Measure Targets Insider Trading on Capitol Hill

Posted May 16, 2007 at 6:46pm

If Democratic Reps. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) and Brian Baird (Wash.) get their way, lobbyists and Members of Congress may need to add one more thing to their list of potential misdeeds: insider trading.

Slaughter and Baird reintroduced a bill on Wednesday that they say would stop Members, Congressional staff and executive branch employees from using inside information gleaned from their committee spots and other lofty perches to make lucrative stock market trades or to pass along “nonpublic” insider information to lobbyists or investor groups for stock transactions. The measure would also force firms that specialize in political intelligence gathering to register much like lobbyists do now.

Wall Street lobbyists not only say the bill faces an uphill political climb but also question how it would be enforced and whether it is necessary.

Slaughter said the bill would mark “another step” away from the corruption of the Republican-controlled Congress as another piece of the ethics, earmark and lobbying reforms Democrats have pushed. “The potential for abuse is very real,” Slaughter said at a news conference.

Added Baird: “Members should be subject to similar rules as people in corporate America.”

But the bill, which in the previous Congress garnered only 13 sponsors, including two Republicans, faces tough political and procedural hurdles.

Said one D.C.-based Wall Street source: “It’s considered by some to be more of a political statement than legitimate piece of legislation.” The source added that the bill will be referred to “no less than four committees, which will dramatically complicate its chances.”

Those committees include Rules, which Slaughter chairs, the ethics committee, and the Financial Services and Judiciary committees. This time, however, the bill has a “good chance” of making it into law, Slaughter said, though she conceded she didn’t know what the Senate would do.

Ted Sonde, a partner at Patton Boggs who spent 16 years in the enforcement division of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which would be charged with enforcing the proposed law, said Members and other federal employees could already be prosecuted for abusing positions of trust for financial gain.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a BusinessWeek reporter or a lobbyist on the Hill, you’re not allowed to pass along confidential information for the purpose of buying or selling stock,” Sonde said.

According to the SEC’s Web site, the agency has brought insider trading charges against government employees in the past.

“If you know the government is going to indict Halliburton, you can’t use that information today [for stock purchases] even if you’re a Congresswoman or Congressman,” Sonde added.

But Slaughter and Baird contend that Members and staff do not owe a “duty of confidentiality” to Congress, and therefore they are not liable for insider trading, according to a press statement they released. They also cited a 2004 Georgia State University report that discovered Senators receive 25 percent higher investment returns than typical Americans.

“Members of Congress and federal employees often know what is happening before anyone else,” Slaughter said. “They have access to incredibly sensitive information that can have a dramatic effect on the stock market.”

Baird said it’s difficult to trace insider trading by government employees, in part because political intelligence firms — or lobbyists who are passing along political intel — do not have to publicly register their clients.

Baird and Slaughter said the penalties for violating their legislation would include fines and potential criminal charges that would be up to the SEC to pursue. Lobbyists and company officials, as well as government employees, would be subject to the penalties, Baird said.

SEC spokesman Kevin Callahan said the agency doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

Firms that trade in political intelligence gathering include the law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, as well as big financial services companies such as Prudential and Lehman Brothers.

“They’re really using friendships. They need to find people who will keep them informed in advance,” said Bruce Freed, a former Hill staffer who advocates for greater corporate political transparency through the Center for Political Accountability. “They troll the Hill and the agencies to find out about decisions or impending decisions or plans that could have an impact on stocks and bonds.”

One in-house financial services lobbyist said that investor groups and hedge funds, in particular, rely on political intelligence. “They’re looking for anything that provides them a little more information or gives them a little edge,” this lobbyist said.

But other lobbyists stressed that swapping such information does not necessarily amount to insider trading. “There are so few things that are actually secret in Washington,” said one lobbyist. “The value of what you give people is the analysis.”