Nobody with the bad manners to ask the question would be likely to get the opportunity at the upcoming presidential debate, but someday—especially if Mitt Romney enters the Oval Office —someone will ask about his son Tagg’s privte equity firm.
Like the businesses operated by the first President Bush’s sons three decades ago, Tagg Romney’s Solamere Capital is rife with potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest. Founded in 2008, by eldest son Tagg and his father’s chief fundraiser Spencer Zwick, Solamere is a “fund of funds” representing more than a dozen private equity outfits, including Mitt’s Bain Capital.
What Solamere’s partnerships and investments also show is the stunning reliance of these rugged millionaire individualists on government contracts and programs. Their financial addiction to federal funds is almost amusing, especially given Romney’s infamous remarks about the “47 percent” who supposedly pay no taxes and depend on government largesse to meet all their needs.
Reporter Lee Fang closely scrutinizes those issues and Solamere’s incestuous connections with the Romney presidential campaign in the current issue of The Nation, with the support of the Investigative Fund (where National Memo editor-in-chief Joe Conason serves as editor-at-large).
Consider the man who hosted the $50,000-a-plate fundraiser where Romney made those comments in his huge, luxurious Boca Raton home. Marc Leder’s Sun Capital private equity firm is a partner in Solamere—and also owns part of the Scooter Store, a company that markets motorized wheelchairs, which Medicare beneficiaries buy with federal funds. Unfortunately the growth of the motorized scooter industry has relied heavily on as much as $500 million annually in improper and even fraudulent Medicare billing.
The Affordable Care Act—which Mitt Romney has vowed to repeal—contains a section requiring stringent reform of the motorized wheelchair benefit to prevent fraud. Would President Romney restore that reform to save Medicare funds even if his son’s business would suffer?
Another health sector suffering from rampant fraud is pediatric dentistry, with scandals in several states that involve very expensive, totally unnecessary treatments of poor children that are paid for by Medicaid—and earn huge profits for “dental management companies” owned by private equity firms. If Solamere is earning huge profits from dental mismanagement, would a Romney administration’s Medicaid agency crack down—or turn a blind eye?
Aside from exploiting Medicare and Medicaid, the private equity industry sees major profit opportunities in education—and in particular the for-profit colleges whose dubious practices and educational failures have become controversial in recent years. As Fang recalls, Mitt Romney himself promoted a for-profit institution called Full Sail University during a town hall event in New Hampshire last year, claiming that it could help students “hold down the cost of their eduation.”
Full Sail is actually the third most expensive college in the country—and happens to be owned by TA Associates, a private equity operation associated with the Romney financial empire. Would a Romney administration continue the current efforts to reform the for-profit colleges? Or would it coddle an industry that is becoming notorious for ripping off students and leaving them in debt and unemployed, after sucking down their federal loan funds?
Fang’s reporting may provide an instructive preview of the years to come in a Romney administration, with various Bush-like sons cashing in on White House connections. But the story of Solamere also suggests the hollowness of Romney’s anti-government rhetoric. More and more, the most apt description of private equity is “no, you didn’t build that.”