placed past state pension-fund investments. The state will also require fees to be disclosed as a condition of future business with the state, she said.

The announcement comes four days after Ms. Nappier’s predecessor, Paul J. Silvester, pleaded guilty in federal court in Hartford, Conn., to steering state pension funds in return for kickbacks and other favors, often through placement agents and go-betweens. (1)

In the earlier case, the big named firms seeking and getting Connecticut business included the Carlyle Group, which included George H.W. Bush among its senior advisers, and then Wall Street stalwart PaineWebber, the Bear Stearns of its day, now part of UBS.

I remember all this because I’m the one who wrote that. Charlie Gasparino and I mustered a decent follow-up (2), but that’s as far as it went. Too bad.

In the earlier case, Carlyle’s placement agent was a man named Wayne Berman, founder of something called Park Strategies with one Alfonse D’Amato, then a former Senator and busy Mr. Fix-It. The Connecticut scandal forced Berman to resign as a top fund-raiser for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.

In the current case, the go-between is knee-deep in California Republican circles:

Mr. [Al] Villalobos’s connections in the state of California go back decades. He worked as a consultant to California Gov. Ronald Reagan and later helped raise money for California Gov. Pete Wilson, who named Mr. Villalobos to the State Personnel Board. That board, which administers the state’s civil-service system, picked him as its representative on the Calpers board in 1993.

This isn’t about corrupt Republicans. Nor is this one of those plus ca change posts. I’ll leave those lofty musings to James Grant.

It is to say that business news outlets had better gear up their investigative capacity or be condemned forever to play catch-up on the same thing over and over again.

1. “Connecticut Treasurer Moves to Unwind Or Cancel Investments Made by Silvester”
The Wall Street Journal
29 September 1999

2. “Heard On The Street: Federal Probe Targets PaineWebber’s Pension Funds”
13 October 1999

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.