March 26, 2009
Before its portfolio of bad loans helped trigger the current housing crisis, mortgage giant Freddie Mac was the focus of a major accounting scandal that led to a management shake-up, huge fines and scalding condemnation of passive directors by a top federal regulator.
One of those allegedly asleep-at-the-switch board members was Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel—now chief of staff to President Barack Obama—who made at least $320,000 for a 14-month stint at Freddie Mac that required little effort.
As gatekeeper to Obama, Emanuel now plays a critical role in addressing the nation’s mortgage woes and fulfilling the administration’s pledge to impose responsibility on the financial world.
Emanuel’s Freddie Mac involvement has been a prominent point on his political résumé, and his healthy payday from the firm has been no secret either. What is less known, however, is how little he apparently did for his money and how he benefited from the kind of cozy ties between Washington and Wall Street that have fueled the nation’s current economic mess.
Though just 49, Emanuel is a veteran Democratic strategist and fundraiser who served three terms in the U.S. House after helping elect Mayor Richard Daley and former President Bill Clinton. The Freddie Mac money was a small piece of the $16 million he made in a three-year interlude as an investment banker a decade ago.
In business as in politics, Emanuel has cultivated an aggressive, take-charge reputation that made him rich and propelled his rise to the front of the national stage. But buried deep in corporate and government documents on the Freddie Mac scandal is a little-known and very different story involving Emanuel.
He was named to the Freddie Mac board in February 2000 by Clinton, whom Emanuel had served as White House political director and vocal defender during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals.
The board met no more than six times a year. Unlike most fellow directors, Emanuel was not assigned to any of the board’s working committees, according to company proxy statements. Immediately upon joining the board, Emanuel and other new directors qualified for $380,000 in stock and options plus a $20,000 annual fee, records indicate.
On Emanuel’s watch, the board was told by executives of a plan to use accounting tricks to mislead shareholders about outsize profits the government-chartered firm was then reaping from risky investments. The goal was to push earnings onto the books in future years, ensuring that Freddie Mac would appear profitable on paper for years to come and helping maximize annual bonuses for company brass.
The accounting scandal wasn’t the only one that brewed during Emanuel’s tenure.
During his brief time on the board, the company hatched a plan to enhance its political muscle. That scheme, also reviewed by the board, led to a record $3.8 million fine from the Federal Election Commission for illegally using corporate resources to host fundraisers for politicians. Emanuel was the beneficiary of one of those parties after he left the board and ran in 2002 for a seat in Congress from the North Side of Chicago.
The board was throttled for its acquiescence to the accounting manipulation in a 2003 report by Armando Falcon Jr., head of a federal oversight agency for Freddie Mac. The scandal forced Freddie Mac to restate $5 billion in earnings and pay $585 million in fines and legal settlements. It also foreshadowed even harder times at the firm.
Many of those same risky investment practices tied to the accounting scandal eventually brought the firm to the brink of insolvency and led to its seizure last year by the Bush administration, which pledged to inject up to $100 billion in new capital to keep the firm afloat. The Obama administration has doubled that commitment.
Freddie Mac reported recently that it lost $50 billion in 2008. It so far has tapped $14 billion of the government’s guarantee and said it soon will need an additional $30 billion to keep operating.
Like its larger government-chartered cousin Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac was created by Congress to promote home ownership, though both are private corporations with shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The two firms hold stakes in half the nation’s residential mortgages.
Because of Freddie Mac’s federal charter, the board in Emanuel’s day was a hybrid of directors elected by shareholders and those appointed by the president.
In his final year in office, Clinton tapped three close pals: Emanuel, Washington lobbyist and golfing partner James Free, and Harold Ickes, a former White House aide instrumental in securing the election of Hillary Clinton to the U.S. Senate. Free’s appointment was good for four months, and Ickes’ only three months.
Falcon, director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, found that presidential appointees played no “meaningful role” in overseeing the company and recommended that their positions be eliminated.
John Coffee, a law professor and expert on corporate governance at Columbia University, said the financial crisis at Freddie Mac was years in the making and fueled by chronically weak oversight by the firm’s directors. The presence of presidential appointees on the board didn’t help, he added.
“You know there was a patronage system and these people were only going to serve a short time,” Coffee said. “That’s why [they] get the stock upfront.”
Financial disclosure statements that are required of U.S. House members show Emanuel made at least $320,000 from his time at Freddie Mac. Two years after leaving the firm, Emanuel reported an additional sale of Freddie Mac stock worth between $100,001 and $250,000. The document did not detail whether he profited from the sale.
Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Emanuel, said there was no conflict between his stint at Freddie Mac and Obama’s vow to restore confidence in financial institutions and the executives who run them. At the same time, Feinberg said Emanuel now agrees that presidential appointees to the Freddie Mac board “are unnecessary and don’t have long enough terms to make a difference.”