February 29, 2016
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
In May 2012, three former GE executives were imprisoned after being convicted on multiple charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and defraud the United States. Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg and Peter Grimm had all worked for GE Capital—the financial division that operated as a semi-legal “shadow bank,” and that accounted for about half of its parent corporation’s profits until the global financial collapse it helped precipitate began in 2007. Between 1999 and 2006, the trio conspired to skim millions from municipal bond investment contracts. With the full approval of their bosses.
According to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, the scam worked as follows for the company that Marty Walsh, Charlie Baker and cheerleaders like the Boston Globe have welcomed to Boston with open arms: Municipal governments commonly partner with big banks to sell bonds to pay for significant capital costs—like building schools. The banks invite investors to buy the municipal bonds and deposit the resulting funds in tax-exempt accounts from which all necessary project expenses can be paid. However, since all the bond money does not get spent at once, municipal governments typically hire brokers to find major financial institutions to invest it for them through a public auction process. In general, it is legally required that brokers get bids from at least three financial institutions—and the one that offers the highest annual rate of return wins the contract to invest the spare cash from a given bond fund.
But for GE Capital—and a host of other major financial institutions—the process was rigged from top to bottom. In the case of GE’s Carollo et al, the defendants conspired with executives at the brokerage CDR and financial institutions like Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Morgan Stanley to divvy up investment contracts for municipal bond funds. CDR would drum up business with local politicians around the country—often bribing them with various kinds of campaign donations and gifts. The pols would then reward CDR with contracts to invest unspent funds from municipal bond issues, while CDR would work with the GE Capital—in concert with the other major financial institutions—to illegally decide which corporation would win which auction for such investment contracts in advance. The “winner” of each auction would collude with the other bidding financial services companies on the bid rate to ensure that the “winning” bid was as low as possible. The agreed upon rate was usually lower than a fair market rate by just a few tenths of a percent. But that was enough to make a killing.
For example, if a fair bid in an auction might have been that GE Capital would invest a municipal government’s unused bond funds at a 5.04 percent annual rate of return, CDR would coach the company to only offer 5 percent. The other bidders would purposely offer lower rates, losing in exchange for winning future rigged auctions. GE would then pocket the .04 percent windfall. A municipal bond fund that might have $200,000,000 to invest in its first year would return around $80,000 extra to GE in that fashion. Which doesn’t sound like much. But such bond funds would be invested by GE Capital for years until they were spent down fulfilling their original purpose to build schools and the like. And GE Capital and CDR colluded on huge numbers of such illegal arrangements, pouring vast sums into GE’s coffers. While depriving municipal governments of that same money. GE Capital then kicked back some of its take to CDR as “fees.”
Given the complexity and ubiquity of this practice, no one knows exactly how much was stolen. But since fines paid by large corporations to governments at various levels for such crimes tend to be vanishingly small, it’s possible to get an idea of the scale of the crime. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), GE paid a $70 million coordinated settlement in 2011 to the SEC, Department of Justice, Internal Revenue Service, and a coalition of 25 state attorneys general. The SEC alleged that “from August 1999 to October 2004, [GE Capital] illegally generated millions of dollars by fraudulently manipulating at least 328 municipal bond reinvestment transactions in 44 states and Puerto Rico.”
GE committed yet another massive crime against the public interest. And got away with it. In November 2013, Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm were freed on appeal. The reason? The government had taken too long—ten years—to build its case against the former GE executives.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.
Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.