How the lobbyist, who works at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, stepped into this morass offers a window into what has become a routine and profitable practice at law firms and lobbying shops: In addition to their usual work, lobbyists share with financial firms the latest political tidbits they are gathering from sources, sending an e-mail here and there with the latest “political intelligence.” The financial firms value the information because it can inform their investments.
Recent attention has focused on a new breed of companies that offer political intelligence exclusively for investor clients, but some of the country’s most prominent law firms have gotten into the business, too.
The latest investigation has put an unwelcome spotlight on Greenberg Traurig, one of the country’s biggest law firms — and also known for having weathered the controversy surrounding one of its top lobbyists, Jack Abramoff, who was sentenced to prison for his part in a wide-ranging corruption scandal in 2006.
Greenberg Traurig was not doing anything unusual for a law firm by sharing political insight with clients who have investment interests. But when that information then informs stock trading, the ethics can become murky.
“The road to hell in this particular situation is not paved with clarity,” said Stephen M. Ryan, head of the government strategies practice group at the law firm McDermott Will & Emery. “You wander into it.”
The information being exchanged can quickly become explosive.
The brokerage firm Height Securities, which sells its analysis to hedge funds, said it wanted help staying on top of regulatory developments. So it hired Greenberg Traurig, whose lobbyist Mark Hayes had spent several years as an aide to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) specializing in health care.
On April 1, according to e-mails obtained by The Washington Post, Height analyst Justin Simon had a question for Hayes: Was the White House about to reverse its stance on a critical Medicare policy?
Within minutes, Hayes confirmed it: “Our intel is the deal was already hatched.” Hayes explained that the Obama administration would increase funding for the Medicare Advantage program in exchange for Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s support for an Obama appointee.
Simon sent out an alert to Height’s hundreds of investor clients — ahead of the administration’s public announcement — and trading in Humana, Aetna and other health-care stocks immediately soared.
Meanwhile, the text of Hayes’s e-mail was also spreading, pinning him as the direct source for the Height alert.