Head of Obama Auto Task Force Under Fire

W.H. shows confidence in Steven Rattner despite possible kickback scheme.

April 17, 2009, 6:07 PM

April 17, 2009— -- Authorities are looking at an investment firm co-founded by the head of President Barack Obama's auto task force as part of an investigation into an alleged "pay to play" scheme to secure New York state pension business, but the White House is standing by its man.

Steve Rattner, the head of the auto task force, co-founded the investment firm Quadrangle Group in 2000. According to documents from the Securities and Exchange Commission, in January 2005 Quadrangle paid a fee of more than $1 million after receiving an investment from the New York State Common Retirement Fund.

As part of the probe that has already led to three indictments, authorities are looking into more than 20 investment firms to find out what they knew -- or should have known -- when they paid the fees.

Rattner is not named in the SEC documents, but the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, each citing sources familiar with the matter, reported that Rattner is referred to in the documents as a "senior executive" at Quadrangle.

In the amended complaint, filed Wednesday, neither Rattner nor Quadrangle are accused of any wrongdoing.

However, the complaint alleges that, in 2004, the "senior executive" at Quadrangle met with the chief investment officer at the pension fund to ask for investments, with Quadrangle then agreeing to pay what became a $1.1 million fee after receiving an investment from the fund.

Aboard Air Force One Friday en route to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president still has full confidence in Rattner.

"He's not accused of doing any wrongdoing and is not likely to face either criminal or civil charges as it relates to this, and a pending investigation was something that he brought up to us," said Gibbs.

The SEC and the New York attorney general's office had no comment.

The Treasury Department, which oversees the auto task force, also had no comment, although a spokeswoman did note that Rattner informed them of the investigation earlier this winter.

"During the transition, Mr. Rattner made us aware of the pending investigation," a Treasury spokeswoman said.

In a statement, Quadrangle spokesman Adam Miller said, "Quadrangle is fully cooperating, has produced all documents requested and our expectation is that no action will be taken."

Who Else May Be Involved?

Other investment firms, such as the Carlyle Group, also are named in the complaint, but also have not been charged with any crime.

"Carlyle has fully cooperated with the New York attorney general's investigation," said Carlyle spokesman Chris Ullman. "We understand this is an industry-wide investigation and that we are not the focus of the investigation."

Thus far, three people have been charged with participating in the alleged scheme to extract kickback payments from investment firms. One, Barrett Wissman, a former hedge fund manager, has pleaded guilty to a felony count and separately settled with the SEC on civil charges without admitting or denying wrongdoing.

In a 123-count indictment last month, the New York attorney general's office charged Hank Morris, the top adviser and fundraiser for former New York comptroller Alan Hevesi, and David Loglisci, the former chief investment officer of the New York retirement fund, with orchestrating the alleged kickback scheme.

"In many such instances, the investment management firm personnel knew, or were at least reckless in not knowing, that Loglisci would not approve the proposed investment absent an agreement to pay Morris, Wissman or certain other persons," the SEC complaint stated.

Ullman said the Carlyle Group was unaware that Wissman was participating in the alleged scheme.

"Carlyle had no knowledge that Barrett Wissman was involved in soliciting investments from the New York Common Retirement Fund," Ullman said. "Wissman's guilty plea has nothing to do with Carlyle."

At the time, the New York retirement fund, the third largest in the country, held more than $150 billion in assets for over a million New York state employees, retirees and other beneficiaries.

The SEC complaint described the involvement of a "senior executive" at Quadrangle with the alleged kickback scheme.

"In or about October 2004, a senior executive of Quadrangle ... met with Logisci to solicit an investment for Quadrangle about the Retirement Fund," the SEC stated in the complaint. "In or about December 2004, after Logisci's meeting with the Quadrangle executive -- Morris met with Quadrangle executive and solicited a finder fee arrangement between Quadrangle and Morris."

DVD Deal: Coincidence?

In January, Quadrangle entered into an agreement to pay a placement agency connected to Morris 1.1 percent of any amount invested by the retirement fund, the complaint said.

Shortly after this agreement, a Quadrangle affiliate agreed to buy the rights to a DVD entitled "Chooch" for about $88,000, the complaint said.

"Before this transaction occurred, Loglisci had arranged a meeting to discuss 'Chooch' between one of LogIisci's brothers and the same Quadrangle executive with whom Loglisci had met to discuss the proposed Retirement Fund investment," said the complaint. "When the 'Chooch' DVD distribution deal was agreed upon, the Quadrangle executive immediately notified Morris of that fact and the connection to Loglisci. Three weeks later, Loglisci personally informed the ... Quadrangle executive that the Retirement Fund would be making a $100 million investment in the Quadrangle Fund, which was managed by an affiliate of Quadrangle GP."

As head of the auto task force, Rattner is leading a team overseeing the restructuring of troubled automakers General Motors and Chrysler.

"Rattner's alleged involvement is that he helped one of his portfolio companies indirectly enrich the chief investment officer of the New York Common Retirement Fund, which is a very serious charge, although the SEC hasn't made the charge against him," said Dan Primack, a journalist for Thomson Reuters.

"I don't think it means anything unless there's charges," he added. "That said, I think there will be political pressure on him to step down. And it's never helped that Rattner wasn't an auto guy to start with."

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