Sen. Bob Corker’s bets on hedge funds need to be looked into, says watchdog group

By: Bethany McLean, Yahoo! Finance, 3/21/16

“Well first of all, these hedge fund folks, which by the way, they’re just doing what wealthy, connected people do. They’re sitting around as Congress is inept in dealing with this and they’re going to at some point try to fleece the American people.”

So said Sen. Bob Corker on CNBC in October. So it’s more than a little ironic that Washington DC watchdog group Campaign for Accountability has just sent a letter to the SEC and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, asking them to investigate Corker because he allegedly “concealed information about his stake in several hedge funds – funds managed by his campaign donors – in violation of federal law and Senate rules.”

The simple (and ironic) fact that Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, has made a lot of money from hedge funds isn’t in debate. According to his personal financial disclosure forms, Corker invested in funds managed by three Tennessee-based firms: Gerber/Taylor Management Company, TSWII Management Company and Pointer Management. They’re all run by Tennessee businessmen who are connected with each other. Members of Congress are required to disclose a range of values and incomes from their investments, and on the high end, the value of Corker’s hedge fund holdings has increased from around $1 million in 2005 to around $49 million in 2014. The low end puts the value at around $11 million. His income from hedge funds over this period has been somewhere between $13 million and $73 million.

(A small aside: Pointer, which is a fund of funds but reserves some of its assets under management for direct investment, is at least loosely connected to a fund called Cedar Hill, which made a fortune shorting the mortgage market in the financial crisis, according to “The Big Short.” Both have listed the same contact person on some financial forms.)

According to the Campaign for Accountability, the hedge fund owners have also been political backers of Corker. “In total, employees for these three funds, their mutual accountant, and their respective family members have contributed $253,483 to Sen. Corker’s campaign committee since he first ran for Senate and an additional $75,000 to his PAC for a total of $328,483,” CfA says in its complaint. In 2004, Pointer founder Joseph Davenport and TSWII founder L. Hardwick “Hacker” Caldwell were among the co-chairs of Corker’s campaign committee ahead of the 2006 election.

This isn’t the Campaign for Accountability’s first salvo against Corker. Last November, the group filed a complaint asking the SEC and the ethics committee to investigate him for insider trading in the stock of a large shopping mall REIT called CBL & Associates. Until the Wall Street Journal, whose reporting kicked all this off, began to investigate, Corker hadn’t disclosed many of his trades. At the time, Corker blamed his accountants for a technical mistake involving the use of a methodology that didn’t require disclosure of the date of purchase. There’s no way to tell if either the SEC or the ethics committee followed up.

What’s also not a matter of debate is that Corker’s reporting has been problematic. In December, Corker filed a new series of amendments to his financial disclosure forms, showing that the previous ones contained more errors and omissions. As the Journal reported, the new forms showed that among other things, Corker hadn’t initially disclosed at least $2 million in income from his hedge fund investments. (The Journal also wrote that he didn’t properly report millions of dollars in income from commercial real-estate investments, and more millions of dollars in other assets and income from other financial transactions.) Corker said that he was “extremely disappointed in the filing errors.”

Still, the CfA’s new complaint asks whether even now, Corker is disclosing enough.

Under Senate ethics rules, if investment funds qualify as so-called “Excepted Investment Funds,” or EIFs, members don’t have to disclose the underlying assets. To qualify as EIFs, funds have to have more than 100 participants or investors, be publicly traded or widely diversified, and the filer can’t exercise control over the underlying financial interests. Otherwise, the assets have to be disclosed. The purpose of the rules is to allow the public to determine whether a lawmaker has a conflict of interest. The rules don’t prevent members of Congress from voting on legislation that may affect their personal finances.

According to the CfA, Corker contended many of his investments were EIFs when they were not. “For many years, for many funds, Sen. Corker may have deliberately claimed certain hedge funds in which he had invested in EIFs when they very clearly were not. By misclassifying funds in this manner, Sen. Corker was able to avoid revealing the underlying assets in these funds.” In the CfA’s view, this wasn’t necessarily accidental, but possibly deliberate. “CfA believes Sen. Corker may have shared information—gleaned through his position in the Senate—with hedge fund managers for his (and possibly their) personal financial benefit,” says CfA Executive Director Anne Weismann in a press release accompanying the complaint.

“This is yet another baseless accusation by this political special interest group,” says Corker’s spokesperson. “These claims are categorically false and nothing more than a smear campaign. When amending the senator’s financial disclosure report, our office worked directly with the Senate Ethics Committee to ensure items were reported accurately and in line with Senate guidelines.”

Is this a lot of smoke with no fire? Yes, maybe. But the point is, without knowing what the funds were investing in, we don’t have a clue. All we know is that Corker has made a lot of money from his investments during his time in Congress.