As the Obama adminstration nears its end, the Securities and Exchange Commission this week wrapped up settlements with 10 investment firms that allegedly ran afoul of pay-to-play rules barring their employees from giving money to public officials who could help them win pension contracts.
The firms, including two from Massachusetts, were predominantly involved in private equity and venture capital. They agreed to pay penalties ranging from $35,000 to $100,000, following an SEC review of employees’ political donations over the past several years.
Alta Communications Inc. of Waltham and Commonwealth Venture Management Corp. of Woburn were among those to settle, without admitting or denying wrongdoing. Alta, a private equity firm, agreed to pay $35,000, while Commonwealth, a venture capital firm, will pay $75,000, the SEC said.
In many of thes cases, long periods of time passed between the timing of a political contribution and the firm being awarded pension business.
But under SEC rules, if an investment adviser’s partners or associates give money to a politician or candidate, there’s a two-year “timeout” period before the firm can manage money for a pension fund over which that politician has influence.
“Advisory firms must be mindful of the restrictions that can arise from campaign contributions made by their associates,’’ said LeeAnn Ghazil Gaunt, chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Public Finance Abuse Unit, in a statement.
In the case of Alta, the Massachusetts state pension fund invested $50 million with the firm in 2003, the SEC said. Eleven years later, in 2014, a person associated with the firm made a $500 campaign contribution to the state treasurer, who at the time was Steve Grossman. The contribution was returned.
The Massachusetts state treasurer is chair of the state pension fund. Private equity commitments can last 10 years or more, allowing this to have fallen under the SEC rule. A lawyer for Alta declined to comment.
The Massachusetts pension fund — while not a party in the SEC cases — was an investor with other firms that settled with federal regulators this week.
Most prominently, the pension fund between 2011 and 2012 invested $192 million with the New York hedge fund Pershing Square, according to the SEC. In 2013, an employee of Pershing at the time donated $500 to the campaign of Juliette Kayyem, who was then running for governor.
Pershing, without admitting or denying responsibility, agreed to pay $75,000 to settle the matter with the SEC. Kayyem was the sister of a friend of the former Pershing employee, the company said. The contribution was refunded.
Eric Convey, a spokesman for the state’s Pension Reserves Investment Management board, said, the pension fund’s “rigorous internal protocols shield the investing process from any factor other than risk, return and cost.”
In the Commonwealth Venture case, the pension fund invested $50 million back in 1998, the SEC said. The firm paid a fine to settle over $1,000 in campaign contributions by an associate to a candidate for governor in 2013 and 2014. Another associate gave $500 to the same candidate and later co-hosted a fundraiser.
A lawyer for the firm was unavailable for comment.