Tag Archive for Municipal Bonds

California Attorney General Opinion Says Frequently-Used School and Community College Bond Deals Are Illegal

On January 26, 2016, the California Attorney General issued an opinion on a practice regarding bond measures that has long been questionable but continues to be rampant at California school and college districts: contracting with a firm to provide both pre-election bond measure “financial planning services” and post-election bond measure “financial advisory services.” That firm then typically makes a major contribution to the campaign to pass the bond measure.

The practice is described in Chapter 7 of the July 2015 California Policy Center report For the Kids: California Voters Must Become Wary of Borrowing Billions More from Wealthy Investors for Educational Construction.

Not surprisingly, the practice was determined to be illegal under most circumstances. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association called it “good news” for taxpayers and a “long-overdue slap-down” of “the incestuous behavior of school districts with political consultants and bond salesmen.” See Attorney General Reins In Shady Bond Practices – January 31, 2016.

California Attorney General Opinion

OPINION of  KAMALA D. HARRIS, Attorney General – MANUEL M. MEDEIROS, Deputy Attorney General – No. 13-304 – January 26, 2016 (see the five questions and answers, below)

School and community college districts throughout the state have adopted such contracts. Often these items are listed on board agendas with vague language, probably to disguise the purpose from the public.

Some Examples

Martinez Unified School District approved this contract on September 29, 2015: http://laborissuessolutions.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/2015-09-29-Isom-Advisors-AKA-Urban-Futures-Contract-with-Martinez-USD-for-Bond-Measure-Services.pdf

Pay to Play San Rafael City Schools Connect the DotsSan Rafael City Schools gave a financial service firms a no-bid contract in June 2015 for $15,000 in pre-election and $65,000 in post-election advisory services for two bond measures. The firm contributed $9500 to the campaign to pass the bond measures.

Solano Community College District: Critic Questions Actions of Measure Q Bond Underwriters – Fairfield Daily Republic – September 13, 2015

News Coverage

California School Bonds Can Be Source of Scandal – commentary by Dan Walters – Sacramento Bee – February 8, 2016

Many other districts have used the same loophole to avoid competitive bidding on contracts and also solicited bond issue campaign funds from financial houses.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, and later successor John Chiang, were concerned about the practice, and asked Attorney General Kamala Harris whether it’s legal for those in the bond financing business to get involved in the campaigns. Harris, in an opinion issued last month, declared that it is illegal for firms to provide “pre-election services” in return for a promise to get the underwriting business should the bond measure pass.

…if school districts are cut free from the state’s underwriting of school construction, they need some new ethics standards.

California AG’s Opinion Targets School Bond Practices by Kyle Glazier – The Bond Buyer – January 28, 2016

School and community college districts violate California law if they hire outside firms to campaign for bond ballot measures or purposely incentivize municipal finance professionals to advocate for passage of a bond measure, the state’s attorney general said in a formal legal opinion…

A previous Bond Buyer investigation found a nearly perfect correlation between broker-dealer contributions to California school bond efforts in 2010 and their underwriting of subsequent bond sales, and financial advisors have similarly been accused of using “pay-to-play” tactics. Former California Treasurer Bill Lockyer questioned the legality of the practices…

California Muni Dealers Can’t Fund Bond Campaigns to Get Hired by Darrell Preston – Bloomberg – January 28, 2016

Former Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who sought the opinion in 2013, praised the ruling, and said it could open up school districts and vendors to prosecution.

“It makes it clear that prior practices of this sort are illegal,” Lockyer said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Lockyer sought the opinion after finding school districts in the state entered agreements with underwriting firms in which the districts award the dealers the right to sell the bonds in return for providing services to pass an initiative.

He said at the time the agreements raise “substantive questions” about whether school officials broke the law by using public money to advocate passage.


THE HONORABLE JOHN CHIANG, CALIFORNIA STATE TREASURER, has requested an opinion on the following questions:

1. Does a school or community college district violate California constitutional and statutory prohibitions against using public funds to advocate passage of a bond measure by contracting with a person or entity for services related to a bond election campaign?

2. Does a school or community college district violate California prohibitions against using public funds to advocate passage of a bond measure if the district enters into an agreement with a municipal finance firm under which the district obtains pre- bond-election services in return for guaranteeing the firm an exclusive contract to provide bond-sale services if the election is successful?

3. In the case of an agreement as described in Question 2, does a school or community college district violate California law concerning the use of bond proceeds if the district reimburses the municipal finance firm for the cost of providing the pre- election services from the proceeds raised from the bond sale?

4. In the scenario described in Question 3, does a school or community college district violate California law concerning the use of bond proceeds, even where the reimbursement is not an itemized component of the fees the district pays to the firm in connection with the bond sale?

5. Does an entity providing campaign services to a bond measure campaign in exchange for an exclusive agreement with the district to sell the bonds incur an obligation to report the cost of such services as a contribution to the bond measure campaign in accordance with state law?

CONCLUSIONS

1. A school or community college district violates California constitutional and statutory prohibitions against using public funds to advocate passage of a bond measure by contracting with a person or entity for services related to a bond election campaign if the pre-election services may be fairly characterized as campaign activity.

2. A school or community college district violates prohibitions against using public funds to advocate passage of a bond measure if the district enters into an agreement with a municipal finance firm under which the district obtains pre-election services (of any sort) in return for guaranteeing the firm an exclusive contract to provide bond-sale services if the election is successful, under circumstances where (a) the district enters into the agreement for the purpose (sole or partial) of inducing the firm to support the contemplated bond-election campaign or (b) the firm’s fee for the bond-sale services is inflated to account for the firm’s campaign contributions and the district fails to take reasonable steps to ensure the fee was not inflated.

3. In the case of an agreement as described in Question 2, a school or community college district violates California law concerning the use of bond proceeds if the district reimburses the municipal finance firm for the cost of providing pre-election services from the proceeds raised from the bond sale.

4. In the scenario described in Question 3, a school or community college district violates California law concerning the use of bond proceeds if the district reimburses the municipal finance firm for the cost of providing pre-election services from the fees the district pays to the firm in connection with the bond sale, whether or not the reimbursement is evident as a component of the fees the district pays to the firm in connection with the bond sale made on an itemized service-by-service basis.

5. Where an entity provides campaign services to a bond-measure committee in exchange for an exclusive agreement with the district to sell the bonds, the entity has an obligation to report the value of its services as a contribution to the bond-measure campaign in accordance with state law.

An Overlooked Feature of Bond Measures for School Districts: Fees to Underwriters and Financial Service Firms

Under contract to Fair and Open Competition – Sacramento, I’ve developed a modest web site presenting an argument against Measures Q and R, two proposed bond measures at the Sacramento City Unified School District. It’s not a pretty web site, but it’s packed with information obtained from primary source material – information not available anywhere else. See Vote No on Sacramento’s Measures Q and R.

If voters in the school district approve these ballot measures at the November 6, 2012 election, the school board of Sac City Unified will have authority to borrow up to $414 million for construction by selling bonds to investors. Property holders in the district will pay that back – with interest – through taxes. Current debt for the school district’s two previous bond measures totals $522 million. Basically, these proposed new bond measures will create a billion-dollar debt for this school district.

During my research, I decided to investigate how much the district has paid in fees to underwriters (bond brokers) and other financial service firms that assess fees when bonds are prepared and sold. The total comes to almost $6 million.

Bond Issue Financial Transaction Fees
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $50,000,000 – General Obligation Bonds, Election of 1999, Series A 2000 $404,375.42
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $52,310,000 – General Obligation Refunding Bonds 2001 $592,524.77
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $45,000,000 – General Obligation Bonds, Election of 1999, Series B 2001 $394,463.50
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $45,000,000 – General Obligation Bonds, Election of 1999, Series C 2002 $486,543.56
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $80,000,000 – General Obligation Bonds, Election of 2002, Series A 2003 $483,000.00
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $64,997,966.35 – General Obligation Bonds, Election of 1999, Series D 2004 $615,158.17
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $80,000,000.00 – General Obligation Bonds, Election of 2002, Series 2005 $737,700.00
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $64,997,966.35 – General Obligation Bonds, Election of 2002, Series 2007 $757,134.42
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $79,585,000 – General Obligation Refunding Bonds 2011 $522,897.60
Official Statement – Sacramento City Unified School District – $113,245,000 – General Obligation Refunding Bonds 2012 $849,939.95
Total Fees $5,843,737.39

Supporters of Measures Q and R might defend these fees by pointing out they only comprise 1.4 percent of the total amount of $420 million borrowed under the authority of Measures E (1999) and Measures I (2002), and the fees paid for the sale of the three refunding bond series were offset by the resulting reduced cost of interest payments. Fair enough, but don’t claim in your ballot arguments for Measures Q and R that “Every penny from Measures Q and R will stay in our community” and “ALL of the money raised by these measures will stay in our community.” That’s just not true. Set aside the issue of interest payments to wealthy individuals and institutional investors in New York City and other financial centers – the $5.8 million in transaction fees is proof that some of the money did NOT stay in the community.

I suspect such statements from proponents reflect a lack of understanding of municipal bonds or a cynical recognition that ordinary voters don’t understand municipal bonds.

One thing I did not research was whether or not the underwriters who assessed these fees were donors to the campaigns to pass Measure E (1999) and Measure I (2002). Here is another excerpt from the Vote No on Sacramento’s Measures Q and R web site:


Learn How Bond Brokers, Bond Dealers, Bond Underwriters Spend a Little Money to Make a LOT of Money Selling Bonds for California School Districts.

Not all bond brokers improperly influence school boards. In fact, some have high integrity and are speaking out against the inappropriate conduct of some underwriters in their industry.

But clearly things have gotten out of control since California voters narrowly approved Proposition 39 in November 2000. Borrowed money began gushing into California school districts, and everyone wanted a piece of the action.

In fact, a September 13, 2012 letter to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board from the California Association of County Treasurers and Tax Collectors urged the Board to consider a complete prohibition on brokers, dealers, and other municipal finance professionals from making political contributions to campaigns of local governments (such as the Sacramento City Unified School District) to get voter approval to borrow money from investors by selling bonds. The letter identifies the origin of the problem as Proposition 39.

The issue of bond brokers being major donors to campaigns to pass bond measures has not gained much attention, but it should. A specialty publication –The Bond Buyer – and a news service – California Watch – have been the leaders on investigating this obscure but significant scheme. Here are some articles that reveal the problem:

Brokers’ Gifts That Keep Giving – The Bond Buyer – January 13, 2012

When broker-dealers give money to California school bond campaigns, it appears to be money well spent. A review of campaign finance records by The Bond Buyer found a nearly perfect correlation between broker-dealer contributions to California school bond efforts in 2010 and their underwriting subsequent bond sales…

With Campaign Donations, Bond Underwriters Also Secure Contracts –California Watch – May 3, 2012

Leading financial firms over the past five years donated $1.8 million to successful school bond measures in California, and in almost every instance, school district officials hired those same underwriters to sell the bonds for a profit, a California Watch review has found…

Critics Struggle to End ‘Pay to Play’ in School Bonds – California Watch – May 14, 2012

Critics of the practice in which financial firms help pass school bonds that they profit from are continuing to push for reforms, but so far have faced resistance and failure. In California, underwriting companies hired by school districts to sell bonds often make campaign contributions to help convince voters to pass the bond measures…

Some California FAs [Financial Advisors] Use Pay-to-Play Tactics, Critics Say –The Bond Buyer – May 24, 2012

Firms that work as financial advisors helping California school districts issue bonds after serving as campaign consultants on the preceding bond measure have a conflict of interest and are engaged in a form of “pay-to-play,” critics say. Such firms, a small subset of the financial advisor sector in California, walk the school districts through the bond election process, then help the them select and negotiate prices with underwriters and bond counsel for the subsequent sale. In many cases, they are paid both by the political action committee formed to pass the bond measure, which receives contributions from underwriters and the bond counsel, and then by the district…

Underwriters Paying to Pass Bond Issues Face Scrutiny – Business Week – May 24, 2012

Over the past five years, underwriters gave $1.8 million to successful school-bond campaigns in California and got almost all the work selling the approved bonds, California Watch reported earlier this month.

Underwriter Bought Meals For Poway Board – San Diego Union-Tribune – September 1, 2012

The underwriter of Poway Unified’s controversial $105 million bond deal hosted $2,200 in dinners for the school district’s officials in recent years — most of which they accepted and initially failed to report on state-mandated disclosure forms. In March, the officials belatedly disclosed the meals dating back several years, as the District Attorney’s Office prosecution of South Bay school board members for failing to report such meals made the news…

Muni Groups Urge More Action on Bond Ballot Campaigns – The Bond Buyer – September 18, 2012

Municipal analysts and other muni market participants are urging the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board to strengthen a proposal to tighten bond-ballot campaign contribution reporting requirements for dealers. In comment letters filed in recent days, several participants urged the board to do more to attack corruption and protect the voting public, with some suggesting there should be an outright ban on such contributions rather than disclosure requirements.

California Capital Appreciation Bonds Have Unintended Consequences – The Bond Buyer – September 20, 2012

The recent controversy over the way some California school districts use capital appreciation bonds may reflect the law of unintended consequences…

Feds Urged to Crack Down on Donations to Bond Measures – California Watch – September 21, 2012

Critics of political donations to school bond campaigns from companies that profit from the bonds are urging federal regulators to take bolder steps against what they call a “pay to play” practice.