More than 30 financial services companies have been subpoenaed, including JPMorgan Chase , Merrill Lynch and the American International Group , which have recently received government assistance and in the case of A.I.G., an outright federal bailout. Several have disclosed in corporate filings that their employees have been called to testify before grand juries or have received “Wells notices” from the S.E.C. warning that an enforcement action is looming.
The disclosures follow raids by the F.B.I., in 2006, of the offices of three specialized firms that bring together local officials and the banks and other companies that seek business working on municipal bond sales.
One of the three, CDR Financial Products, of Beverly Hills, Calif., is at the heart of the federal investigation in New Mexico. Investigators there are looking at how CDR Financial came to be selected as the “swap adviser” for a $1.5 billion program — called Governor Richardson’s Investment Program, or GRIP — to raise money for road and rail construction in New Mexico.
CDR Financial and its founder, David Rubin, gave $100,000 to two of Governor Richardson’s political action committees in 2003 and 2004, and the company earned $1.5 million for advising GRIP in 2004. A Colorado political consultant, Michael Stratton, lobbied on behalf of CDR Financial, and was paid $269,000 by JPMorgan Chase during the same period, according to regulatory filings. JPMorgan was the lead underwriter on about $1.1 billion of bond sales for GRIP.
Mr. Stratton did not respond to messages requesting comment, and a JPMorgan spokesman said the bank would have no comment.
Allan Ripp, a spokesman for CDR Financial, said that Mr. Rubin had made the contributions because he supported Governor Richardson’s efforts to register people likely to vote Democratic in the presidential election. He said CDR Financial had competed fairly for the bond business and won its assignment on the merits.
Governor Richardson has said that he and his aides acted correctly at all times, and that he withdrew his nomination as commerce secretary only out of concern that the investigation might cause a long and distracting confirmation battle.
CDR Financial and the other two firms raided by the F.B.I. — Investment Management Advisory Group, known as Image, of Pottstown., Pa., and Sound Capital Management of Eden Prairie, Minn. — had attracted unfavorable attention even before the F.B.I. raids, in some cases because of campaign contributions.
In Philadelphia, Image and CDR Financial were described as “Company No. 1” and “Company No. 2” in the indictments of the former city treasurer, Corey Kemp, and other officials in 2004. CDR Financial had made political contributions and earned $415,000 for helping Philadelphia link a type of derivative called a “swaption” to its bonds. Image squired the city treasurer around by limo, and was in the running to participate in a school bond sale, but the deal fell apart when a local newspaper, The Daily News, questioned Image’s involvement.
Mr. Kemp is serving a 10-year prison sentence for accepting illegal payments in exchange for steering city bond business and other contracts to selected companies. Neither CDR Financial nor Image was formally accused of wrongdoing.
The use of derivatives in connection with municipal bonds has grown rapidly in the last five years. The packages are presented as money-savers to the municipalities, which may want to protect themselves against interest rate changes. But over the last year, as turmoil spread through the credit markets, some of the derivatives have blown up, leaving local governments stuck with unexpected costs.
That happened in Alabama, where Jefferson County linked an extraordinary number of derivatives, called interest-rate swaps, to its bonds, in some cases with the help of CDR Financial. Despite publicized concerns about whether improper payments to certain officials were behind the swaps, the county insisted the swaps were saving money. Last year, the derivatives failed, leaving the county with vast bills. Jefferson County is now at risk of declaring what would be the biggest governmental bankruptcy in United States history.
Even in places where the bonds and derivatives are performing as expected, irate government officials are finding they may have overpaid for various services and have inadvertently broken federal tax rules. Again and again, proceeds from tax-exempt bonds appear to have improperly generated investment income for banks and insurers.
Among the governments that have sued these financial firms are the cities of Chicago and Baltimore; Oakland and Fresno, Calif.; the state of Mississippi; and a number of counties, school districts and at least one water and sewer district. The lawsuits were consolidated in November, in Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. Chicago has since abandoned that litigation.