There have been lots of positive comparisons between Phil Angelides and Ferdinand Pecora, who led an earlier investigation of Wall Street excesses that led to the Great Depression.
Pecora was a no-holds barred former prosecutor who ran his hearings with meticulous preparation and theatrical flair, and his work galvanized public support for widespread reforms.
Some have been impressed by Angelides’ reputation as a reformer from his days as California treasurer, when he tried to use the power of the state’s investments for socially worthy causes and implemented some protections for shareholders. Angelides was widely praised after public hearings earlier this year for his understanding of high finance and his scolding of the head of Goldman-Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, comparing him to a used –car dealer.
I’ve been less impressed by Angelides, who doesn’t seem to have a grasp on the opportunity he has to marshal support for real financial reform. And he’s too cozy with a Democratic leadership that’s been soft on Wall Street in the wake of the financial meltdown.
I’m also suspicious of Angelides, the politician and former real estate developer who unsuccessfully ran for governor against Arnold Schwarzenegger, because of his close ties to the Democratic Party elite. In addition, I’m wary of the impact of Angelides' main job running a coalition promoting green technologies. That’s certainly a laudable goal, but Angelides and his Apollo Alliance aren’t going to get very far without lobbying the Obama administration and the Democrats, who would not be happy with a hard-hitting report.
Whatever drama Angelides manages to muster at any given moment, I’m concerned that his multiple roles and background will cause him to soft-pedal his investigation. Those concerns were only heightened after Angelides surfaced as part of a curious SEC report last week that cautions firms about “pay to play” in the state investment business.
According to the SEC, when Angelides was running for treasurer in 2002 he hit up a top J.P. Morgan official to co-chair a fundraising event. It wasn’t just an honorary position. The price tag for the co-chairmanship? $10,000.
According to the report, the official didn’t co-chair the event but donated $1,000 to Angelides” campaign personally – and helped raise $8,000 more. In asking other J.P. Morgan brass to contribute to Angelides, the official noted that that the state of California was an important client for the firm.
Just how important became clear in the next couple of years, when J.P Morgan received about $37 million in fees from the state on more than 50 bond offerings totaling $15.8 billion – overseen by Angelides as state treasurer.
In the SEC’s curious take on the matter, neither Angelides nor J.P. Morgan is accused of doing anything improper. Angelides isn’t even mentioned by name. The agency merely uses its report to caution finance officials about not running afoul of SEC regulations.
OK, so the SEC doesn’t think Angelides did anything wrong soliciting funds from J.P. Morgan and then giving them the state's business. But the report serves as a bitter reminder that those who we’re counting on to get to the bottom of the financial meltdown are steeped in the toxic brew of cash and politics that has seeped into the core of our government.
I hope I’m proven wrong about Angelides; that his intimacy with this unseemly world has left him with a sense of sustained outrage and not empathy for it. But it will take more than a few zingers to convince me. I mean, let’s be serious. Would Ferdinand Pecora have solicited money from J.P Morgan? Not much chance. After Pecora grilled the son of the legendary banker, J.P. Morgan, Jr. described the investigator as having “the manners of an assistant prosecuting attorney who is trying to convict a horse thief.”