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Whitman's funds could pose conflicts

The Republican candidate for California governor has stakes in oil and gas concerns that seek to influence the state. Her wealth is estimated at $1.2 billion.

March 12, 2010|By Evan Halper and Michael Rothfeld
  • GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman's net worth has been estimated at $1.2 billion.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman's net worth has been estimated… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

Reporting from Sacramento — Billionaire GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has invested her vast wealth in firms that sought to profit from the country's credit crisis, in venture capital and hedge funds open only to the wealthy, and in oil, gas, healthcare and other concerns seeking to influence state policy.

The first public glimpse into the financial portfolio of the former EBay chief came Thursday, when she filed an economic-interest disclosure required of candidates.

The holdings present potential conflicts of interest for a governor. Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said the candidate would "likely" move her holdings into a blind trust if she is victorious "and will scrupulously avoid any conflicts of interest."

Moving investments into such a trust has been standard practice for wealthy officeholders. Whitman's opponent in the June primary election, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, has placed his investments in a blind trust. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did the same.

Forbes magazine in September listed Whitman as the 326th richest American, with a net worth estimated at $1.2 billion. The disclosure filed Thursday with the state Fair Political Practices Commission revealed that Whitman has 214 active investments. The report does not address profits or specify exact amounts invested.

Among those investments are Goldman Sachs Distressed Opportunities Fund IV, in which Whitman has at least $1 million. The fund places capital in "companies experiencing financial or operational distress, as well as other special situations."

She has more than $1 million in each of two funds with Goldman Sachs Mezzanine Partners, which provides money for leveraged buyouts, restructurings and other financial reorganizations in the Americas and Europe. One advantage of investing, according to the funds' website, is "confidentiality and ease of execution, with no public disclosure."

Perry Partners, a New York hedge fund in which Whitman has between $100,000 and $1 million, informed investors in a letter reviewing last year's second quarter that there was potential money to be made in distressed auto loans for Chrysler Financial, GMAC and Ford Motor Credit.

"These credits were the most compelling corporate distressed opportunities we have seen so far this cycle," the letter said. "These positions were all profitable. . . despite the bankruptcy filings of both Chrysler Automotive and General Motors."

The letter, posted on the website Market Folly, which tracks several dozen big hedge funds, additionally told investors that "as the commercial real estate and consumer sectors continue to deteriorate, we have been preparing ourselves to take advantage of what are likely to be very attractive distressed opportunities."

At least one of the funds in Whitman's portfolio, NCH Agribusiness Partners, lists its business address in the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven. NCH specializes in agriculture-related business opportunities in Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Moldova.

Campaign officials said Whitman's investments reflect business acumen.

"The fact is Meg has been a successful businessperson and a manager her entire career," Pompei said. "She has diligently paid her taxes in full, and has happily disclosed her holdings to the voters of California. She's a passive investor, who has wide-ranging investments managed by top-grade professionals just like any university endowment, pension fund or other high net worth individual."

Indeed, Whitman's portfolio could be confused with that of a multibillion-dollar pension fund. The private equity funds in which she invests, which are risky but in good years yield double-digit returns, tend to be open only to big institutions and the rich.

Some of the funds brag about their exclusivity, and most are secretive about where they invest capital. The firm Maveron boasted that Whitman was one of a group of billionaires, including Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell, who invested in a fund it launched a decade ago. Tribune Co. owns the Los Angeles Times.

Many of Whitman's millions are in investments tied to people with whom she has relationships. In 2008, for example, she invested more than $1 million in a Los Angeles-based production company started by political strategist Mike Murphy, who became her campaign consultant last year. Murphy formed the company, Tools Down! Productions, to buy scripts and "develop content for the entertainment industry," according to the campaign.

Whitman's holdings include multimillion-dollar stakes in oil, gas, real estate, information technology and healthcare -- all industries with perennial business before the state. She also has placed millions in the Carlyle/Riverstone Global Energy and Power Fund and the firm Natural Gas Partners, which invests in the oil exploration and production industry.

Proposals to expand offshore drilling and place new levies on energy firms are being debated in the Capitol.

Poizner is also a wealthy former Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

The Poizner Family Trust has invested in a variety of technology-related companies; up to $1 million in Dot Edu-Ventures, a fund that invests in computer-related firms; up to $1 million in De Novo Ventures, which invests in medical devices and biotechnology; and the same amount in a fund operated by New Enterprise Associates, which invests in information technology.

evan.halper@latimes.com

michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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