Mitt Romney and Family Are Not Capitalists, They're Looters and Plutocrats
Marc Leder, a wealthy investor, played host to Mitt Romney last May at a private fundraiser at his $4 million home in Boca Raton. Little did Leder know at the time, however, that someone would videotape the event and later leak it to the world, revealing the GOP standard-bearer in the act of caustically dismissing 47 percent of the country as too “dependent upon government” even to consider voting for him this year.According to Republicans they're all risk takers that build stuff. Pull back the curtain and they're just mostly lazy pigs feeding at the trough.
Leder attempted to duck the ensuing storm of media attention, telling Fortune that he had simply “hosted a fundraiser for an old friend.” But Leder’s ties to the candidate run deeper than campaign contributions or an old friendship. As an investor, he is part of a network of links to the Romney family business empire that will acquire enormous relevance if the GOP nominee manages to ascend to the White House.
In 2008, soon after Romney ended his first bid for the presidency, his eldest son Tagg and his chief fundraiser, Spencer Zwick, formed Solamere Capital, a private equity firm named after the exclusive community in Utah where Romney owned a vacation ski lodge.
What Tagg lacked in experience in the world of high finance, he made up for with a vast network of political connections forged through his father, who seeded the firm with $10 million and was the featured speaker at its first investor conference in January of 2010. Romney also reportedly gave strategic advice to the company, which secured prominent campaign donors as some of its first investors.
Unlike most private equity firms dedicated to analyzing and buying companies, Solamere specializes in something else: billing itself as a “fund of funds” with “unparalleled networks,” it provides investors with “unique access” to an elite set of other private equity firms and hedge funds. Sun Capital Partners, the fund founded by Leder, is one of at least thirteen Romney-linked firms in Solamere’s network, according to a prospectus circulated among potential investors and uncovered by The Boston Globe last year. Solamere also has an investment relationship with Bain Capital, the pioneering fund founded by Mitt Romney.
Solamere, a firm predicated on its founders’ relationship with Romney, presents a channel for powerful investors to influence the White House if he wins. Private equity executives looking to lobby a Romney administration may very well have a leg up if they are already doing business with the firm that the president created for his son.
Requests for comment from a Solamere representative for this article were not answered.
The looming conflicts range from general matters that affect all private equity firms—such as tax changes or the new rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill—to more specific concerns relating to businesses owned or controlled by Solamere’s partner firms. Many of these businesses, in fact, depend on government contracts; indeed, some have been accused of fleecing taxpayers (which is ironic given that many private equity titans claim to support Romney for his unabashed belief in small government and free enterprise). A Romney administration could directly affect the profitability of these companies—and, by extension, potentially the success of Tagg’s venture.
“It’s absolutely a conflict of interest,” says Adam Smith, the communications director for the group Public Campaign, which works on issues concerning money in politics. “Romney can’t un-know that his son’s investment company could benefit financially from his policies. And the other investors—many of whom are likely Romney campaign donors—will have extra access and influence in a Romney administration.”
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Take Leder, Romney’s Boca Raton host, whose Sun Capital firm bought a stake in the Scooter Store last year. The company, known for its ubiquitous television ads promising seemingly free motorized wheelchairs for Medicare beneficiaries, has struggled as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that governs the programs, implements rules to curb rampant billing fraud. As a CMS report noted last year, 80 percent of the claims for scooters and power wheelchairs did not meet Medicare requirements, meaning that $492 million a year is being improperly spent.
In 2007, the Scooter Store gave up $13 million in Medicare payments and paid $4 million to settle with the Justice Department over allegations that it had overbilled for its electric wheelchairs. The company, which has been bleeding money over the years as regulators moved to curb waste, still faces challenges that could make or break its business model—challenges that could be mitigated by pressure from the executive branch.
A Romney administration, for example, would have a role in the fate of a recently launched pilot program ensuring that patients see a doctor face to face to determine if a Medicare scooter is medically necessary—a program that has reportedly already reduced billings to the Scooter Store. Another challenge for the company is Section 3136 of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. If Romney wins and repeals significant portions of the ACA, would he retain this provision, which compels Medicare to have a competitive bidding process for motorized wheelchairs?
Leder, who has donated nearly $300,000 to Romney and other Republicans in this campaign and another $225,000 to a pro-Romney Super PAC, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Disclosures, however, suggest that pressuring the government is the only way his investment in the Scooter Store can turn a profit.
Since Leder’s firm invested in the Scooter Store, the company has spent nearly $900,000 on lobbyists to push back on these two latest challenges to its motorized-scooter empire. Lobbyists not only try to influence legislation; they are also paid to gather information. Tips about government regulatory decisions can be as good as gold to investors who can act before the information is public knowledge. But what if the company had the ultimate lobbyists: the president’s oldest son, brother and personal fundraiser?
The Birth of Solamere
Shortly after his father conceded the Republican nomination to John McCain in 2008, Tagg Romney and Spencer Zwick went to dinner at a San Diego resort with John R. Miller, the CEO of National Beef Packing Company. The pair had a proposition for Miller: that he should invest in their new business venture.
Miller, who has served as a top fundraiser in both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, signed on and even became an operating partner at Solamere. The scene, recounted earlier this year by The New York Times, is one of the precious few details made public about Solamere’s investment portfolio and client list, both of which are kept secret.
What is known has been drawn largely from a trail of documents filed by the investment group. Records indicate the firm was incorporated at the same Boston office where Romney’s campaign headquarters had been located, and later shared an office address with Romney’s PAC.
Zwick first worked for Romney during the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. A student at Brigham Young University at the time, he has been at Romney’s side ever since, serving on his campaigns, working as an aide and leading his fundraising efforts since 2007. He has been referred to as Romney’s “sixth son.” And by all accounts, he’s one of the most trusted advisers in Romney’s circle. “When you’re talking to him, you know he’s got the ear of the candidate,” one Romney donor remarked to the press.
Two weeks after Romney’s concession speech in February 2008, Solamere Capital registered with the State of Massachusetts. Zwick and Tagg joined with Eric Scheuermann, a former Jupiter Partners executive, as the three managing partners of the firm.
Scheuermann was the only one with prior experience in private equity; Zwick had none, and Tagg’s previous experience ranged from working at the Monitor Group, an international consulting firm, to sports marketing jobs with Reebok and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
However, success for the firm seemed preordained. A press release the following year hinted at the type of assistance Solamere was enjoying from the Romney network. It announced that Lee Scott, the former Walmart CEO, was joining the firm as an operating partner. Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s longtime press aide, was listed as the contact name on the release. The former Walmart chief’s entry came after G. Scott Romney, Mitt’s brother, signed up as an adviser with the firm. So did Matt Blunt, the former Republican governor of Missouri.
Solamere surpassed its $200 million fundraising goal with help from an elite set of “high net worth” individuals, many of whom are close Romney allies. Meg Whitman, the former eBay executive, current Hewlett-Packard CEO and Republican gubernatorial nominee in California two years ago, invested with Solamere (and her son scored a job at the firm). Two Romney donors, L. Scott Frantz, an investor and Connecticut state senator, and Mark Chapin Johnson, the CEO of a medical supply company, were also among the sixty-four investors to entrust Solamere with their money.
As a managing partner of Solamere, Tagg stands to make millions of dollars. The three managing partners will receive $16.8 million in management fees over the first six years, as well as “performance-based incentive” pay, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Little is known about the exact investment decisions at the firm. A tax return filed by Mitt and Ann Romney, made public in September, showed that Solamere has used an array of Cayman Islands entities to reduce its investors’ tax liability on its income. Rebecca Wilkins, a tax expert with Citizens for Tax Justice, says that Solamere likely uses “blocker corporations” to help its tax-exempt investors avoid paying the unrelated business income tax.
It seems that Tagg has taken after his father, whose former firm Bain Capital also uses these offshore structures. Most of the offshore entities do not have to file a tax return in the US or anywhere else in the world, making them an ideal shelter for Solamere’s investors, says Wilkins. “To me, the most egregious part of this is that they’re facilitating tax evasion.”
A complaint filed in August with the US Office of Government Ethics argues that Mitt Romney’s investment portfolio violates the Ethics in Government Act because so much of his money rests in opaque funds, like private equity firms and limited partnerships. The law states that presidential officeholders must disclose their investments and their investments’ underlying assets worth more than $1,000. The law, however, carries an exemption for qualified blind trusts.
In June, the Romney campaign announced that if he’s elected, the candidate would move his assets into a federally qualified blind trust, and would also likely sell off any assets that “are not fully compliant with federal disclosure and other rules applicable to the office of the presidency.” But if Romney wins, there’s almost no chance that the underlying assets of his son’s firm, Solamere, will be revealed. Solamere could have assets involved in healthcare, energy, telecommunications or any number of other industries, but the public will be left in the dark.
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