By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
UNITED NATIONS -- Jide J. Zeitlin, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who has been nominated as the U.S. point man for financial reform at the United Nations, has faced some financial setbacks and clashes as a private investor, including legal complications involving a telecommunications start-up he owns in India and the bankruptcy of a pharmaceutical company he helped finance.
A New Delhi court last month ordered the liquidation of Zeitlin's wireless firm, Independent Mobile Infrastructure Ltd., which stands accused of failing to pay about $2.4 million in supplies, services and interest to a client. The client, Unitech Power Transmission, charged that Zeitlin's company reneged on an agreement to pay for 34 wireless towers as part of a larger deal to construct a network of 137 towers throughout India. The issue is still being litigated, with Zeitlin's firm contesting the liquidation and saying it is financially strong; a hearing is scheduled for March.
"We want our money," Sumeet K. Maniktala, a New Delhi-based attorney for Unitech, said in a telephone interview. "I have nothing against the man. But if he is not able to manage a small company like IMIL here," how can he oversee the large amount of funds handled by the United Nations?
Zeitlin's confirmation hearing to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for management and reform will be held Wednesday before a panel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Zeitlin's difficulties come amid a major downturn that has wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy, particularly among high-risk business ventures that rely on venture capital. But White House officials say Zeitlin's financial acumen and management experience -- demonstrated in a long career in the financial sector -- make him a perfect candidate for restoring fiscal discipline at the United Nations.
"Zeitlin brings exceptional qualities to the job -- a strong background in management, an in-depth understanding of best business practices, broad experience dealing with foreign governments and corporations, a commitment to public service -- as well as unique personal insights into the complex international challenges of the 21st century," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.
The White House said that Zeitlin does not maintain day-to-day management of his India-based company and that it is natural to adjust the orders for towers. They also noted that IMIL is challenging the liquidation order.
By most accounts, Zeitlin, 46, has lived an extraordinary American success story. The son of a Nigerian domestic worker, Zeitlin was adopted by an American family at age 5, raised in Asia and educated in the United States, where he excelled in academics. He graduated from Amherst College magna cum laude with a double major in economics and English and went on to earn an MBA from Harvard University.
"I learned at an early age the importance of education," he said in an Amherst biography. "I grew up in a family that had modest financial means but that was rich in a tradition of learning ."
Zeitlin succeeded as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs, which made him a partner at age 33 and subsequently gave him a series of senior management positions. He sits on the boards of Coach Inc. and Affiliated Managers Group and serves on several cultural and educational boards. He is also chairman of the Board of Trustees of Amherst College and a member of the investment committee that manages the university's $1.3 billion endowment.
Amherst's endowment has fallen by just over 20 percent in the past year, following a trend among large university endowments. But its performance over the past three years, according to figures presented by U.S. officials, has surpassed that of other endowments.
A White House official said Zeitlin will step down from all of his corporate, philanthropic and education board positions if he is confirmed. He will have no involvement in operating his companies, the official added.
Zeitlin has suffered a series of public embarrassments since he left Goldman Sachs in 2005 to set up an investment company, the Keffi Group, and enter the Indian telecom market with IMIL.
In 2006, Zeitlin was sued over allegations that he defamed a rival firm, American Tower Corp., and impersonated its chief executive, James D. Taiclet Jr., in cyberspace, according to a complaint in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. American Tower voluntarily withdrew its suit in early 2008 without any financial settlement or public admission of fault by Zeitlin, according to a company statement.
The complaint alleged that Zeitlin provided a magazine reporter with negative information about American Tower and then forwarded the article to two of the company's major institutional investors, Thomas D. Stern of Chieftain Capital Management and Nick Advani of Goldman Sachs. It said Zeitlin used an Internet tool that allowed him to falsely identify Taiclet as the e-mail sender.
American Tower learned of the alleged ruse after Stern sent a reply to the e-mail that went to Taiclet, prompting a company investigation that determined that Zeitlin was the actual author of the e-mail. U.S. officials said Zeitlin acknowledged having sent the e-mail as a prank that went wrong. A White House official said Zeitlin intended the e-mail as a "joke between friends, an admittedly bad one." He said that "Zeitlin assumed that both friends realized that the article came from him."
In December 2007, Zeitlin led a group of investors that raised more than $62 million for a pharmaceutical company, Cogentus, to fund trials for anti-platelet therapy. Cogentus filed for bankruptcy in January, one month after suffering "a sudden, very substantial loss of capital and an immediate need for a large new financing."
Zeitlin and his investment partners did not respond to requests for comment. A White House official said Zeitlin lost "his entire investment" in the bankruptcy but was not responsible for the loss of any other investors' money because he did not recruit investors.
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.