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Monday, June 2, 2008

More Headaches for McCain’s Camp

For weeks now, John McCain's presidential campaign has faced awkward questions about the outside activities of several top advisers. Add one more name to the list: former Texas senator Phil Gramm, McCain's longtime friend and one of his five campaign co-chairs. (A sixth, former congressman Tom Loeffler, quit recently after NEWSWEEK reported on his lobbying work for Saudi Arabia.) According to McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker, the co-chair position affords Gramm "broad input into the structure, financing and conduct of the campaign." She added that Gramm, who has a doctorate in economics, is also "a valued voice on economic policy." Gramm is not a paid McCain adviser, but his day job—vice chairman of a U.S. division of Zurich-based financial giant UBS—could pose new tests for a candidate who has promised high ethics standards and ditched advisers who failed to meet them.

UBS has recently written off huge losses in subprime-mortgage-based securities, and last week liberal bloggers noted that Gramm was a registered UBS lobbyist on mortgage-securities issues until at least December 2007.

NEWSWEEK has learned that UBS is also currently the focus of congressional and Justice Department investigations into schemes that allegedly enabled wealthy Americans to evade income taxes by stashing their money in overseas havens, according to several law-enforcement and banking officials in both the United States and Europe, who all asked for anonymity when discussing ongoing investigations. In April, UBS withdrew Gramm's lobbying registration, but one of his former congressional aides, John Savercool, is still registered to lobby legislators for UBS on numerous issues, including a bill cosponsored by Sen. Barack Obama that would crack down on foreign tax havens. "UBS is treating these investigations with the utmost seriousness and has committed substantial resources to cooperate," a UBS spokesman told NEWSWEEK, adding that Gramm was deregistered as a lobbyist because he spends less than 20 percent of his time on such activity. Hazelbaker said the McCain campaign "will not comment on the details … of ongoing investigations and legal charges not yet proved in court."

McCain's campaign is already distancing itself from some of Gramm's other work for UBS: his involvement in attempts to sell financial products known as "death bonds," which BusinessWeek described last summer as one of "the most macabre investment scheme[s] ever devised by Wall Street." Not long after joining UBS, the Houston Chronicle reported, Gramm helped lobby Texas officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, to sign on to a UBS proposal in which revenue would be generated for a state teachers' retirement fund by selling bonds, whose proceeds would in turn be used to buy annuities and life-insurance policies on retired teachers. UBS would advance money to the retirement fund, then repay itself, compensate bondholders and pocket profits when insurance companies paid off on retirees who died. According to a banking-industry source, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive matter, Gramm was involved in efforts to pitch similar UBS products to other financial institutions.

Gramm's office declined NEWSWEEK's request for comment. A source familiar with the bank's current business, who also asked for anonymity, said UBS no longer markets the kind of plan that Gramm was allegedly trying to sell to Texas. Hazelbaker said that McCain, who has been critical of the financial industry's performance in the subprime market, disapproves of death bonds and "supports increased accountability, transparency and capital backing in our financial markets as a solution to these problems." Death bonds, she continued, "move markets away [from]—not toward—these goals."

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