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California’s New “Habit” of Pay-to-Play Regulation in the Public Employee Pension Fund Arena

If it takes three times to make something a habit, it is safe to say that “pay-to-play” legislation in the State of California is getting to be a bit habitual.  For the third time in as many years, the California State Legislature has decided to ripple the “pay-to-play” regulatory waters by passing an “urgency” measure designed to clarify and modify the state’s existing restrictions on investment managers and investment placement agents who do business with California’s public employee pension funds, such as the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS).  The new piece of legislation, Senate Bill 398 (SB 398), was signed into law on October 9, 2011 by Governor Jerry Brown, and is designed to complement two other recently-passed bills regulating the activities of pension fund investment managers.

The first of those recently-passed bills was Assembly Bill 1584 (AB 1584), which was passed by the state legislature in 2009 as part of an effort to increase transparency in the management of public employee pension fund assets.  Specifically, AB 1584 required all California pension funds to adopt disclosure policies that would require the reporting of all campaign contributions and gifts made to pension fund board and staff members by “placement agents” and external investment managers.  Likewise, the bill mandated that all outside investment managers disclose information regarding the fees they pay to placement agents for the purpose of securing asset management business opportunities with state and local pension funds across California.

The second of those complementary pieces of legislation was Assembly Bill 1743 (AB 1743), which was passed by the state legislature in 2010 as part of an effort to build on the transparency provisions of AB 1584 by explicitly restricting the ability of placement agents and external investment managers to engage in pay-to-play activities associated with California’s public employee pension funds.  As this blog highlighted at the time of the bill’s passage, AB 1743 placed a broad swath of placement agents, external investment managers, and external investment management firm staff under an obligation to register as lobbyists with the State of California.  In addition, AB 1743 banned these same individuals from making campaign contributions to the elected board members of California’s pension funds and prohibited them from setting up contingency fee arrangements to manage such pension fund assets.

While not as groundbreaking as either AB 1584 or AB1743, SB 398 does build upon each of those bills and make some noteworthy changes to California’s pay-to-play regulatory framework for pension fund placement agents and external investment managers.  Specifically, SB 398 modifies existing law in the following ways:

  • The bill revises the definition of the terms “external manager”, “placement agent”, “investment fund”, and “investment vehicle” to clarify that almost all managers of securities and assets for California public employee pension funds, whether directly or through managed funds, are subject to the disclosure and lobbyist registration rules put in place by AB 1743 for external managers and placement agents.  Despite this fact, however, SB 398 does exempt investment management companies that are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) pursuant to the Investment Company Act of 1940 and that make public offerings of their securities from having to comply with the statutory disclosure and registration standards.
  • The bill extends AB 1743’s “safe harbor” exemption from state-level lobbyist registration so that it also applies to local-level lobbyist registration requirements.  Under AB 1743’s safe harbor provision, investment managers of public pension funds need not pursue state-level lobbying registration if they meet three separate requirements: (1) they are registered with the SEC as investment advisers or broker-dealers; (2) they obtain their pension fund business through competitive bidding processes; and (3) they agree to be subject to the California fiduciary standard imposed on public employee pension fund trustees.  In turn, SB 398 extends a similar exemption to investment managers who would otherwise be required to register as local-level lobbyists on account of their management of local public employee pension fund assets.

Since SB 398 was passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor as an “urgency” measure, it is now the active law of the land in California.  It remains to be seen, however, what sort of impact it will actually have on the ethics of public pension fund asset management.  While its changes will certainly have some effect on investment managers and placement agents doing business with public employee pension funds in California, it will certainly not be as significant an effect as either AB 1584 or AB 1783.  After all, individuals working in the pension fund investment management business have to be slowly getting used to California’s growing pay-to-play regulation habit.

In light of this fact, perhaps the most interesting thing to watch in the wake of SB 398’s passage just might be the reaction of California localities to the extension of AB 1743’s safe-harbor exemption.  How will localities with a history of tackling pay-to-play issues (like Los Angeles) react to the state’s intrusion into municipal issues such as the regulation of local public employee pension fund management?  We shall see if any drama ensues in the Golden State… Stay tuned…

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California’s New “Habit” of Pay-to-Play Regulation in the Public Employee Pension Fund Arena

Deficit “Super Committee” Transparency – Will We Get to See the Budgetary Sausage in Production?

Whether you agree with Justice Brandeis that sunlight is the “best of disinfectants” or with former American League of Lobbyists president Dave Wenhold that “too much sunlight causes cancer”, it should be readily apparent to the readers of this blog that public officials of all stripes have increasingly begun to listen to the chorus of voices calling out for more transparency in all levels of government. At PaytoPlayLawBlog, we often write about how the push for greater transparency at the federal, state and local levels is affecting the operation of government, as well as the interaction of the public with government officials. As strictly objective, rational observers (ahem), it seems to us that disclosure alone generally trumps both inaction and punitive regulation in the pay-to-play space. Over the past month or so, we have come to see new evidence of this welcome push for openness at the federal level, particularly with regard to the activities of the newly-formed Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (or the so-called Deficit “Super Committee”).

For those who have spent all of their time recently tracking satellite orbits and running calculations on their chance of having to make a potentially uncovered homeowners claim, the Super Committee is a balanced delegation of six Democrats and six Republicans (split evenly between members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate) formed in August of this year as a means of permitting Congress and the White House the opportunity to avoid responsibility for identifying an additional $1.5 trillion in federal budgetary cuts over the next decade. Whether one agrees with the premise of granting 12 Members of Congress such extraordinary authority over federal, fiscal decision making, it is readily apparent that the ongoing work of the Super Committee has drawn a great deal of attention from political organizations and commentators across the ideological spectrum. Given the nature of the current (entirely justified) cynicism with the political process, and the enormity of the task before the Super Committee, it should not surprise readers of this blog to learn that much of this attention across the political continuum has been focused on increasing the political transparency of the Committee’s activities.

One of the more prominent efforts to accomplish this goal has been organized by the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to using the “power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency.” On August 3, 2011, the Foundation issued a letter to congressional leadership urging them to adopt a series of recommendations that the Foundation believes will ensure the Super Committee operates in a fully open and transparent manner. Those recommendations included: (1) holding live webcasts of all official Committee meetings and hearings; (2) posting the Committee’s draft recommendations for at least 72 hours prior to a final committee vote; (3) promoting disclosure of every meeting held by Committee members with lobbyists and other “powerful interests”; (4) ensuring the immediate disclosure of all campaign contributions received by Committee members during their service on the Committee; and (5) demanding additional financial disclosure standards for Committee members and their staffers. In addition, the Foundation has teamed up with various transparency activists and supporters to launch a grassroots campaign designed to encourage greater accountability and openness from the Super Committee. The movement’s allies in this endeavor include such left-leaning organizations as The Brennan Center for Justice, the Project on Government Oversight, and Public Citizen.

Although not necessarily backing each of the Sunlight Foundation’s specific recommendations, many organizations and individuals on the conservative and libertarian end of the political spectrum have also echoed the Foundation’s calls for transparency in Super Committee activities. For example, Jim Harper of the CATO Institute and Rob Bluey of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media and Public Policy have both recently demanded that the Super Committee permit open public access to Committee meetings and legislative proposals as a means of ensuring that all citizens are kept abreast of the activities of this uniquely powerful legislative panel. Along those same lines, Harper and Bluey have also called for Committee transparency as a safeguard against the passage of expansive legislation that is subject to little or no debate or public input.

All of this makes perfect sense. As we have previously observed here, efforts to govern matters such as this from behind closed doors can lead to embarrassing exchanges.

Bi-partisan support for greater Super Committee transparency has even begun to emerge within Congress itself. In fact, in early September, Representatives Mike Quigley (D-IL), Dave Loebsack (D-IA), and Jim Renacci (R-OH) introduced H.R. 2860, the Deficit Committee Transparency Act, which would implement six transparency reforms along the lines of those recommended by the Sunlight Foundation. Similarly, Senators David Vitter (R-LA) and Dean Heller (R-NV) have also introduced two separate bills, S. 1501 (the Budget Control Joint Committee Transparency Act) and S. 1498  (the Super Committee Sunshine Act), that are designed to ensure the openness of Super Committee meetings and greater transparency in the political fundraising of Committee members.

At present, none of the aforementioned bills have been acted upon in Congress, but there does appear to be growing support on both sides of the political aisle for a more open and forthright framework for Super Committee action. Recognizing the growing momentum in support of such transparency, the Committee has taken the initial step of keeping its three preliminary meetings open to the public (and also available for video review over the Internet). It remains to be seen, however, whether this policy will continue as the Committee gets deeper into the task of formulating its deficit-reduction proposals. Likewise, it remains to be seen whether any of the other aforementioned transparency proposals will gain any traction with the Committee itself. Stay tuned in the coming months to find out.

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Deficit “Super Committee” Transparency – Will We Get to See the Budgetary Sausage in Production?

Transparency Advocates Look to the SEC to Accomplish What Congress, The White House, and the IRS To-Date Have Not

It has been almost exactly 19 months since the Supreme Court handed down its controversial decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, but the plot continues to thicken as those favoring mandatory corporate disclosure of political activities look for a non-judicial fix to the ruling.

To date, the fields are littered with detritus of failed efforts at identifying a mechanism that compels corporations and wealthy individuals to disclose all exercise of their newly-recognized First Amendment freedoms. This blog has previously reported on failed efforts to mandate such disclosure in Congress, as well as the Obama White House’s proposed executive order circumventing both Congress and the Supreme Court.  To achieve these same goals, groups such as Democracy21 and the Campaign Legal Center have promoted changes to the Internal Revenue Code, while the American Bar Association has encouraged Congress to make pertinent amendments to the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Our latest contestants in this Sisyphean legal drama are a united band of like-minded law school professors looking to utilize the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as a vehicle to counter the perceived negative impact of Citizens United. It appears this group has concluded that the imposing moniker “Committee on Disclosure of Corporate Political Spending” (the “Committee”) sounds more authoritative than “a united band of like-minded law school professors”. I think I agree with them on that.

Under either moniker, this group has filed a petition for rulemaking with the SEC requesting draft regulations that require public companies to disclose to shareholders information regarding the use of corporate resources for political activities. The main gist of its petition – stricter SEC disclosure rules are necessary to ensure that corporate political activities are subject to the appropriate level of shareholder scrutiny in the wake of Citizen’s United. The Committee bases this conclusion on the following contentions:

First, it asserts that there is strong data indicating that public investors have become increasingly interested in receiving information about corporate political spending. To support this statement, the like-minded professors reference a 2006 Mason-Dixon poll indicating that 85% of shareholder respondents held that “there is a lack of transparency surrounding corporate political activity.” They also make note of a FactSet Research Systems analysis that indicates 50 out of 465 shareholder proposals appearing on public-company proxy statements in 2011 involved political spending issues.

Second, the Committee grounds its request in the belief that there is increasing momentum toward political spending transparency in the corporate community, as evidenced by the growing number of large public companies that have voluntarily adopted policies requiring disclosure of their political expenditures. To this point, and perhaps undercutting the urgency of their call to action, the professors highlight a study by the Center for Political Accountability indicating that nearly 60% of S&P 500 companies voluntarily provide shareholders with information regarding corporate spending on political activities.

Third and finally, the Committee bases its request on the idea that stricter SEC regulation of corporate political disclosure will lead to better corporate oversight and accountability mechanisms. At present, the professors assert, shareholders are unable to hold directors and officers accountable when they spend corporate funds on politics in a way that departs from the interests of the company. From the Committee’s point of view, this is due to the fact that public information regarding corporate political activity is out of the average shareholder’s reach (because it is either dispersed among too many regulatory bodies or not gathered at all). By requiring companies to disclose to one central entity (the SEC), it is the professors contention that there will be better information available to shareholders, and in turn, a subsequent improvement in corporate accountability.

Based upon these assertions, the Committee’s petition recommends that the SEC initiate a rulemaking project to adopt a series of regulations that mandate periodic disclosure of corporate political spending. Whether the SEC will take heed of the Committee’s request remains to be seen, but the petition itself has already begun to draw a mix of criticism and support from members of the business, legal, and academic communities.

For example, just a few days after the Committee’s petition was submitted, Keith Paul Bishop – the former California Commissioner of Corporations and an adjunct professor at the Chapman University School of Law – filed a response letter with the SEC refuting the professors’ contentions and requesting that no such rulemaking project be initiated by the Commission. In his response, Bishop contends that the Committee’s proposal will only add to the already extensive public disclosure burden faced by reporting companies and that it is unnecessary in light of the growing trend toward voluntary corporate disclosure. He also argues that it is not the role of the SEC to mandate corporate expenditure on public disclosure of political activity when statistics show that not even a third of 2011 proxy proposals on the subject enjoyed shareholder support.

In contrast, official comments filed by Mark Latham, founder of VoterMedia.org, and executives from the International Corporate Governance Network expressed strong support for the Committee’s request. Specifically, both comments revealed a common respect for the Committee’s belief that the disclosure of corporate political spending is necessary to help stave off abuse or the breach of business ethics by officers and directors.

The debate over who has the better side of the argument will rage on in the coming months as the SEC weighs the proposal and determines whether to take any action. One would have to expect the Obama Administration to lend its support to the Committee’s cause in it’s typical “no fingerprints here, I don’t know what you’re talking about” approach. The response from the corporate community will undoubtedly be more mixed and more direct, but it will be interesting to see what reaction emerges from groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The Conference Board’s newly formed Committee on Corporate Political Spending (to which, BIAS ALERT, I am an advisor). Stay tuned….

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Transparency Advocates Look to the SEC to Accomplish What Congress, The White House, and the IRS To-Date Have Not