Bill White says scrutiny of finances, business dealings unwarranted

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The debate over whether Buckhead should separate from the rest of Atlanta has brought more attention to the finances of the man leading the effort.

Some critics have questioned whether money is motivating the activism of Bill White, the CEO of the Buckhead City Committee. But White insists he’s not being paid for his work.

In a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, White said he’s taking a break from his strategic consulting firm, Constellations Group, to focus solely on the secession push.

“I don’t want there to be any perception of, any optics that misrepresent my intention or our goal in doing this, which is purely volunteer,” White said.

He said the group has raised about $2 million. But the committee has released few details about its finances, donors, salaries and other expenses. Under tax law, the group will have to disclose details about its total revenue and spending only in yearly IRS filings, which also include details on the group’s leaders and how they are compensated.

The cityhood effort was dealt a big blow on Friday when House Speaker David Ralston announced he would oppose cityhood legislation this session to allow time for Atlanta’s new mayor, Andre Dickens, to curb violent crime in the area.

Settlement agreement

This isn’t the first time White’s finances have drawn attention.

In the late 2000s, when White was president of the Intrepid Museum in New York City, he was among hundreds subpoenaed in a wide-ranging investigation of whether New York state officials took bribes to steer investments from the state’s largest public pension fund.

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The probe found that White was paid millions of dollars in fees from investment firms for helping market their investments to the pension fund. While the use of such middlemen was not in itself illegal, White was not licensed as a broker when he helped place some of the deals, as required by state and federal law for anyone who receives compensation for advice on buying and selling investments.

In one such deal when he was unlicensed, White was paid more than $570,000 in fees between mid-2005 and mid-2007 for helping one firm get a $500 million investment from the pension plan. After helping secure that investment, White contributed $10,000 in 2006 to the state official who directed the pension plan’s investments. White then bundled $50,000 in campaign contributions from two of the firm’s principals to the state official. New York in 2009 banned investment advisers from making such political contributions.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“The state pension fund, which should be safeguarded for taxpayers, was instead served up to fixers, finders and fundraisers like Bill White, who used his access to fill his pockets,” said then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who led the investigation.

A year after being subpoenaed, in May 2010, White abruptly resigned as president of the Intrepid museum and its sister organization, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. However, he maintained ties to the latter for years as a trustee. Intrepid officials at the time said White’s resignation was not related to the investigation.

In September 2010, White agreed to pay a $1 million civil settlement and cooperate as the investigation into the alleged “pay to play” pension scandal continued. He was never criminally charged.

White has long insisted that he did nothing wrong. He shared with the AJC a 2013 letter from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an independent organization that regulates brokerage firms. The letter stated that, after examining the situation, FINRA would not be taking action against him and was closing its investigation. White became licensed with FINRA in December 2007.

White said he agreed to pay the settlement because legal fees were piling up and the ordeal was becoming “annoying.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“You make millions of dollars doing something fun that you’re licensed and legal to do and somebody comes after you because he wants to assassinate you politically,” White said of Cuomo.

Mark Begnaud, an Atlanta trial attorney unaffiliated with the Buckhead cityhood debate, reviewed the settlement document for the AJC. He said that the terms of the agreement bar White from refuting the inquiry’s findings.

But White disagrees: “I can do whatever I want to do. And I’m doing it.”

He noted that, since the settlement, he’s been hired as a broker, fundraised for veterans groups and aided the campaigns of Clinton, Obama and Cuomo, who ran for New York governor. No one, he said, would have agreed to work with him in those capacities if they believed him to be a “known criminal.”

Consulting and fundraising work

After leaving the Intrepid Museum, White parlayed his connections with wealthy donors into a strategic consulting firm, Constellations Group, where he continued to raise money for veterans and earn big paychecks.

For the fiscal year ending in 2013, Constellations was paid $170,000 by the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which focuses on helping military personnel with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. That year, Constellations raised $2 million for the fund, according to tax documents.



There were other years when Constellations appeared to raise less for nonprofits than it was paid to be retained.

In fiscal year 2013, for example, the Wounded Warrior Project reported paying Constellations $240,000 and receiving a little more than $23,000 in gross fundraising receipts in exchange. Overall, the project reported raising more than $312 million in contributions and grants that year.

In its filing to the IRS that year, the project said that, in addition to raising funds directly for the group, Constellations “has been very instrumental in introducing Wounded Warrior Project to multiple celebrities and major donor prospects.”

In the fiscal year ending in 2016, when Constellations was paid $220,000 but brought in nothing from in-person solicitations, Wounded Warrior wrote on its tax forms that “the Constellations Group remained available to consult with Wounded Warrior Project and advocate with potential influential supports on Wounded Warrior Project’s behalf.”

The nonprofit listed Constellations as a retained fundraiser between 2011 and 2015. A spokeswoman said the organization cut ties in 2016. That wasn’t long after the project fired its top two leaders amid an uproar over lavish spending on conferences and travel.

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White said that the work he did for Wounded Warrior went beyond the dollar amounts he raised directly. He organized a video fundraising campaign featuring the actor Mark Wahlberg and advocated for a rule change that made it easier for federal employees to donate portions of their paychecks, he said, which generated more than $60 million in charitable donations.

I’m “always helping them, whether I’m paid or not,” White said.

Meanwhile, the United War Veterans Council, which puts on the city’s Veterans Day parade, was scrutinized in the New York Observer in 2014 for bloated spending as Constellations was quarterbacking its fundraising.

In that tax year, the council reported more than $4 million in contributions and grants, including $515,000 raised by Constellations. For its fundraising services, Constellations was paid $240,000, according to its filings.

White dismissed criticism of the council, calling the Observer’s reporting “simply untrue.”

Vincent McGowan, president emeritus of the United War Veterans Council, said White was an “invaluable” player in helping revive the city’s annual Veterans Day parade, which had seen attendance dry up in the decades following the Vietnam War.

“He was really imaginative in helping us figure out the better strategies for getting people’s attention, obviously for fundraising and for helping create a better communication between the veterans community for the whole metropolitan area,” said McGowan, who added that White has continued to work with the council even in years when they weren’t able to pay him.

Altogether, White said he’s helped raise upward of $1 billion for more than a half-dozen veterans organizations over the course of his career. That includes funding for the Intrepid Museum, USO and the Fisher House Foundation.