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Do SEC and MSRB Pay-to-Play Rules Scare Off Donations to Federal Candidates?

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As readers of this blog know well, the avowed goal of the SEC’s pay-to-play framework is to protect the integrity of the public procurement process by preventing registered investment advisors from improperly influencing the award of state and local contracts for the management of public investment funds. On its surface, Rule 206(4)-5, which bars investment advisors from managing public investment funds in jurisdictions where their political contributions or the contributions of their “covered associates” exceed $150 per election to elected officials who directly or indirectly oversee such funds, seems well suited to this task. The problem is that many covered by these provisions – and their helpful in-house compliance officers – erroneously believe that SEC restrictions apply to contributions to ALL candidates. This is incorrect.

The language of Rule 206(4)-5 neither prohibits nor restricts investment advisors from contributing to federal candidates who presently hold no state or local office – only state “officials” from a “government entity” who have the power to directly or indirectly influence the outcome of the hiring of investment advisors (check out page 43 of the SEC’s link above if you don’t believe me). As we, and others, have pointed out previously, this rule does not apply to contributions to sitting federal candidates or to private citizens running to replace those federal candidates. Likewise, the SEC’s pay-to-play provisions place no restrictions on political donations from covered entities or individuals to state or municipal candidates who play no role in the direct or indirect oversight of public investment funds. Of course, state and local pay-to-play rules might still apply in certain circumstances – such as where a sitting state official is running for federal office, but there is no need (as a reaction to SEC pay-to-play regulations) to adopt caps that artificially restrict the ability of investment firm employees to engage in constitutionally-protected political speech.

Much the same error of interpretation can be seen in the MSRB pay-to-play context. Like their brethren in the investment advisory world, many municipal finance professionals covered by Rule G-37 erroneously believe that its provisions restrict political contributions to ALL candidates. This is simply not the case. Rule G-37’s candidate contribution provisions only restrict donations to “official(s) of any issuer” who can directly or indirectly influence the hiring of a municipal securities professional, or donations to state officials or candidates who have the authority to appoint persons with such influence. The MSRB’s regulatory framework does not prohibit contributions to federal candidates who hold no state or local office, nor does it bar contributions to private citizens turned federal candidates.

Keeping these points mind, we hope that our readers working in the investment advisory and municipal finance arenas take a moment to examine their current political contribution policies, and ensure that they successfully protect their business development interests without unnecessarily curbing otherwise legitimate and beneficial political activities. On the other hand, it could be that the SEC and MSRB pay-to-play rules are simply an inoffensive way to say “thanks, but no thanks” to your friendly neighborhood federal candidate. Can’t do anything about that…

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