Car czar’s victory lap interrupted: update

November 18, 2010, 9:15 PM UTC
Fortune

So much for former car czar Steve Rattner’s victory lap.

Rattner agreed Thursday to pay $6.2 million to settle Securities and Exchange Commission charges that he paid kickbacks to win business with the New York state pension fund for his former investment firm, Quadrangle Group.



Pictured in less litigious times

Rattner will pay $3.2 million in restitution and a $3 million penalty and be barred from the securities industry for two years, the SEC said.

Not to be upstaged, New York state attorney general Andrew Cuomo also sued Rattner — not once, not twice but three times. All told, Cuomo’s office is seeking “at least $26 million” in damages — and a lifetime bar from the securities industry to boot, which is something the politically ambitious Rattner won’t agree to lightly.

The SEC and the attorney general said Rattner curried favor with the pension fund by distributing a movie made by a pension fund executive, hiring a fundraiser with ties to former state comptroller Alan Hevesi and contributing to Hevesi’s re-election campaign.

Hevesi pleaded guilty last month to corruption charges, making him the seventh conviction in Cuomo’s long-running probe of the pension kickback scandal. Quadrangle paid $7 million this year to settle related charges while blaming the whole mess on Rattner.

“Rattner delivered special favors and conducted sham transactions that corrupted the Retirement Fund’s investment process,” the SEC said. 

“Steve Rattner was willing to do whatever it took to get his hands on pension fund money including paying kickbacks, orchestrating a movie deal, and funneling campaign contributions,” said Cuomo, who was elected governor this month. “Through these lawsuits, we will recover his ill gotten gains and hold Rattner accountable.”

A call to Rattner’s office wasn’t immediately returned, but the State of Politics blog reports he has put out a statement that indicates he won’t be settling with Cuomo.

“While settling with the SEC begins the process of putting this matter behind me, I will not be bullied simply because the Attorney General’s office prefers political considerations instead of a reasoned assessment of the facts,” the statement reads in part.

The SEC settlement has been expected for some time. Fortune’s Dan Primack noted last month that dealings with Cuomo’s office were understood to have slowed the announcement of the SEC deal, perhaps because Cuomo wanted more money or a statement of contrition from Rattner.

An interview Rattner gave this week with CNN suggests the latter is not in sight.

I have for 35 years and 3 careers in the working world tried to conduct myself with honesty and integrity.  And until now, and hopefully never again, no one has ever questioned my honesty and integrity. They can like me or not like me.  They can agree or not agree with what I say or do, but I’ve never before had my honesty and integrity questioned.  l will resolve this in whatever manner seems appropriate, but I will not resolve this in a way that does not seem appropriate given all the facts and circumstances.

So there’s that. Later in the interview, asked what might be the right settlement, Rattner says:

My lawyers would chop my head off if I started to debate that with CNN.

So as bad as the Cuomo charges appear to be, it’s clear that the worst case scenario by Rattner’s lights so far has been avoided.

The suits come as General Motors , which Rattner led into a 2009 bankruptcy as the chief of the Obama administration’s sweeping overhaul of the U.S. car business, rose 7% in its first day of trading following the biggest-ever U.S. initial public offering.

Rattner has been both a vocal defender of the administration’s response to problems at GM and Chrysler and a critic of the culture of GM. He recently has taken to handicapping GM’s stock price, predicting correctly this week that it would rise above its $29 initial offering range (the IPO was priced last night at $33) and then saying this morning on CNBC that he didn’t think the stock would hit $40.

As Dan notes in his post, “It seems that Andrew Cuomo has a wonderful sense of theater.”