Exclusive: An Obama friend poaches a White House aide

September 2, 2014, 9:43 PM UTC
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The private equity firm run by one of President Obama’s best friends is getting even closer to his administration. The Chicago-based Vistria Group, co-founded last year by longtime Obama pal Marty Nesbitt, has hired Jon Samuels, one of the President’s top lieutenants on Capitol Hill, Fortune has learned.

It’s not immediately clear what role Samuels will fill for the fledgling investment outfit. (In a phone call to Fortune, Samuels confirmed his new employment status, but declined to comment further.) The Chicago native doesn’t appear to have any experience working in the financial services industry. Rather, Samuels has made his career in politics, working his way up from Capitol Hill, where he spent eight years in the office of Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Democrat representing Chicago’s lakefront. He joined Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and eventually went to work for the legislative affairs operation in the White House, which functions as the administration’s in-house lobbying team.

Vistria’s political clout starts at the top: Nesbitt is a charter member of Obama’s Chicago inner circle, serving as national treasurer for both of Obama’s White House bids and now leading the effort to establish his presidential library. Befitting that status, he’s also one of Obama’s favorite golfing buddies, having hit the links with the President 19 times as of early August, according to a Politico breakdown. In business, his defining success so far has been co-founding The Parking Spot, an airport parking company, with now-Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.

Nesbitt launched the Vistria Group last year with Kip Kirkpatrick, a healthcare investor who once ran for Illinois treasurer. Samuels joins them and a small roster they’ve assembled since then that includes Tony Miller, a Silver Lake veteran who was most recently Obama’s deputy secretary at the Department of Education.

How the firm plans to use that political wattage isn’t yet known. Vistria has raised $148 million for its first fund, according to an Aug. 5 filing, including $5 million from the Illinois Municipal Retirement System. In its brochure, the firm said it plans to invest in primarily U.S.-based mid-market companies, operating in education, health care and financial services—chosen, as Nesbitt told the Chicago Tribune last year, for their position at “the nexus of the public and private sectors.” (The firm’s name is a mash-up of the Latin words for “power” and “three,” which Nesbitt explained points to the cofounders’ financial, operational and regulatory know-how.)

As we’ve noted, there’s a can’t-miss irony to one of the President’s closest confidants and campaign advisors embarking in private equity when Obama won reelection partly by vilifying Mitt Romney’s career in the industry. And it gets richer when that friend poaches talent from the President’s administration. Conceivably, if a broader tax reform debate breaks out next year and the administration presses its case for ending the capital gains treatment of investment managers’ carried interest earnings, the industry and its defenders could make hay by pointing to the Obama alumni club gathering at Vistria.

The firm is hardly the only example of first-order Democratic power cashing in with private equity. After he stepped down last year, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner joined Warburg Pincus as president, amidst speculation his title belied a humbler portfolio as a door-opener for the firm. Al Gore is a partner at Kleiner Perkins. Bill Clinton earned millions in his post presidency advising two investment funds owned by his friend Ron Burkle—and was also on the payroll of Teneo Capital, cofounded by one of his former aides. The list goes on. What appears to distinguish Vistria, however, is the concentration of talent at a new and still-small firm.

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