Like most politicians, Bill Thompson is no stranger to the phrase “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” In 2009, then-Voice columnist Tom Robbins explored the connection between a $150 billion pension fund and Thompson’s mayoral campaign against Bloomberg. As comptroller, Thompson used his position to help powerful friends in need, gaining in return, as his finances showed at the time, massive donations to snag the City Hall spot. Of course, Thompson lost to Bloomberg by 4 percentage points that November but, now, four years later, it seems as if his new mayoral campaign faces yet another potential conflict of interest.
Other than former Congressman Anthony Weiner, Thompson is the only Democratic candidate running for office who is not currently in office–Christine Quinn is city council speaker, Liu is comptroller, de Blasio is public advocate. This explains Thompson’s 2012 tax returns, in which he raked in $727,671 from the private sector. The Post points out that he only gave $4,750 to charity last year, earning the label of “cheapo” from the newspaper, but, in terms of the bigger picture, that’s not necessarily the main concern here.
On Siebert, Brandford, Shank & Co.’s website, the municipal investment bank Downtown presents its interest in the world of government: “Unlike our competitors, our firm’s primary business is public finance.” The company is the largest minority-owned underwriter in the country. Its job is to buy public debt from City Hall and sell it to investors, with about 20 percent of its business coming from the Big Apple.
The task of delegating municipal underwriter contracts is placed in the hands of the mayor’s office and the comptroller. Once contracted, the underwriting companies collect fees worth millions of dollars from handling the city’s financial operations. Naturally, as the story goes, Thompson made SBS a senior underwriter for the city soon after his re-election as comptroller in 2006, a spot that brought great fortunes to the small, 10-year-old company that stood as the sole minority-owned company to achieve such a position. Last year, the company made upward of $3.5 million from dealing with the city.
But here’s the problem: In April of 2010, after refusing to run for a third term as comptroller, Thompson took a position as senior managing director at SBS. His bio provides praise for Thompson’s public-to-private leap: “Mr. Thompson’s extensive experience in successfully managing the finances of one of the nation’s largest cities has afforded him unique insight into the needs of local municipal issuers.” No mention of the work done on behalf of the company by the former comptroller while in office, though.
At the time of the hiring announcement, Thompson swore not to conduct any business involving New York City, abiding by an ethics rule that demands a comptroller must step away from private finance roles for a year. But, according to a records request by New York World‘s Nathaniel Herz, that wasn’t exactly the case: In an application by the MTA in late 2010, Thompson is listed as sharing “overall responsibility” alongside the company’s partners for underwriting the transportation agency–an entity that is not exactly city-owned but highly influenced by City Hall. The payoff? Siebert, Brandford, Shank & Co. were awarded some $2 million in fees. So about those ethics …
One could argue that Thompson’s senior role at the company immediately after resigning from being comptroller is an efficient use of his skills: If anyone knows how city’s finances work and which ones are most valuable to investors, it is Thompson, right? But then, of course, there is the symptom of modern government known as the revolving door of politics, where the loyalties of politicians are blurred between the people and potential profiteers–a similar problem the Quinn campaign faces with her ties to the real estate industry.
Either way, Thompson stayed for almost two years at the company before resigning in March of 2012 to focus on his second mayoral campaign. Currently, he’s registered as a lobbyist in New York state.
With all this talk about a Weiner comeback and Quinn as the frontrunner, the former Democratic nominee for mayor has mostly remained in the shadows so far this election cycle, even though he’s been quietly raking in millions for himself. His campaign finance records show that no one connected to SBS has donated to his campaign.
Then again, it’s only May.
Update: A spokesperson for the Thompson campaign responded to the Voice with a few counterpoints on the candidate’s relationship with SBS.
First, the company was signed as an underwriter 37 times before Thompson took office in 2002. Second, John Liu’s office has far outpaced Thompson’s legacy, handing it some $10 billion in bonds over the past three years. Once again, the campaign reiterated the fact that Thompson pledged to recuse himself from city transactions after joining the company and that all underwriting deals are made public.
Update: The following is a statement issued to the Voice from the Bill Thompson campaign:
“Bill Thompson believes a public office is a public trust. He’s proud of his record – both in the public and private sectors – of increasing accountability and transparency in government. As Mayor, he will continue to honor the highest ethical standards and focus on moving our city forward.”
The Voice has reached out to SBS for comment on the hiring. We’re still waiting to hear back.