SEC Targets Nelson Mullins Partner in Alleged Pay-to-Play Scheme

SEC Targets Nelson Mullins Partner in Alleged Pay-to-Play Scheme unknown Nelson Mullins' Robert Crowe.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday accused a senior Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough partner, Robert Crowe, of playing a key role in an illegal “pay-to-play” scheme aimed at helping State Street Bank and Trust Co. secure public pension contracts in Ohio.

While State Street agreed to pay $12 million to settle the agency’s claims, the SEC on Thursday filed a civil complaint in Ohio federal court against Crowe, a Boston and Washington, D.C.-based co-chair of Nelson Mullins’ government affairs practice.

The SEC alleges that the former head of State Street’s public funds group, Vincent DeBaggis, entered into an illicit agreement in early 2010 with Amer Ahmad, who was then Ohio’s deputy state treasurer. Under the alleged agreement, DeBaggis provided cash payments and campaign funds to Ahmad in exchange for lucrative public pension fund contracts.

According to the SEC’s complaint, Crowe served a “conduit” for State Street’s allegedly corrupt payments.

“Pay-to-play schemes are intolerable, and lobbyists and their clients should understand that the SEC will be aggressive in holding participants accountable,” David Glockner, director of the SEC’s Chicago office, said in a statement.

Both State Street and DeBaggis, who no longer works at the bank, reached settlements with the SEC. State Street, represented at the SEC by William McLucas of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, agreed to shell out $12 million but did not admit to the SEC’s allegations. DeBaggis, defended by Perkins Coie’s Pravin Rao, agreed to pay a little more than $274,200 in penalties, disgorgement and prejudgment interest.

In a statement provided to The Am Law Daily on Thursday, Nelson Mullins general counsel James Gray Jr. said the firm was disappointed that Crowe—who has not settled with the SEC—was implicated in the agency’s case, but cautioned against jumping to any conclusions about the SEC’s allegations.

“We have no information regarding his response to the allegations, nor would it be proper to comment on his defense to these charges,” Gray said in the statement. “It is important to remember that the complaint filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission contains allegations against Mr. Crowe that have not yet been proven in court.”

Crowe’s outside defense lawyer, Arthur McMahon III of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, said that he had advised his client not to publicly comment. McMahon said he’s confident that Crowe will be “vindicated in due course” and expressed regret that his client would have to defend himself “in a case that the SEC has no basis for bringing.”

“The SEC’s allegations regarding Mr. Crowe are patently untrue,” said McMahon. “Moreover, nothing the SEC has alleged would constitute securities fraud, a breach of the SEC’s pay-to-play rules or a violation of any other rule the SEC has authority to enforce.”

In its complaint, the SEC alleges that Ahmad, the former Ohio deputy treasurer, had demanded campaign contributions to the state treasurer’s election campaign from State Street, violating an Ohio state law that prohibits corporate political donations.

The SEC claims that Crowe—an experienced political fundraiser who previously served as the Democratic National Committee’s co-chairman for finance—became involved under pressure from DeBaggis, who allegedly saw the campaign donations demanded by Ahmad as the surest route to securing the public pension contracts for State Street. According to the SEC, Crowe filtered at least $16,000 worth of campaign funds through his own personal bank account.

State Street said in a statement on Thursday that it fully cooperated with the SEC’s investigation and that the agency’s allegations involve conduct that DeBaggis never discussed with other company management while he still worked at the bank. “Upon learning of the conduct, this employee was removed from the servicing of public plans and was ultimately terminated,” a State Street spokeswoman said.

The SEC’s complaint notes that Crowe counted State Street as a client from 1993 until 2011, when the bank terminated its relationship with the Nelson Mullins partner. Crowe joined Nelson Mullins in 2009 from the now-defunct law firm WolfBlock, where he served as CEO of the firm’s government relations arm, WolfBlock Public Strategies. He later featured in litigation stemming from WolfBlock’s demise, opposing the firm’s attempts to claw back income distributed to partners before it went bust.

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