Stealthy Wealthy: Donald Sussman, Rep. Pingree make strange bedfellows


In the five or so years since hedge fund manager Donald Sussman and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, have known each other, the investment tycoon has made his mark in her state, becoming its top political donor in 2012 and a major backer to Democratic super PACs. He's also found ways to bankroll her campaign, while buying a controlling interest in the local papers that cover her district.

Sussman, the billionaire manager of boutique hedge funds which manage about $8 billion in assets, married Pingree in 2011. She's the former president of campaign finance watchdog Common Cause. In his first campaign cycle as a congressional spouse, Sussman gave more than $1.2 million to Democrats, including $1.15 million to the House Majority PAC, a super PAC set up to elect House Democrats.

In all, Sussman has given more than $12.21 million to campaigns, party committees, ballot initiatives, political nonprofits and super PACs over the years, starting in the 1990s at the federal level and in 2002 in Maine, where he’s spent more than $4.5 million. He gave $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1998 at a time when Congress overrode then-President Bill Clinton's veto of a law making it harder for shareholders to sue in state courts. Sussman supported the measure.

But his biggest political influence may be through Pingree. Sussman's employees–even his chauffeur and chef–have contributed at least $209,900 to her campaigns, by far the largest single source of her campaign cash.

Pingree's spokesman, Willy Ritch, likened Sunlight's report to a "right-wing attack piece" in an email that noted that both the congresswoman and her husband have backed left-leaning causes. He said the congresswoman has never voiced support for anything that would benefit her husband. There's no question, however, that their marriage made them a particularly well-matched power couple: Sussman gives Pingree access to the kind of cash that helps politicians win friends and expand influence and Pingree gives her husband access to Congress.

Prior to his relationship with Pingree, Sussman maintained a low profile; when his name did appear it was on the business pages. Not surprising for someone who made his first investment score–a $300 stock buy in a Michigan sugar company whose shares skyrocketed after Cuba's revolution disrupted the sugar market–when he was 12 years old, according to a profile in Forbes. Sussman started Paloma Partners, his flagship company, in 1981, the year he married Laurie Tisch of the famed Tisch Family. Investments by Laurie Tisch's father, billionaire hotelier Laurence Tisch, included the CBS Television Network (sold in 1995 to Westinghouse Corp.) and, until 2008, the Lorillard Tobacco company–makers of Newport cigarettes. Sussman managed part of the family's fortune, according to a 1998 profile in Stock News. He's had business dealings with other top Democratic donors, including fellow hedge fund manager David E. Shaw, and has handled investments for Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the Mellon family and Brown University's endowment.

In the 1980s Sussman pioneered the "market-neutral" strategy central to some hedge funds' operations, but ran into trouble in the wake of the 1998 collapse of Long Term Capital Management, a giant fund that required a $3.6 billion bailout provided by private firms but managed by the Federal Reserve. Paloma Partners announced it had lost up to 25 percent of the value of its funds; the reclusive Sussman appeared on CNN to reassure investors that the fund was sound.

His relationship with Pingree has pushed Sussman into a much more public role. He developed a friendship with Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in 2009 when Frank was chair of the House Financial Services Committee, which considered regulations for the hedge fund industry as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. After the House first passed the measure, Sussman flew Frank, his partner (and now husband) Jim Ready, and Pingree on his private jet to the Virgin Islands for a vacation in Dec. 2009. Sussman and his daughters have given a total of $13,900 to Frank, in a series of contributions during 2010 and 2011. Just last week, Frank wrote a letter to the Portland Press Herald defending the couple and highlighting his friendship with them.

Housekeeper's largesse

Starting in 2007, Sussman and employees of his companies have lined Pingree’s campaign coffers with cash. Employees of Paloma Partners, his main business venture, have given a total of more than $164,000. An additional $40,500 comes from employees of Caremi Partners, another company solely owned by Sussman. While Pingree's husband has given $28,800 of his own cash to her campaign and his daughters from his first marriage have given $28,400 more, employees of two of his companies have contributed far more. Among some of the donors to Pingree are givers who list their occupations as pilots, housekeeper, chef and chauffeur.

One of the contributors, Renata Dobrzanski identified herself as a housekeeper employed by Caremi Partners, and listed Sussman’s home in the affluent area of Greenwich, Conn., as her address. She’s given a total of $1000 in 2012 and three contributions totaling $2,000 for the 2010 cycle. Another, chauffeur Antonio Ferrara, listed Paloma Partners as his employer; he gave Pingree a $2,400 donation in 2010. In 2008, a person with the same name and address gave $2,300 but was identified as a "Investment Manager" with "Carmeri Partners" in disclosures to the Federal Election Commission.

Two others, Wilson James and Taylor Kelsey, listed Caremi as their employer and pilot as their occupation. They each gave two $2,400 donations to Pingree’s campaign, one for the primary and one for the general election–the maximum amount individuals could give to a campaign committee in 2010. All four of the pilots' contributions came on March 27.

In 2010, some 12 employees of Paloma or their relatives gave the $4,800, the maximum amount allowed to any federal campaign by an individual per cycle to Pingree. Similarly, in the same week of June 2012 six employees — four of whom maxed out on their donations — gave significant sums to Pingree’s campaign.

An analysis of campaign finance records shows Pingree's donor portfolio from earlier races — runs for the state legislature in the 1990s and a failed Senate bid in 2002 — consisted of mostly retired people and employees of local businesses. But in 2008, when Pingree ran for the House, that changed drastically and she began receiving more money from the securities and investment banking community. According to FEC disclosures, Pingree received about $72,000 from the industry in 2002 while the total topped $175,000 in 2008.

Ritch downplayed Sussman's influence. Pingree "was an effective fundraiser long before she met her husband," he said in an email.  

Earlier this year, Sussman bought a 75 percent stake in the MaineToday Media which owns two of the biggest newspapers in her district–the Portland Press Herald and the Kennebec Journal. Though the deal initially called for Sussman to loan the company $3.3 million for a 5 percent stake in the company, in March, company executives announced a revision of the plan and Sussman's majority stake; he also has a seat on the company's board.

In 2010, Pingree's Republican opponent for the House seat, Dean Scontras, won the endorsement of both the Portland Press Herald and the Kennebec Journal. This year, the Portland Press Journal decided not to make an endorsement in the race. According to one local blogger, the editorial page editor cited Sussman's ownership of the paper as a reason. Also in 2010, the Portland paper followed up on a story, first reported by a Maine blog with conservative connections, about Pingree hitching rides on Sussman's jet. Shortly afterwards, Pingree announced their engagement. The House ethics committee okayed the plane travel, defining Sussman as a family member.

Update, 12/7/2012, 4:15 p.m.: Press Journal Editorial Page Editor Greg Kesich told Sunlight in an email that Sussman "rescued" the paper when it was "near economic collapse." Kesich said Sussman "has been very careful not to interfere with the content of the newspaper," and added that it was his own decision not to endorse in the Pingree race. "We were temporarily without an editorial board," Kesich wrote, adding, that "without a formal board process, I thought an endorsement would raise legitimate questions about the owners' influence." 

Mega Donor

Pingree isn't the only Democrat Sussman has aided. Some $2.22 million of Sussman’s funds went to the two Democratic party committees, the  Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee, but those contributions were made before the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as McCain-Feingold, banned unlimited soft money contributions to the parties. Since the ban, Sussman maxed out on his donations to party committees often, giving more than 200,000 to the Democratic Party committees in all. He’s also given some $27,860 to the Maine Democratic Party since 2002.

Since the 2010 Citizens United decision opened the door for big contributions to independent groups, Sussman has gotten back in the habit of writing big checks. In 2012, he donated $750,000 to Women Vote!, $15,000 to Emily’s List, which is the second largest contributor to Pingree’s campaign, and another $100,000 to the Young Democrats for America–a nonprofit affiliated with the DNC.

Sussman has also been a prolific presence in the Maine’s state politics, contributing to candidates, the state party and intervening on ballot initiatives. Sussman made a $418,000 donation Project Maine Votes, which sought to allow voters to register on election day in Maine. He also supported an initiative to legalize gay marriage in Maine, which passed.

Federal Entanglements

As a hedge fund manager running a lucrative multi-billion business, Sussman had his own share of skirmishes with the federal regulatory agencies. In 2009, one of Sussman’s companies, Franklin Realty Holdings LLC., filed suit against PAAMCO Founder Co., a California-based hedge fund, over the initial terms of their contract. Sussman’s company won the case, and a 40 percent stake in the company. Sussman's outsized holding prompted the Securities and Exchange Commission to look into PAAMCO's ownership structure, but regulators decided not to pursue any action against the company. At issue was whether the hedge fund misled investors by claiming that women held a controlling interest–something that might give it an advantage in attracting funds from institutional investors seeking diversity in their portfolios. Sussman's big stake–which was initially described as a loan–raised the question of whether the four women who founded the firm had a controlling stake.

That wasn't Sussman's first run-in with the SEC. In 1997, he admitted that he had violated the Investment Advisers Act, a law passed in 1940 that requires financial advisers to act in their clients' interest. Sussman did not disclose a loan he made from a hedge fund he controlled to buy a building that he used as office space. He settled with the SEC that year, agreeing to a $40,000 fine.

But with stakes in 28 firms, according to personal financial disclosures filed by Pingree, many of them incorporated in offshore tax havens, it's not surprising that Sussman has had run ins with federal authorities. He's also enjoyed federal benefits. When taxpayers bailed out American International Group, the insurance titan that collapsed at the height of the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, injecting the comany with $108 billion to settle its debts, Sussman’s company Paloma Securities, a subsidiary of Paloma Partners, was one of the many counterparties that received funds, a total of $200 million. And records from the Virgin Islands office of Economic Development Authority, which offers huge tax break to firms that invest there, show that one of his companies, Trust Asset Management, continues to receive benefits as an offshore company. In an email, Pingree spokesman Ritch said that the tax benefit ceased in 2009 when Sussman became a Maine resident; however, a document obtained by Sunlight showed Trust Asset management as a participant in the tax program as of this year.

Sussman's offshore activities stood in stark contrast to Pingree's rhetoric. In 2009 she joined several other lawmakers in writing a letter to President Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pushing for a crackdown on tax shelters. She was even more explicit in a floor speech she made in May 2010, when she spoke in a favor of a bill that would close the tax loopholes and help small businesses, including those in her home state. Pingree said, “I am proud to say this bill also cracks down on tax loopholes that allow hedge fund managers to avoid paying income tax on much of their salaries, and the bill makes sure that multinational corporations don’t avoid paying taxes by shifting their profits to offshore tax havens.”

(Illustration by Lindsay Young/Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group)