Several federal agencies and several state attorneys general are alleging that banks and other companies that facilitate the $400 billion a year municipal bond market have colluded for years in an illegal price-fixing scheme that has netted them massive fees.
E-mail messages, taped phone conversations and other court documents suggest that companies did not engage in open competition for this lucrative business, but secretly divided it among themselves, imposing layers of excess cost on local governments, violating the federal rules for tax-exempt bonds and making questionable payments and campaign contributions to local officials who could steer them business. In some cases, they created exotic financial structures that blew up.
People with knowledge of the evidence say investigators are not just looking at a few bad apples, but also at the way an entire market has operated for years.
“It’s rare to sell a Senate seat, but it’s not rare to sell a bond deal,” said Charles Anderson, who retired as manager of tax-exempt bond field operations for the Internal Revenue Service in 2007. “Pay-to-play in the municipal bond market is epidemic.”
Michael D. Hausfeld, an antitrust lawyer in Washington, who is representing some of the cities, counties and states entangled in the federal dragnet, called it “one of the longest-running, most economically pervasive antitrust conspiracies ever to be uncovered in the U.S.” Many of these municipalities say they did nothing wrong and were duped by financial firms, which they are suing.
The possibility of a vast web of collusion would be sobering in any case, but the issue is of particular concern now, as Congress and the incoming Obama administration prepare a big fiscal stimulus package that may spawn infrastructure projects carried out and financed at the state and local level. States and cities issue bonds to raise money to pay for things like schools and road construction, and are supposed to follow strict rules on how the proceeds are handled for investors to receive a tax exemption on the interest.
Mr. Anderson estimated that as much as $4 billion a year was vanishing into the system, based on the volume of problems he saw before retirement.
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