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How Firms Wooed A U.s. Agency With Billions To Invest

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http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/29/business...mp;ref=business

As a New York money manager and investment banker at four Wall Street firms, Charles E. F. Millard never reached superstar status. But he was treated like one when he arrived in Washington in May 2007, to run the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency that oversees $50 billion in retirement funds.

BlackRock, one of the world’s largest money-management firms, assigned a high school classmate of Mr. Millard’s to stay in close contact with him, and it made sure to place him next to its legendary founder, Laurence D. Fink, at a charity dinner at Chelsea Piers. A top executive at Goldman Sachs frequently called and sent e-mail messages, inviting Mr. Millard out to the Mandarin Oriental and the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, even helping him hunt for his next Wall Street job.

Both firms were hoping to win contracts to manage a chunk of that $50 billion. The extensive wooing paid off when a selection committee of three, including Mr. Millard, picked BlackRock and Goldman from among 16 bidders to manage nearly $1.6 billion and to advise the agency, which Mr. Millard ran until January.

But on July 20, the agency permanently revoked the contracts with BlackRock, Goldman and JPMorgan Chase, the third winner, nullifying the process. The decision was based on questions surrounding Mr. Millard’s actions during the formal bidding process. His actions have also drawn the scrutiny of Congressional investigators and the agency’s inspector general.

An examination of thousands of pages of e-mail messages and other internal documents obtained by The New York Times shows the other side of the story: the two firms aggressively courted Mr. Millard, so extensively that they may have compromised federal contracting rules or at least violated the spirit of the law, contracting experts said. The records also illustrate the clash between Washington’s by-the-letter rules on contracting and the culture of Wall Street, where deals are often struck over expensive meals.

“Both sides should have known better,†said Steven L. Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at the George Washington University, who reviewed some of the material for The Times. “What happened here is wrong, stupid and probably illegal.â€

BlackRock and Goldman, as well as Mr. Millard, all said that nothing improper happened either before the formal competition for the contract started last July, or while the competition, which concluded in October, was under way.

“Among the reasons that Mr. Millard was selected to head the P.B.G.C. is his understanding of the industry, his extensive background and the quality of his professional relationships,†said Stanley M. Brand, a lawyer for Mr. Millard. “He correctly separated his personal relationships from his official actions.â€

A review of the documents shows that the third winner, JPMorgan Chase, had contacts with Mr. Millard before and during the competition, but did not display the same intensity as the other two.

Goldman and BlackRock saw Mr. Millard’s selection as a major business opportunity, the records show.

“This is a very big fish on the line,†one BlackRock executive wrote to another, discussing the government official.

Mr. Millard had at least seven meetings with Goldman executives in the year before the bidding started, and 163 phone contacts, the documents show. BlackRock had less frequent contact — 39 phone calls in that 12-month period. But one BlackRock executive told another that Mr. Millard had assured him in April, four months before the bidding, that he wanted to hire the company to help manage some of the money, company documents show.

“It sounds like we may have a tiger by the tail here,†one BlackRock executive wrote in an e-mail message.

The agency takes over pension programs when private companies go bankrupt. For years there was talk it might have to be bailed out by the government, and Mr. Millard, like many others, saw shifting from low-yield conservative investments like Treasury bonds to those with higher risks and higher potential returns as a way to solve the problem.

Before coming to Washington Mr. Millard had been a money manager for Prudential Securities and Lehman Brothers, a senior economic development official in New York City while Rudolph W. Giuliani was mayor, a member of the New York City Council and a Republican nominee for Congress.

Within weeks of his arrival at the agency, he told Goldman Sachs about his plans to shake up the agency’s portfolio.

“I just became head of the pension benefit guaranty corp in dc appointed by pres bush,†he wrote in a June 2007 e-mail message to John S. Weinberg, a vice chairman and a member of the family that has helped run Goldman since the 1930s. Mr. Millard told Mr. Weinberg, a longtime acquaintance, that he wanted to revamp the agency’s investment strategy.

“Is there a team at goldman that does this and that would be interested in pursuing this business?â€

“Yes, absolutely!†Mr. Weinberg wrote back.

Almost immediately, Goldman started to work informally for Mr. Millard by providing one of its top pension analysts at no charge to prepare at least six reports over the coming year, based on internal agency data, detailing possible investment strategies.

Goldman also coached Mr. Millard as he sought to sway skeptics in the Bush administration.

Just stupidity or corrupt?

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