Billionaire GOP candidate has vast holdings spread across hedge funds and venture capital groups. The investments may bind her in long-term contracts.
Meg Whitman has addressed potential conflicts created by her broad holdings in businesses regulated from Sacramento -- distressed mortgages, oil exploration
and alternative energy among them -- by suggesting that she would place her entire portfolio in a blind trust if elected.But unloading that political
baggage may not be easy.
Whitman's vast fortune is spread across scores of carefully guarded funds that function as money harbors for the world's wealthiest individuals, and
they can't be liquidated quickly. Experts, including the Republican candidate's campaign attorney, say getting out of some of the funds could prove
impossible any time soon.
Whitman may be bound by contracts she signed obligating her to hold some of the investments for years, and some funds might be difficult to unload due
to the scarcity of buyers willing to take her place.
Under state law, governors are considered to have full knowledge of their investments -- and therefore full responsibility for potential conflicts of
interest -- as they existed before a blind trust was established.
"The public needs to know about potential conflicts of interest," said Bob Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles.
"If there is a new start-up company in California she is investing in and she is making decisions affecting that company, we should know about it."
For a trust to be truly blind, Whitman would have to sell her whole portfolio and hand the cash to an advisor who would reinvest it without her input or
knowledge. State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, Whitman's GOP rival in the June 8 primary election, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have blind
trusts, although both have disclosed investments outside of their trusts as well.
But Whitman's investments dwarf theirs. Forbes magazine last fall listed her as the 326th richest American, with a net worth estimated at $1.2 billion.
Last week, in disclosures required of California political candidates, the former EBay chief revealed involvement in nearly 200 venture capital and hedge
She has offered no details about what businesses those funds are investing her money in -- no names of companies, no amounts invested. The state does not
ask for such information except when a candidate owns at least 10% of a fund.
Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds said she does not own that much of any fund. He noted that she has reported all that is required of her and
"will scrupulously avoid any conflict of interest and diligently take measures to avoid any conflicts. Voters know that Meg Whitman is not running
for public office to enrich herself."
He said voters understand that Whitman, who has pledged not to accept a salary, is not motivated to run for financial reasons, and they accept that she
would not govern with her business interests in mind.
Whitman could still find herself under pressure to share details of her investment partnerships, as opponents question the motivation of her policy
plans. But supplying such information would put her at odds with Wall Street. The largely unregulated funds she invests in are built on secrecy about
what they buy and sell, to prevent competitors from duplicating their returns.
"Hedge funds tend to guard not only the investments that they make dearly, but also the elixir, the combination of these investments that generates
big returns," said attorney Kenneth Gross, an expert on campaign law and a financial advisor to candidates.
Gross added that such secrecy works in candidates' favor if they can persuade the public that even they don't know what's in the funds. In those cases
it's best for the candidate not to ask too many questions, he said: "You start to learn things you're better off not knowing. It's like the dog that
finally catches the car. Now what?"
For Whitman, who is selling herself as the savvy, hands-on manager who led EBay from start-up to global brand, claiming ignorance could hurt the message.
The considerable sums at stake could also make such a claim hard to sell.
It's impossible to say, based on state disclosure forms, how much Whitman has in hedge funds and private equity partnerships because the reporting
requirements are overwhelmed by the scale of her fortune. The most a candidate is required to disclose in any single investment is "over $1,000,000" --
Whitman ticked that box for 101 funds, some of which require a minimum of $2 million to $5 million as an initial investment.
Whitman is not the only wealthy California politician who has confronted these challenges. Schwarzenegger found himself in an awkward position in 2005,
when it was revealed that he had a multimillion-dollar deal to pen a column for two muscle magazines.
The publications generated the bulk of their revenue from nutritional supplement advertisements, and the governor's contract guaranteed him a cut of
that revenue. At the same time Schwarzenegger was involved in the deal, he vetoed legislation to impose regulations on the supplement industry. The
governor canceled the contract amid charges of a conflict.