Opinion - Politics

A former Omega employee defends Leon Cooperman against Elizabeth Warren: 'She has dehumanized an admirable human being'

Mark G. Brennan
Key Points
  • Elizabeth Warren does not know Lee Cooperman the human being. She knows an imaginary Leon Cooperman, a greedy billionaire. But that image is a figment of her fevered imagination, writes Mark G. Brennan, who teaches at NYU's Stern School of Business.
Leon Cooperman on CNBC's "Halftime Report."
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

My lawyer friends often warn me never to ask a question to which I don't know the answer. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, despite her tenure as a Harvard Law School professor, needs to remember that advice.

Her recent tweet to billionaire investor Leon Cooperman — "Leon, you were able to succeed because of the opportunities this country gave you. Now why don't you pitch in a bit more so everyone else has a chance at the American dream, too?" — proves the point. More worrisome, her heated rhetoric ignores the bottomless generosity of one of America's greatest investors.

First of all, those of us who know him call him Lee. I worked for Lee at Omega Advisors in the early 2000s. He was a demanding boss. Hedge funds don't succeed without demanding leaders. My firsthand experience over the course of several years working for Lee at Omega provides an answer to the combative tweet that Sen. Warren won't like.

On September 11, 2001, Lee sent me — from our offices just a few blocks from the World Trade Center — to a bank conference at the Pierre Hotel in midtown Manhattan. After the towers collapsed, I had no way to reach the office. I also lost contact with my wife who worked just a few blocks from Omega. Like most New Yorkers, I spent that distressing day trying to make sense of what happened. I also worried about the safety of my Omega colleagues whom I had left downtown that horrible morning.

When I finally stumbled home that evening, I found three voicemail messages from Lee inquiring about my safety. I immediately returned his calls. His wife, Toby, answered the phone. She asked me several times if I was OK. The concern and alarm in her voice echoed the gravity of the day's events. Each time I assured her I was fine she yelled, "Lee, Mark Brennan is safe." And each time she yelled, Lee yelled right back, "Thank God."

The Coopermans also asked me repeatedly if the rest of my family was safe, knowing my wife worked near the towers. Even after I reassured Toby we were fine, she insisted I call her and her husband back for any help. Not surprisingly, Lee rang me shortly after that conversation to repeat his wife's offers of help. Lee and his wife are generous with their time, their money, and, most importantly, their concern for others. Sen. Warren's vilification ignores these important qualities in both Lee and his wife.

Each year at bonus time, Lee made those of us he paid well pause to give thanks. One year he invited me to a breakfast at the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, where he served on the board. Thanks to Lee's generosity, Damon Runyon funds researchers early in their careers. As I learned at the breakfast, the dream of each of those curious scientists is to eradicate cancer. But their early career status limits their ability to tap grant money from established institutions. Lee has stepped up to provide them a chance through his donations of both time and money.

I was so moved by the promising stories the researchers told me at breakfast that I immediately made a donation when I returned to the office. In the subsequent haste of the market open, I emailed Lee to thank him for bringing Damon Runyon's work to my attention. I also told him I had donated money on the spot in memory of my father, who was then battling cancer.

My phone rang right after I hit "Send." It was Lee. He began to thank me but stopped when his voice started cracking and he hung up. The events that morning taught me that my boss – the demanding, aggressive investor – cared enough to fund what Damon Runyon proudly identifies as "the most audacious and ambitious ideas" as well as Sen. Warren's "dreams" of those who could even think such ideas.

I am now a Stage 4 cancer victim myself. In my new state, I often think of Lee's shortened call to thank me and his cracking voice. Lee's donations to Damon Runyon and the chance he provides its researchers to make their dreams a reality might be the only thing that keeps me alive. Sen. Warren's vitriolic comments ignore Lee's benevolence. Even worse, they do nothing to advance the common good. Lee's donations do.

Thanks to Lee's largess, I was able to leave the hedge fund industry and become a college professor. I now teach ethics to both undergraduate and graduate students at the Stern School of Business at New York University. I dreamed of that job when I worked at Omega. In paying me as he did, Lee gave me the chance to make my dream a reality. When I bumped into Lee a few years ago and told him I am now teaching, he smiled as he parted and said, "You are doing God's work."

Since 2011 more than 1,000 students have passed through my classroom at NYU. They have all learned of Immanuel Kant's belief in the inherent dignity of each and every human being. Kant insisted we never use another human being as a means to an end.

Sadly, Sen. Warren has violated Kant's most basic teaching. She has dehumanized Lee Cooperman with her vicious attacks. Her absurd caricature of him as a greedy, selfish billionaire erases the generous human being who helps others, sometimes without even realizing it. Her rhetoric only serves to further divide an already painfully divided nation. And worst of all, her irresponsible tweets deny the dignity of a human being who has helped improve society in ways she refuses to acknowledge even as she uses his caricature to advance her political agenda.

Elizabeth Warren does not know Lee Cooperman the human being. She knows an imaginary Leon Cooperman, a greedy billionaire. But that image is a figment of her fevered imagination.

Speaking as one professor to another, Sen. Warren needs to remember and practice the most important lessons taught to law students. Her political ambitions have blinded her to the most basic of lawyerly practices, knowing the answer to one's questions beforehand. Even worse, she has dehumanized an admirable human being.

Mark G. Brennan, PhD., is an adjunct associate professor of Business Ethics in the Business & Society Program at New York University's Stern School of Business, where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate students.

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