Gov. Brian Kemp tapped finance executive Kelly Loeffler to a U.S. Senate seat. AJC/Alyssa Pointer

Loeffler to face ‘minefield’ of potential ethical issues in Senate

Republican Kelly Loeffler’s immense wealth and top financial industry private-sector position helped entice Gov. Brian Kemp to appoint her to an open U.S. Senate seat, but they also pose challenges for the political newcomer.

Loeffler is under scrutiny over how she handles a vast fortune she’s accrued at Intercontinental Exchange, the Atlanta-based trading platform where Loeffler has long served as a senior official and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, is the chief executive.

She also faces questions about whether she’ll serve on powerful committees that oversee the financial industry or cast votes on issues that could influence her husband’s company or its subsidiary, the Bakkt cryptocurrency firm she now runs.

Through an adviser, Loeffler said she would abide by Senate ethics rules but would not say how she planned to manage her finances or whether she would sit out votes that could influence her business. Nor would she say whether she would pursue positions on committees that have oversight over the financial industry.

“Senate Designate Kelly Loeffler is a woman of character who will act with the highest degree of integrity in the United States Senate,” said the adviser, Ryan Mahoney, a strategist for Kemp’s gubernatorial campaign. “Kelly will work closely with the Senate Ethics Office to ensure everything she does is in accordance with both the letter, and the spirit, of the law.”

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That promise will soon be put to the test. Congress could vote next year to reauthorize the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates financial trading platforms and exchanges.

And she could also soon vote on a new commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, whose lone Democratic member is set to step down. The SEC regulates the New York Stock Exchange, one of the Intercontinental Exchange’s prized assets.

Senate rules aim to require Loeffler to avoid the appearance that she’s cashing in on her official position and ban her from using her position to introduce or aid legislation that’s designed only to advance her family’s interest. A 2012 law forbids members of Congress and their staff from trading stocks based on inside information.

But ethics analysts say the rules are often toothless and difficult to enforce. They don’t require senators to divest potentially conflicting assets or require them to put assets in a blind trust. Instead, they rely on financial disclosure requirements to publicly air possible conflicts of interest. Lawmakers have broad leeway when deciding whether to sit out of potentially conflicting votes and legislative debates - and many don’t.

Loeffler has faced little vetting from the public or from her opponents due to the nature of her appointment. Rather than a drawn-out political campaign, she was tapped to the Senate last week by Kemp after an online application process to fill retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat.

“There’s certainly a minefield of issues – legitimate questions that the press and public should raise about whether Ms. Loeffler’s financial interest will impact decisions she makes in the Senate,” said Donald Sherman, the deputy director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.

Sherman said weak Senate ethics rules that “don’t really hold anyone to a high standard” also don’t account for the “soft power” a senator can wield without ever casting a vote.

“Committees and senators can influence and impact private companies with something as simple as a letter,” he said. “Anything that comes on Senate letterhead can have an impact in the real world – it can impact a stock price, get someone fired, trigger changes.”

A new norm?

Kemp was drawn to Loeffler in part because of her private sector success and business background, and shortly after she was announced her advisers revealed her promise to seed what could be a record-shattering campaign with $20 million of her own money.

Though she’s emphasized her rural roots, Loeffler’s vast wealth presents a reminder of the growing influence of deep-pocketed candidates willing to self-fund their campaigns rather than depend on donations from voters, corporate PACs or other financial assistance.

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The Center for Responsive Politics reports that 41 congressional candidates invested at least $1 million of their own money in last year’s election, led by U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who spent more than $63 million on his winning bid.

In Georgia politics, too, millionaires have become more typical. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of financial disclosure records found more than half the candidates on last year’s statewide ballot had a net worth that topped seven figures, and their combined assets topped roughly $55 million. Roughly half the members of the state’s congressional delegations are millionaires, according to federal filings.

Loeffler could dwarf that total. Though she won’t be required to produce a detailed public account of her finances until next year, public records suggest she’s poised to become one of the wealthiest members of Congress when she takes office in January.

Records show she and her husband are worth more than $500 million, with real estate investments that include a $10 million Buckhead estate and multi-million dollar condos in Chicago and Sea Island.

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, with First Lady Marty Kemp, Kelly Loeffler and husband Jeff Sprecher at the Georgia 4-H gala in August. On Wednesday, Gov. Kemp formally announced Loeffler as his selection to succeed Johnny Isakson as U.S. senator. SPECIAL to the AJC from Blane Marable Photography and Georgia 4-H
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Deep pockets don’t guarantee wins in Georgia. Not even close. Just ask self-funding millionaires Jim Barksdale, Michael Coles, Guy Millner and Cliff Oxford, who each lost campaigns for the U.S. Senate despite formidable financial firepower.

Still, Loeffler might look to a towering exception.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue spent about $4 million of his own cash to win the 2014 race with a focus on his background as a Fortune 500 executive, and he’s amassed more than $6 million for his 2020 re-election bid without having to dip back into his wallet.

‘High standard’

One of the thorniest questions Loeffler now faces involves whether to put her assets into a blind trust, which puts investments in the hands of a trustee that makes decisions on their behalf and without her direct knowledge.

Sonny Perdue faced repeated questions about his business interests during his two terms as governor because he declined to put his assets, including an agribusiness company, in a blind trust. Previous governors had put assets into a blind trust. Perdue’s net worth nearly doubled in his first four years in office and it became a campaign issue during his successful 2006 re-election race.

Perdue only agreed to step down from his business holding firm and restructure his family trusts in 2017 to win Senate approval to become U.S. Agriculture Secretary, and it took him months after his nomination was first announced for him to disentangle himself from his vast business interests.

Perhaps the most highly publicized example is Tom Price. The former Georgia Congressman faced a fierce Senate confirmation fight to be President Trump’s health chief in 2017 because of the medical sector stocks he traded while authoring health care legislation. He sold off his stocks after being confirmed.

Isakson, who chairs the Ethics Committee, put his assets in a blind trust in 2012 after The Wall Street Journal raised questions about his stock market investments.

Like many of his Senate colleagues, David Perdue regularly invests in corporate stocks, including in the finance, securities and real estate sectors, which he helps regulate as a member of the Senate Banking Committee.

A Perdue spokeswoman previously said the senator’s assets “are managed by an outside financial advisor who ensures transactions are publicly reported in a timely fashion as required by the Senate Ethics Committee.”

Ethics experts called on Loeffler to build goodwill by taking aggressive steps. Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said placing her assets in a blind trusts was a “good method to assuage concerns about conflicts of interest related to her personal holdings.”

And William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs, a government transparency group, said Loeffler should also hold a “high standard of recusal” on any legislation that would benefit herself or her family – and to also not advocate for any legislation that benefits herself or her family.

“It’s extremely important that she do this the right way, that she hold really high standards,” said Perry, “because we really know nothing about her.”

- Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.

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