WASHINGTON - Hold everything! This column was supposed to be a review of regulators' efforts in 1993 to tame the two-headed monster of political contributions and mediocre secondary market disclosure that is poisoning the municipal market.
But news developments on the political contributions front have come up that are so outrageous the recap will have to wait.
The most shameless development is the push t!y the Florida Association of Counties to get its members to boycott the large securities firms that support a ban on political contributions that is being pushed by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Nearly as ignoble are resolutions adopted by the National League of Cities and the Florida counties' group opposing the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board's proposed rule that would prohibit municipal bond dealers from doing negotiated deals with cities and states for two years after the firms or their employees give money to candidates in those jurisdictions. There's also a report that minority securities professionals have formed a group to fight the ban.
Those moves may be just the tip of the iceberg. At the rate state and local officials and some dealers are whipping themselves into a frenzy, it won't be long before some of them file suits against the plan or launch a campaign to get Congress and the White House to tell the SEC and MSRB to back off. Before they do that, though they should look at what their action$ really symbolize.
Once you get beyond the smoke screen argument about First Amendment rights, opponents of the ban are really trying to argue that it is perfectly all right to engage in conflicts of interest.
Before any issuer or underwriter heads for the courthouse or the White House, they should realize that they are trying to violate what should be a very basic principle: Public officials should not take money from people they do business with, nor should underwriters try to bribe officials to get business. That is what the SEC and the MSRB are trying to stop and that's just good policy and good government.
One thing that should be understood as this battle escalates is that many issuers and underwriters do not have clean hands. Many underwriters are no better than pushers, using campaign contributions to turn issuers into addicts, while the issuers who have encouraged them are now themselves no better than political contribution junkies. But those underwriters now no longer want to continue forking out the funds and issuers are frustrated because they don't want their political fixes to stop.
When the smoke clears, the SEC, the MSRB, and firms should push ahead with the contributions ban. And those engaging in the unethical "play to play" system should just resolve to say "no" and go cold turkey.