Two stories, both several years old, but both, in light of allegations about federal funds for a major Democratic donor ...
Couldn't have been more serendipitous !
March 7, 2007
In ’05 Investing, Obama Took Same Path as Donors
By MIKE McINTIRE and CHRISTOPHER DREW
Less than two months after ascending to the United States Senate, Barack Obama bought more than $50,000 worth of stock in two speculative companies whose major investors included some of his biggest political donors.
One of the companies was a biotech concern that was starting to develop a drug to treat avian flu. In March 2005, two weeks after buying about $5,000 of its shares, Mr. Obama took the lead in a legislative push for more federal spending to battle the disease.
The most recent financial disclosure form for Mr. Obama, an Illinois Democrat, also shows that he bought more than $50,000 in stock in a satellite communications business whose principal backers include four friends and donors who had raised more than $150,000 for his political committees.
A spokesman for Mr. Obama, who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination in 2008, said yesterday that the senator did not know that he had invested in either company until fall 2005, when he learned of it and decided to sell the stocks. He sold them at a net loss of $13,000.
The spokesman, Bill Burton, said Mr. Obama’s broker bought the stocks without consulting the senator, under the terms of a blind trust that was being set up for the senator at that time but was not finalized until several months after the investments were made.
“He went about this process to avoid an actual or apparent conflict of interest, and he had no knowledge of the stocks he owned,” Mr. Burton said. “And when he realized that he didn’t have the level of blindness that he expected, he moved to terminate the trust.”
Mr. Obama has made ethics a signature issue, and his quest for the presidency has benefited from the perception that he is unlike politicians who blend public and private interests. There is no evidence that any of his actions ended up benefiting either company during the roughly eight months that he owned the stocks.
Even so, the stock purchases raise questions about how he could unwittingly come to invest in two relatively obscure companies, whose backers happen to include generous contributors to his political committees. Among those donors was Jared Abbruzzese, a New York businessman now at the center of an F.B.I. inquiry into public corruption in Albany, who had also contributed to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that sought to undermine John Kerry’s Democratic presidential campaign in 2004.
Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed about the stock deals, has already had to contend with a controversy that arose out of his reliance on a major campaign contributor in Chicago to help him in a personal financial transaction. In that earlier case, he acknowledged last year that it had been a mistake to involve the contributor, a developer who has since been indicted in an unrelated political scandal, in deals related to the Obamas’ purchase of a home.
Senate ethics rules do not prohibit lawmakers from owning stocks — even in companies that do business with the federal government or could benefit from legislation they advance — and indeed other members of Congress have investments in government contractors. The rules say only that lawmakers should not take legislative actions whose primary purpose is to benefit themselves.
Mr. Obama’s sale of his shares in the two companies ended what appears to have been a brief foray into highly speculative investing that stood out amid an otherwise conservative portfolio of mutual funds and cash accounts, a review of his Senate disclosure statements shows. He earned $2,000 on the biotech company, AVI BioPharma, and lost $15,000 on the satellite communications concern, Skyterra, according to Mr. Burton of the Obama campaign.
Mr. Burton said the trust was different from qualified blind trusts that other senators commonly used, because it was intended to allow him greater flexibility to address any accusations of conflicts that might arise from its assets. He said Mr. Obama had decided to sell the stocks after receiving a communication that made him concerned about how the trust was set up.
The investments came at a time when Mr. Obama was enjoying sudden financial success, following his victory at the polls in November 2004. He had signed a $1.9 million book deal, and his ethics disclosure reports show that he received $1.2 million of book money in 2005.
His wife, Michelle, a hospital vice president in Chicago, received a promotion that March, nearly tripling her salary to $317,000, and they bought a $1.6 million house in June. The house sat on a large property that was subdivided to make it more affordable, and one of Mr. Obama’s political donors bought the adjacent lot.
The disclosure forms show that the Obamas also placed several hundred thousand dollars in a new private-client account at JPMorgan Chase, a bond fund and a checking account at a Chicago bank.
But he put $50,000 to $100,000 into an account at UBS, which his aides say was recommended to him by a wealthy friend, George W. Haywood, who was also a major investor in both Skyterra and AVI BioPharma, public securities filings show.
Mr. Haywood and his wife, Cheryl, have contributed close to $50,000 to Mr. Obama’s campaigns and to his political action committee, the Hopefund. Mr. Haywood declined to comment.
Within two weeks of his purchase of the biotech stock that Feb. 22, Mr. Obama initiated what he has called “one of my top priorities since arriving in the Senate,” a push to increase federal financing to fight avian flu.
Several dozen people had already died from the disease in Southeast Asia, and experts were warning that a worldwide pandemic could kill tens of millions of people. Mr. Obama was one of the first political leaders to call for more money to head off the danger, which he described as an urgent public health threat.
His first step came on March 4, 2005, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved his request for $25 million to help contain the disease in Asia; the full Senate later approved that measure. And in April 2005, he introduced a bill calling for more research on avian flu drugs and urging the government to increase its stockpiles of antiviral medicines.
Mr. Obama repeated this call in a letter that Aug. 9 to Michael O. Levitt, the health and human services secretary. And in September 2005, Mr. Obama and Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, succeeded in amending another bill to provide $3.8 billion for battling the flu.
Meanwhile, the drug company in which he invested, AVI BioPharma, had been working to develop its own medicine to treat avian flu victims. In a conference call with Wall Street analysts on March 8, 2005, the company’s chairman, Denis R. Burger, said the firm was “aggressively going forward” with its avian flu research and hoped to work with federal agencies on it.
The company, which is also developing medicines in a number of other areas, provided several updates on its avian flu research in 2005, including one on Oct. 21 saying the company was likely to develop a treatment for avian flu “in a relatively short time.”
Mr. Obama sold what appears to have been about 2,000 shares of the company’s stock a week later, when it traded at about $3.50 a share, or about $1 a share more than when he bought it. Company officials said they never talked to the senator about his work on avian flu. And while the company has received millions of dollars in federal money to develop drugs for treating ebola and other serious diseases, it still has not received any federal money for its avian flu research.
The company’s stock briefly surged to nearly $9 a share in January 2006 when it announced promising research findings on the flu drug. But the company still has not applied for federal approvals to test and market the drug.
Unlike his investment in AVI, which yielded a small profit, Mr. Obama’s stake in Skyterra Communications went in the opposite direction, despite a promising start.
He bought his Skyterra shares the same day the Federal Communications Commission ruled in favor of the company’s effort to create a nationwide wireless network by combining satellites and land-based communications systems. Immediately after that morning ruling, Tejas Securities, a regional brokerage in Texas that handled investment banking for Skyterra, issued a research report speculating that Skyterra stock could triple in value.
Tejas and people associated with it were major donors to Mr. Obama’s political committees, having raised more than $150,000 since 2004. The company’s chairman, John J. Gorman, has held fund-raisers for the senator in Austin, Tex., and arranged for him to use a private plane for several political events in 2005. Mr. Gorman declined to comment.
In May 2005, Mr. Abbruzzese, who was vice chairman of Tejas and a principal investor in Skyterra, contributed $10,000 along with his wife to Mr. Obama’s political action committee — a departure from his almost exclusive support of Republicans. Eight months earlier, for instance, he had contributed $5,000 to the Swift Boat group, and he has given $100,000 to the Republican National Committee since 2004.
Last year, Mr. Abbruzzese, a major investor in several high-tech companies in New York and elsewhere, emerged as a central figure in the federal investigation of the New York State Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno. The inquiry is examining Mr. Bruno’s personal business dealings, including whether he accepted money from Mr. Abbruzzese in return for Senate approval of grants for one of Mr. Abbruzzese’s companies. Both men have denied any wrongdoing. Mr. Abbruzzese did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Skyterra’s share price was lifted into the $40 range for a time on the strength of the F.C.C. ruling, but eventually drifted down into the low 30s, and was at $31 when Mr. Obama sold his shares for a $15,000 loss on Nov. 1, 2005. A few months later, it plunged into the $20 range, and today trades below $10 a share. A spokesman for Skyterra said the company’s top officials had not been aware of Mr. Obama’s investment.
Obama faces questions on his investments
By Nedra Pickler, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Wednesday he was not aware he had invested in two companies backed by some of his top donors and said he had done nothing to aid their business with the government.
The Illinois senator faced questions about more than $50,000 in investments he made right after taking office in 2005 in two speculative companies, AVI Biopharma and Skyterra Communications. Obama set up a trust that gave his broker authority to trade stocks on his behalf without his input, according to 16 pages of documents he released Wednesday.
"At no point did I know what stocks were held, and at no point did I direct how those stocks were invested," Obama told reporters at the end of a news conference called to trumpet an unrelated immigration bill.
"What I wanted to make sure is that I didn't want to invest in companies that potentially would create conflicts with my work here," said Obama, who has campaigned on the need for stronger congressional ethics rules. "Obviously, the thing didn't work the way I wanted it to."
Obama purchased $5,000 in shares for AVI, which was developing a drug to treat avian flu. Two weeks after buying the stock, as the disease was spreading in Asia, Obama pushed for more federal funding to fight the disease, but he said he did not discuss the matter with any company officials.
Obama also had more than $50,000 in shares of Skyterra, a company that had just received federal permission to create a nationwide wireless network that combined satellite and land-based communications systems.
Among the company's top investors were donors who raised more than $150,000 for Obama's political committees, the New York Times reported Wednesday. The stock holdings were first examined Monday by the financial Web site, Thestreet.com.
The reports found no evidence that any of his actions ended up benefiting either company during the roughly eight months he owned the stocks. Obama lost about $15,000 on Skyterra and earned a profit of about $2,000 on AVI. Skyterra stocks continued to drop after Obama divested.
Obama said he wanted to invest in stocks after signing a $1.9 million deal for his second book, "The Audacity of Hope." He said after buying a home and putting money in the bank and mutual funds, he asked a friend and political donor, investor George Haywood, to recommend a broker so he could invest a portion more aggressively.
"I thought about going to (billionaire investor) Warren Buffett, and I decided it would be embarrassing that I only had $100,000 to invest," Obama said.
Haywood, a major backer of both AVI and Skyterra, recommended a broker at UBS who also bought stock for Obama in those companies.
Obama said at some point in fall 2005 he got a stockholder letter from AVI or Skyterra, but he couldn't remember which company. But on Dec. 15, 2005, he liquidated the "Freedom Trust," as it was titled in the May 15 agreement establishing it, and put his money in mutual funds and money market accounts that wouldn't raise such questions.
"It's at that point that I became concerned that I might not be able to insulate myself from knowledge of my holdings, that this trust instrument might not be working the way I wanted it to," Obama said.
UBS spokeswoman Karina Byrne said the company would not make Obama's broker available for interviews because they do not discuss client investments.
Obama said he didn't invest in a qualified blind trust because it wouldn't enable him to limit which companies he invested in, such as those in the tobacco industry and other areas that he did not want to support.
Obama attorney Robert F. Bauer added that the senator felt the blind trust left him in an "inadequate ethical position" because it would mean he couldn't respond to media inquires, for example, if questions arose about his investments. But Obama also would have to report the stock holdings each year under Senate rules because they weren't part of a qualified blind trust.
"At this point, I'm only invested in mutual funds or cash or money market accounts. That's my instruction to my accountant," Obama said. "We are not going to own individual stocks precisely because it raises questions like this."
Senate ethics rules do not prohibit lawmakers from owning stocks in companies that do business with the federal government.
Another investor involved in Skyterra was Jared Abbruzzese, a New York businessman now at the center of a federal inquiry into public corruption.
Abbruzzese and his wife had contributed $10,000 to Obama's political action committee. But normally they back Republican causes, such as the Republican National Committee and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that damaged John Kerry's presidential campaign.
Obama said he has never met Abbruzzese.