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Obama announces Judd Gregg as Commerce secretary nominee

The Republican senator from New Hampshire stresses the need for bipartisan action on the economy. He'll be replaced in the Senate by another Republican to keep party balance.

February 04, 2009|Andrew Zajac

WASHINGTON — Judd Gregg, the Republican senator from New Hampshire chosen Tuesday by President Obama to be Commerce secretary, may have a greater appreciation of the nation's financial meltdown than some of his fellow millionaires in Congress.

The largest holding listed in Gregg's most recent financial disclosure filing was $1 million to $5 million in stock and savings in Bank of America, which has since lost about 85% of its value despite an infusion of $45 billion that Gregg voted to approve as part of last fall's $700-billion bank bailout fund.

Gregg still owns the Bank of America stock he listed in his 2007 financial disclosure, but his personal finances had nothing to do with his support for the bailout, his spokeswoman Andrea Wuebker said in response to e-mail questions.

"His outlook is based on what is in the best interest to help revive and restore the American economy," Wuebker said.

Eager to break partisan gridlock, Obama said he would nominate the conservative whose zeal for budget-cutting once extended to advocating the abolition of the department he now aspires to lead. Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt declined to address questions about any conflict between Gregg's stock ownership and his advocacy of the bailout.

Congressional ethics guidelines give members wide latitude to vote on legislation even if they have a personal stake in the outcome, according to Stanley Brand, a former House counsel.

Gregg was a lead Republican negotiator in the bank bailout fund and more recently was one of the few Republicans to support release of the second half of the bailout funding. If confirmed by his Senate colleagues, he will be counted on to persuade leery fellow Republicans to support Obama's massive new stimulus plan.

Gregg sounded a bipartisan note after he was introduced at the White House as Obama's pick to run the Commerce Department.

The country is "in the middle of a very difficult economic time," Gregg said. "This is not a time when we should stand in our ideological corners and shout at each other. This is a time to govern and govern well."

The 61-year-old Gregg's selection was made possible after New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, agreed to appoint a Republican to replace Gregg. That ensures Republicans have at least 41 seats, just enough to filibuster. Sixty votes are required to cut off debate.

In Gregg, Obama tapped an old-money New Englander whose comfortable circumstances and aversion to debt can be seen in his Senate disclosures.

Since at least 1995, they have not contained a single mortgage, credit card debt or other liability.

As a senator, Gregg has spoken out on the need to rein in spending, though he also has been willing to use Congress' controversial earmarking process to steer pork to his home state.

In mid-1995, after Republicans gained full control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Gregg expressed his eagerness to shrink government by supporting a failed GOP budget-trimming proposal that, among other things, would have eliminated the Commerce Department.

Wuebker did not respond to a request for comment on Gregg's thinking at the time.

Instead, she issued a statement asserting the funding for the Commerce Department actually has increased by nearly 74% during Gregg's watch as chairman or ranking member of the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations subcommittee.

"He continues to be a strong advocate for the Commerce Department's mission," Wuebker said.

Last year, Gregg blasted as an "Obama spend-o-rama" Obama legislative proposals for new spending totaling $300 billion, a fraction of the amount he now will be expected to persuade lawmakers to authorize in the stimulus package.

Overall, Gregg's net worth in 2007 was between $3 million and $10 million, making him the 21st-richest senator at the time, according to the Open Secrets political finance website.

Shares of Bank of America have plummeted from about $40 at the end of 2007 to $5.30 Tuesday.

The shares were gifts and inheritances from Gregg's parents and grandparents, Wuebker said.

Gregg's father, Hugh Gregg, a former governor of New Hampshire, was a founder of Indian Head Bank, which, after a pair of buyouts has become part of Bank of America.

Gregg listed smaller investments of up to $100,000 in other bank stocks including Key Corp., Capital One and Commonwealth Bank, which also have taken a drubbing.

His investments in blue chip stocks such as Exxon, Bristol Myers and Verizon have fared somewhat better.

Gregg also listed real estate holdings in New Hampshire, New York and Florida, and investments in mutual funds and venture capital funds in which changes in values could not immediately be determined.

If confirmed, Gregg "presumes that his stock will be put into a blind trust or sold," Wuebker said.

Gregg's finances got some help in 2005 when he won $850,000 in the Powerball lottery. At the time, he said he did not normally buy lottery tickets, but bought $20 worth at a Washington gas station after noticing a sign announcing a $340-million grand prize.

Gregg's fist has been less tight when it comes to steering tax money to his home state.

For example, Gregg, a member of the appropriations committee, was instrumental in steering $26 million in earmarks to Dartmouth College in 1999, including $15 million to set up a program to study cyber-terrorism.

At the time, the conservative publication Weekly Standard questioned Gregg's priorities and noted that Dartmouth had a $1.5-billion endowment.

All three of Gregg's children graduated from Dartmouth, and the Ivy League school awarded Gregg an honorary degree in 2006.

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azajac@tribune.com

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