T.W. Farnam
The Influence Industry

UBS invests in Washington

UBS AG hasn’t exactly been a model company lately — the Swiss investment bank has paid more than $1 billion in fines for financial crimes in recent years.

But that doesn’t seem to have scared away many lawmakers or President Obama. To the contrary, the bank is quite well placed in official Washington, with campaign contributions and personal ties connecting it to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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UBS invests in Washington
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UBS invests in Washington

The company has dramatically increased its involvement in politics in recent decades, even as the bank has paid off three large federal settlements over the past three years.

This month, UBS settled with the Justice Department for $160 million over charges that it rigged bidding for municipal bond sales. The bank “admits, acknowledges and accepts responsibility for” the charges that it manipulated bond auctions to aid its bottom line at the expense of local taxpayers, the department announced in a release.

The company’s political action committee was cutting checks to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as that deal was reached, according to Federal Election Commission records. In March, it sent $15,000 to both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

It also sent $5,000 to the campaign of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and an account controlled by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the newly elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The NRCC declined to comment. The other congressional committees, Boehner’s office and the DNC did not return calls requesting comment.

“The activities of the UBS PAC, supported by hundreds of eligible employees in the United States, do not impact or are not impacted by any enforcement issues,” said Robert Wolf, chairman of UBS Americas. “Many of these employees participate voluntarily in the UBS PAC and have an interest in the success of political candidates whose views are supportive of our industry and the communities in which we live.”

Wolf, who is also president of UBS Investment Bank, was a fundraiser for Obama, bringing in at least $500,000 for his 2008 presidential campaign. The president has since called on him to advise the administration: first on the Economic Recovery Advisory Board and again this year on the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

The White House did not return a call requesting comment.

Wolf said he has visited the White House about twice a month since Obama took office. He also enjoyed a five-hour golf outing with the president during the first family’s 2009 vacation to Martha’s Vineyard.

The bank’s connection to Capitol Hill includes former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who joined UBS as a vice chairman shortly after leaving the Senate in 2002. Gramm was a key architect of financial policy as chairman of the Senate banking committee.

This month’s settlement is only the latest in a string of problems for the bank going back to the start of the financial crisis. In 2008, the bank paid $150 million in fines to state and federal regulators after the market for auction-rate securities failed, leaving investors in a lurch.

After the bank compensated investors, the total cost reached $900 million.

In 2009, the bank agreed to a $780 million fine for helping Americans evade taxes by keeping bank accounts secret from the government. That agreement was with UBS Americas’ parent company, UBS AG.

One outstanding investigation could have the biggest impact on financial markets. UBS announced in its most recent annual report that it received subpoenas regarding an investigation into whether banks lied about their cost of borrowing to rig the LIBOR rate, which is used in financial transactions around the world, including currency trading and the interest rates for some home mortgages.

Other banks are also subjects of the investigation and have paid settlements for similar transgressions.

Over the past decade, while the investigations into UBS were unfolding, the bank’s employees and PAC gave $11 million in federal campaign contributions, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

 
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