Unions, teachers, enviros throw light on hedge fund billionaires at Waterford plant strike
Momentive owners took millions from company, report claims
By Brian Nearing
Unions, teachers, civil rights groups and climate change activists across eight states are targeting two billionaire financiers who own a Waterford chemical plant where unionized workers have been on strike for nearly three months.
The so-called "Hedge Clippers" group — formed two years ago to draw attention to how massive Wall Street hedge funds affect jobs, the economy and politics — is casting light on Steven Schwarzman, head of the $340 billion Blackstone Group and new jobs czar for President Donald Trump, and Leon Black, who controls a $189 billion hedge fund that in 2006 spearheaded the purchase of General Electric's plastics division to form Momentive Performance Materials.
Where the money goes
Since 1989, Blackstone Group and Steven Schwarzman have donated nearly $750,000 to federal election committees, including political action committees. Here are his recent donations:
Jeb Bush super PAC "Right to Rise," $188,000
National Republican Senatorial Committee, $187,000
Republican National Committee, $87,000
House Speaker Paul Ryan PAC, $39,000
Former GOP presidential candidate and Sen. Marco Rubio, PAC, $12,600
Other donations went to GOP organizations or candidates in states including Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Florida, Iowa, Arizona, Idaho, Arkansas, Washington, Maine, New Hampshire, and New Jersey.
Leon Black has donated $150,000 since 2015 to the GOP Congressional Leadership Fund, which pumped millions of dollars this fall into the 19th District congressional race in the Hudson Valley where GOP state Assemblyman John Faso defeated Democrat Zephyr Teachout. Here are Black's donations from this election season:
Jeb Bush super PAC, $100,000
GOP PAC for U.S. Senate races, $250,000
Hundreds of unionized workers started picket lines Nov. 2 outside at the plant at Routes 4 and 32, protesting what leaders call unfair company demands to drop health and life insurance for retirees and for further cuts in health insurance and 401(k) benefits for workers.
Blackstone Group holds a 7 percent stake in Momentive through an affiliate, GSO Capital Partners, Securities and Exchange Commission records show.
Black's Apollo Global Management holds a 40 percent stake.
In 2010 and 2013, Momentive workers accepted steep cuts in pay, retirement and other benefits for active workers that management said were needed to keep the company profitable. About 700 workers are represented by locals 81359 and 81390 of the International Union of Electrical Workers/Communication Workers of America. Hundreds of retired workers live in Capital Region.
Hedge Clippers claims Schwarzman, Black and four other billionaire hedge fund investors have taken hundreds of millions of dollars out of the company since 2006. The group makes it case in a 19-page report to be released Monday online at hedgeclippers.org
"The strike at Momentive in Waterford represents an epic battle with no less than the future of our economy at stake," said Karen Scharff of Albany, a Hedge Clippers leader and the executive director of Citizen Action of New York.
"The economic destruction facing our communities all across the country didn't just happen. It's the direct result of actions taken by powerful men like Schwarzman and Black," Scharff said.
Last month, the New York Times estimated that Schwarzman, 69, made nearly $800 million in 2015, making him the country's highest-earning hedge fund manager.
Black, 65, came in second at $200 million.
In 2007, when Schwarzman threw himself a $3 million party for his 60th birthday, Trump and his wife, Melania, were among guests.
Hedge funds have exploded in size during the last two decades. In 1997, the funds held about $118 billion from investors, which include the mega-rich, as well as large institutions and pension systems, such as New York state's. The number and size of funds began to skyrocket, hitting $1.2 trillion just four years later, according to industry analyst Barclay.
With wealthy investors eager to get in, hedge fund totals climbed to $2 trillion by 2013 and nearly $3 trillion by 2016, making investors increasingly powerful through control of more industries and jobs.
Black used the Apollo hedge fund to back a $3.9 billion purchase that created Momentive.
The Hedge Clippers report said Apollo had the new company take on $3 billion in debt to finance the purchase, which the company struggled to repay even as it drove down worker pay. Apollo took Momentive through bankruptcy reorganization in 2014 and emerged as the largest shareholder.
Since the 2006 sale, it appears Apollo, the Blackstone Group and four other billionaire hedge fund investors at Momentive took more than $642 million in fees out of the company, according to Scharff. That includes more than $26 million since the bankruptcy.
Michael Kink, another Hedge Clippers leader, said these fees are estimated, based on Momentive's periodic reports to the SEC. "Voters in America are angry about a rigged system. Here in Waterford is Exhibit A of a rigged system," Kink said.
Kink is executive director of the Strong Economy For All Coalition, a union-based group formed in 2011 in a successful effort to keep the so-called "millionaires' tax" in the state budget.
In 2013, the top 25 hedge fund managers in the U.S. were paid $21 billion, according to the industry group Institutional Investor's Alpha.
In 2015, that figure declined to $13 billion.
Hedge funds use the federal tax code to shield some profits from taxation. Called carried interest, this provision taxes returns from a hedge fund at a maximum rate of 20 percent, about half the maximum tax rate for other income, such as wages.
Hedge fund managers typically are paid an annual fee based on 2 percent of the value of the total investment, and get 20 percent of profits, which are treated as carried interest.
Such huge wealth has translated into political power. Within days of his election in November, Trump nominated three hedge fund billionaires to top posts: Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs official, as his Treasury secretary; Wilbur Ross to run the Commerce Department; and the President's top donor and close adviser, hedge fund manager and former Goldman Sachs official Anthony Scaramucci, will serve as a senior White House adviser.
Before joining the Trump campaign, top adviser Kellyanne Conway worked for Keep America Number 1, the political action committee that backed the campaign.
In Waterford, Momentive is in state court seeking curbs on strikers, including limiting the number of pickets in any one place to no more than five. Since November, the company has fired 27 striking workers, accusing them of violating company policy on the picket line or of sabotage inside the plant before the strike began.
"We remain focused on continuing the safe and compliant operations of our site and ensuring the safety of our employees, the community and the protection of the environment," Momentive spokeswoman Tina Reiber said Sunday.
Blackstone spokesman Matthew Anderson declined comment when contacted about the Momentive dispute.
This month, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli became the highest-ranking state official to enter the Momentive dispute when he urged the company to reach a fair contract with the unions. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not addressed Momentive publicly.
In 2005, the state pension system now controlled by DiNapoli invested $350 million in an Apollo fund — Apollo Investment Fund VI — that holds Momentive, as well as other investments. Since then, that investment has returned $594 million to the state, according to DiNapoli spokesman Matthew Sweeney. The pension fund still has about $116 million invested in the Apollo fund that controls Momentive, he said.
Apollo runs multiple investment funds and overall, the state pension fund, currently valued at about $178 billion, has about $3 billion invested in various Apollo accounts. The state paid Apollo about $8.1 million in management fees for the fiscal year ending in March, according to the comptroller's 2016 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.
Schwarzman and Blackstone have high-profile political connections in New York. A former high-ranking Blackstone official, senior managing director William Mulrow, was named in January 2015 by Cuomo as his secretary, typically the most powerful position in the governor's office.
Prior to that, Mulrow was Cuomo's choice to head the state Housing Finance Agency and state Mortgage Finance Agency. Previously, he was vice-chairman of the state Democratic Committee and a top adviser to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.