WASHINGTON -- You might call it a profile of "the last hurrah" of the now prohibited pay-to-play political contributions system in the municipal bond market.
The exhaustive article in last Tuesday's edition of The Bond Buyer by Chicago bureau chief Karen Pietog details the campaign contributions given by municipal dealers to Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois over the last year and half, and it provides an excellent snapshot of how the curbs on paying money to get bond business have taken hold.
The article shows that dealers poured thousands of dollars last year into Edgar's campaign coffers at the same time they were helping to underwrite state bond issues.
But then it shows the contributions beginning to dry up as dealers began to observe the voluntary ban on campaign contributions that Wall Street firms adopted last October. It also shows that they heeded warnings by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board not to try to beat the effective date of its rule that bars dealers from doing business with an issuer for two years after giving the issuer a campaign contribution.
Except for a few last-minute contributions made just before the MSRB's rule went into effect on April 25, contributions to Edgar by securities firms and banks that underwrite municipal bonds have ground to a virtual halt.
But the article points out a little-publicized exception in the MSRB's rule, an exception that the MSRB calls an anomaly, but that others say could be a loophole.
The article shows that the First Chicago Corporation State Political Action Committee gave $10,950 to Edgar between April 28 and May 23 --just days after the MSRB rule went into effect.
That contribution could be made without triggering the rule's two-year prohibition on the securities subsidiary of the bank doing bond business with the state because the PACs of a parent bank are not covered by the role unless it can be shown that their contributions were made to get around the rule.
The MSRB's rule does cover the PACs of a parent securities firm and its municipal subsidiary and the municipal subsidiary of a bank. But it does not cover the parent PAC of a bank because the legislation that created the MSRB did not give it power to write rules for banks as a whole.
While some fear the exception for a parent bank's PAC could become the rule's Achilles' heel, Christopher Taylor, the MSRB's executive director, says the board is determined to make sure it does not become a loophole.
"It's hard to keep a secret in the municipal business, and we are going to find out about it if someone is trying to get around the rule," Taylor said last week.
"Banks are going to have to justify their actions and show that they are not trying to use the PAC of the parent organization to get business," he said.
Let's hope he's right, or the embarrassing hurrahs of the past that tainted the market's reputation may live on.