Reporting from Sacramento — Billionaire gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has addressed potential conflicts created by her broad holdings in businesses regulated from Sacramento -- distressed mortgages, oil exploration and alternative energy among them -- by suggesting that she would place her entire portfolio in a blind trust if elected.
But unloading that political baggage may not be easy.
Whitman's vast fortune is spread across scores of carefully guarded funds that function as money harbors for the world's wealthiest individuals, and they can't be liquidated quickly. Experts, including the Republican candidate's campaign attorney, say getting out of some of the funds could prove impossible any time soon.
Whitman may be bound by contracts she signed obligating her to hold some of the investments for years, and some funds might be difficult to unload due to the scarcity of buyers willing to take her place.
Under state law, governors are considered to have full knowledge of their investments -- and therefore full responsibility for potential conflicts of interest -- as they existed before a blind trust was established.
"The public needs to know about potential conflicts of interest," said Bob Stern, president of the nonprofit Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles. "If there is a new start-up company in California she is investing in and she is making decisions affecting that company, we should know about it."
For a trust to be truly blind, Whitman would have to sell her whole portfolio and hand the cash to an advisor who would reinvest it without her input or knowledge. State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, Whitman's GOP rival in the June 8 primary election, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have blind trusts, although both have disclosed investments outside of their trusts as well.
But Whitman's investments dwarf theirs. Forbes magazine last fall listed her as the 326th richest American, with a net worth estimated at $1.2 billion. Last week, in disclosures required of California political candidates, the former EBay chief revealed involvement in nearly 200 venture capital and hedge funds.
She has offered no details about what businesses those funds are investing her money in -- no names of companies, no amounts invested. The state does not ask for such information except when a candidate owns at least 10% of a fund.
Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds said she does not own that much of any fund. He noted that she has reported all that is required of her and "will scrupulously avoid any conflict of interest and diligently take measures to avoid any conflicts. Voters know that Meg Whitman is not running for public office to enrich herself."
He said voters understand that Whitman, who has pledged not to accept a salary, is not motivated to run for financial reasons, and they accept that she would not govern with her business interests in mind.
Whitman could still find herself under pressure to share details of her investment partnerships, as opponents question the motivation of her policy plans. But supplying such information would put her at odds with Wall Street. The largely unregulated funds she invests in are built on secrecy about what they buy and sell, to prevent competitors from duplicating their returns.
"Hedge funds tend to guard not only the investments that they make dearly, but also the elixir, the combination of these investments that generates big returns," said attorney Kenneth Gross, an expert on campaign law and a financial advisor to candidates.
Gross added that such secrecy works in candidates' favor if they can persuade the public that even they don't know what's in the funds. In those cases it's best for the candidate not to ask too many questions, he said: "You start to learn things you're better off not knowing. It's like the dog that finally catches the car. Now what?"
For Whitman, who is selling herself as the savvy, hands-on manager who led EBay from start-up to global brand, claiming ignorance could hurt the message. The considerable sums at stake could also make such a claim hard to sell.
It's impossible to say, based on state disclosure forms, how much Whitman has in hedge funds and private equity partnerships because the reporting requirements are overwhelmed by the scale of her fortune. The most a candidate is required to disclose in any single investment is "over $1,000,000" -- Whitman ticked that box for 101 funds, some of which require a minimum of $2 million to $5 million as an initial investment.
Whitman is not the only wealthy California politician who has confronted these challenges. Schwarzenegger found himself in an awkward position in 2005, when it was revealed that he had a multimillion-dollar deal to pen a column for two muscle magazines.