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California State Treasurer Sets His Sights on Curbing Pay-to-Play in the Municipal Bond Arena

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California Treasurer SealWhile it’s easy for mainstream news outlets to get caught up in the mid-summer drama of Vice-Presidential selections, national political party conventions, and the geopolitical repercussions of Brexit, we remain focused on sharing updates on the real hot button issues of 2016 – like municipal bond pay-to-play. Don’t worry… you can thank us after you get back from your summer vacations and tune back into the reality of regulatory creep.  (“You want us on that wall.  You NEED us on that wall!”)

As many in the regulated community were enjoying some well-earned time away from the office last week, California State Treasurer John Chiang was hard at work in Sacramento announcing new policies aimed at curbing the ability of municipal bond counsels, underwriters, and financial advisors to participate in local bond election campaigns.  These policies are part of a new enforcement initiative launched July 27 that requires municipal finance firms seeking California state business to certify that they will no longer make contributions to local bond election campaigns.

As detailed in Treasurer Chiang’s letter to law firms, underwriters and financial advisors currently in the California state bond pool, continued participation in the underwriter pool will now be contingent upon the making of “an affirmative statement that the firm, or any officer, director, partner, co-partner, shareholder, owner, or employee of the firm, will not make any cash or in-kind service contributions … to promote or facilitate any bond or ballot measure in California.”  Additionally, access to the underwriter pool will also be premised on a concurrent certification by covered entities and officials that they will not provide “bond campaign services” in connection with California municipal bond campaigns or ballot measures.

This second certification will effectively prevent municipal bond attorneys, underwriters and financial advisors from performing or facilitating any of the following activities in conjunction with local bond campaigns or ballot measures: fundraising; public opinion polling; election strategy and management; volunteer organization; get-out-the-vote services; development of campaign literature; or the production of advocacy materials.  Certain exceptions to these prohibitions will apply, but the Treasurer’s Office is clearly looking to take an aggressive stance against any and all behaviors that it views as pay-to-play tactics designed to engender favoritism in the issuance of bond packages approved by local California voters.

While the addition of a few basic certification statements may seem minor to the untrained eye, requiring affirmative statements such as these will also almost certainly heighten the compliance risk borne by the regulated community.  After all, the “inadvertent non-compliance” defense is dramatically more difficult to assert, and a “false statement” indictment is dramatically more easy to obtain, when affirmative certifications are a compliance obligation.

The launch of this new initiative was met with strong support from members of the local government community, including the California Association of County Treasurers and Tax Collectors, and by transparency advocacy organizations such as California Forward and Common Cause.  Those entities and individuals caught in the regulatory crosshairs of the Treasurer’s new policies, however, undoubtedly have a more cynical view of their adoption.  This is particularly the case given the fact that the initiative targets forms of political engagement that are already highly-limited by Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board Rule G-37, and was introduced at a time when Treasurer Chiang is launching his candidacy for California Governor.  Coincidence?  They think not.

Regardless of timing, the restrictions put in place by this new enforcement initiative require entities in the current California state bond pool to comply by August 31, 2016 or risk suspension from participation.  Those entities and individuals seeking to gain entry into the current pool will also face similar certification requirements as of that date.  So, a small public service announcement to those of our readers in either category – be sure to get your Golden State pay-to-play house in order before summer comes to an end.