Wall Street investor hires Democrats to kneecap brand-name health company

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

A hedge-fund investor bet a billion dollars that a health company would crash on Wall Street, and then hired a crew of Democratic lobbyists to kneecap the target company.

The lobbyists for the investor, William Ackman, successfully persuaded two Democratic legislators and numerous self-described Hispanic and African-American civil-rights groups to prod regulators into investigating Herbalife Ltd., according to a lengthy article published in the New York Times.

To defend itself, Herbalife hired its own gang of Democratic lobbyists to sway congressional staff and the media, and offered $30,000 to a Hispanic civil-rights group to quit Ackman’s crew.

The fight shows how university-trained lobbyists and former staffers can get rich by using their knowledge of complex laws and regulatory agencies to cripple or save commercial rivals.

So far, Herbalife has kept its stock price high, leaving the hedge-fund investor in an increasingly precarious position that could cost him millions of dollars.

The company sells protein shakes and dietary supplements via a network of local marketers, many of whom are Hispanic and African-American. The sales force is paid according to how much product they sell, and how many new sellers they recruit.

“For the past 15 months, Bill Ackman has executed an unfounded, relentless and fraudulent public attack on Herbalife’s business model, blasting Herbalife to any media outlet or hedge fund audience willing to listen,” according to a March 10 Herbalife statement.

“Ackman’s unprecedented campaign to destroy Herbalife has now been exposed for what it is: a cynical, self-serving attempt to manipulate the market by buying his way into an investigation to cover his own reckless $1 billion dollar bet,” Herbalife said.

“There has never been merit to his accusations… [and] we know how he has been orchestrating the appearance of outrage and concern,” the statement said.

But Ackman told the New York Times that he would continue his raids on Herbalife. “I am going to personally pursue the Herbalife matter to the end of the earth — meaning I think this company is a criminal operation, I think they are harming people… I am going to pursue that,” he said.

The New York Times article is likely a game-wining coup for Herbalife, because it will make it difficult for Ackman to get help from Democratic legislators and civl-rights groups.

Ackman’s team has included two Democratic legislators, California Rep. Linda Sanchez and Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey. They helped Ackman after he hired two of their former staffers to lobby for his claim.

His other lobbyists included Toby Moffett, a former Democrat Representatives from Connecticut, Robert S. Walker, a former Republican Representative from Pennsylvania.

Ackman also added people who had worked in the White House for President Barack Obama or President Bill Clinton. They included Jim Papa, at the Global Strategy Group, and Minyon Moore, who worked for Obama.

He hired the Dewey Square Group in D.C., to create a fake grass-roots protest movement.

He also hired state lobbyists to create protests in Hispanic and African-American communities in Nevada and California.

In Nevada, he hired the Ramirez Group, which is owned by a former aide to the top Democrat in the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid, which then created protests in the state. Moore helped create protests among African-Americans communities in California.

Since 2012, Ackman has donated $235,499 to Democratic or Republican groups.  Roughly $73,000 went to GOP leadership groups, $110,000 went to Democratic leadership groups, and nearly all of the rest went to a variety of Democratic politicians, including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.

However, Ackman did contribute $2,500 to Gov. Mitt Romney two days after the 2012 election.

To defend itself, Herbalife hired two major Democratic-affiliated D.C. lobbying firms, the Glover Park Group, and the Podesta Group, plus the Dickstein Shapiro law firm, which lobbies state Attorneys General.

Herbalife also offered $30,000 to the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute to persuade them to quit the Ackman campaign.

Follow Neil on Twitter