Wall Street cash flows to politicians

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2010 - 11:57 PM

Minnesotans' share, though relatively modest, shows how high the stakes are.

Lloyd Blankfein
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Goldman SachsCEO Lloyd Blankfein testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Wall Street investment banks and the financial crisis.

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WASHINGTON - With major Wall Street reform in the offing, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson got an intriguing invitation from a New York City colleague some months back.

"They offered to take me up there, and told me if I would just spend four hours, they could raise me $250,000," said Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the multi-trillion-dollar derivatives market. "I turned them down."

From New York to Minnesota, lawmakers bracing for a showdown over Wall Street regulation are coming into the final weeks of the debate flush with industry advice, if not outright cash.

With Congress preparing to clamp down on the excesses of a financial sector that imploded in 2008, Minnesota lawmakers have not been immune from the full-court press that has flooded Congress. An estimated 1,500 lobbyists and record amounts of campaign contributions from people connected to the world of high finance have formed a steady bombardment.

In the first three months of this year, bankers, investors and commodity groups affected by the proposed financial regulations sent $13,500 Peterson's way -- despite his request to his campaign fundraiser that "once we started this process, I didn't want any money from any of them."

Minnesota's two U.S. senators, Democrats Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, received similar sums, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports. Klobuchar serves on the Agriculture Committee, which recently approved a bill to rein in derivatives, complex securities that have been widely blamed for the financial crisis.

"I don't care who's lobbying whom," she said, noting that the measure she supported was opposed on Wall Street.

What's at stake

While the dollar figures in Minnesota are relatively modest, they help show what's at stake in the coming bill for investment bankers, mortgage brokers and hedge fund gurus who lubricate the nation's economy.

Altogether, big donors for securities and investment firms have contributed nearly $35 million to federal candidates in this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a national watchdog organization.

That comes on top of $95 million in lobbying expenses for 2008, according to Aaron Kiersh, an analyst for the group.

Of the roughly 400 lobbyists who have specifically registered to lobby on Wall Street reform, only a half-dozen represent Minnesota clients, including Wells Fargo, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, and U.S. Bank, Minnesota's largest.

U.S. Bank's chief executive, Richard Davis, has met twice with President Obama and says he is "supportive in general" of reform. His top concern: Maintaining uniform national banking standards, as opposed to giving states the power to impose different rules.

Joe Witt, who heads the Minnesota Bankers Association, has traveled to Washington nearly a dozen times to press his case for regulatory reforms that apply across the board to bank and non-bank lenders alike.

"If we're going to go down that road let's make sure it applies equally to all the players," he said. At the same time, Minnesota lawmakers say they've felt little direct heat from the purveyors of the most risky schemes on Wall Street. "Our banks pretty much stayed out of a lot of that stuff," Klobuchar said.

In Minnesota, farm and agribusiness interests such as Minnetonka-based Cargill are the ones who have had the most at stake in the new rules on derivatives -- basically side-bets on the future direction of markets -- which they have long used as a way to limit risk and stabilize prices.

At the same time, Klobuchar, Peterson and others Minnesota lawmakers have tended to support regulatory exemptions for so-called end users like Cargill. "They're not speculating. They're using this for the right reasons," Peterson said. "They're not a problem."

Meanwhile, like any good investors, Wall Street denizens have hedged their bets in Congress, showering both sides with campaign lucre in anticipation of a new regulatory environment that should make high-end financial transactions more transparent.

Between 1996 and 2004, Kiersh noted, the majority of the industry's donations went to the GOP. The balance tipped in 2006, reflecting "the industry's efforts to maintain political clout with a Democratic-controlled Washington, D.C.," he said.

Among Wall Street's heaviest hitters is Goldman Sachs, accused of fraud in the subprime mortgage debacle. In recent years, Goldman executives have been regular contributors to U.S. senators and Senate candidates from Minnesota, including nearly $26,000 to Republican Norm Coleman, $5,200 to Klobuchar, and a little more than $3,000 to Franken.

In the U.S. House, people connected to Goldman also have given $5,000 to Peterson, $3,000 and $2,000 respectively to Minnesota Republicans John Kline and Erik Paulsen, and lesser amounts to Republican Michele Bachmann and Democrat Keith Ellison.

The figures are noteworthy because much of the partisan posturing in Congress has focused on which side is more closely bound to Wall Street money, a danger zone for politicians since the 2008 meltdown.

More consumer protection

Democrats want to regulate the derivatives market and strengthen consumer protections. Meanwhile Republicans warn about the unintended consequences of market regulation, which some, like Bachmann, call a government takeover.

"That is the federal government coming in, in a real thuggish way, if you will, and taking over the boardrooms of private industry," said Bachmann, who voted against the 2008 Wall Street bailout.

In particular, Republicans have seized on the Democrats' plan to create a $50 billion industry-funded resolution fund to liquidate troubled financial firms, saying it would open the door to future taxpayer bailouts.

Democrats say the opposite is true. "It makes them pay for their own funeral," Franken said.

While Bachmann has accused the Democrats of "trying to protect their own," the Democrats have all but branded the Republicans as apologists for the Wall Street bankers who are lobbying hard to head off unwanted government restrictions.

"The overarching objective is to hold Wall Street accountable, so that what happened [in 2008] doesn't happen again," said Franken. "We hope [the Republicans] will join us."

After weeks of trading barbs, leaders in both parties now appear to be settling into negotiations that could produce just such a deal -- fueled at least in part by the public's anger over self-dealing on Wall Street.

Said Peterson: "I don't think they have any choice."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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