Monday, April 23, 2007

Two Americas

There is the America where most of us live in which people have to pay all of their taxes. Then there's the other America, where the super wealthy stash assets off-shore to avoid federal income taxes. John Edwards lives in that latter America.

Edwards became a consultant for Fortress Investment Group, a New York-based firm known mainly for its hedge funds, just as the funds were gaining prominence in the financial world -- and in the public consciousness, where awe over their outsize returns has mixed with misgivings about a rarefied industry that is, on the whole, run by and for extremely wealthy people and operates largely in secrecy.

A midsize but growing player in the hedge fund industry with more than $30 billion in assets, Fortress was the first hedge fund manager to go public, thereby subjecting itself to far more scrutiny. But it was an unusual choice of employment for Edwards, who for years has decried offshore tax shelters as part of his broader campaign to reduce inequality. While Fortress was incorporated in Delaware, its hedge funds were incorporated in the Cayman Islands, enabling its partners and foreign investors to defer or avoid paying U.S. taxes.

Fortress announced Edwards's hiring as an adviser in a brief statement in October 2005. Neither Edwards -- who ended his consulting deal when he launched his presidential campaign in December -- nor the firm will say how much he earned or what he did.

But his ties to Fortress were suggested by the first round of campaign finance reports released last week. They showed that Edwards raised $167,460 in donations from Fortress employees for his 2008 presidential campaign, his largest source of support from a single company.

Nearly 100 Fortress employees or their family members donated to Edwards around the time of a fundraiser his campaign held at the firm in mid-March. Senior executives, individual fund managers, lawyers and a secretary gave the maximum $2,300 donation. Three administrative or executive assistants gave smaller amounts.

Edwards's connection to Fortress is only one sign of the emergence in national politics of the booming $1.4 trillion hedge fund industry. One of the fastest-growing and most controversial segments of the worldwide investment market, it has campaigned to fend off additional federal regulation and has become increasingly generous in campaign donations.

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