- The Washington Times - Friday, October 30, 2009

When UBS Americas CEO Robert Wolf stepped out on the golf links at Martha’s Vineyard this past summer as part of President Obama’s foursome, his firm had plenty to celebrate.

A few days earlier, the Swiss parent of his company had resolved a long-running dispute with the IRS over undeclared offshore accounts. The sticky legal case was one of several matters involving the financial giant where huge sums of money could hinge on the action taken by the federal government.

But as they strolled the fairways, the topic never came up. Mr. Wolf, like many of the influential Americans who raised more than $500,000 to help get Mr. Obama elected in 2008, has adamantly maintained that he has never let the interests of his company creep into his relationship with the president.

Mr. Wolf “does not undertake activities with the administration intended to benefit UBS and has on no occasion lobbied the president,” UBS spokesman Mark Arena said Wednesday.

Still, the episode is a reminder that many of the big fundraisers and donors who have been granted special access to the president, his advisers and White House amenities since Mr. Obama took office in January also have special interests in the decisions made by the new administration.

“This is not the first time we’ve seen something like this, and it speaks to the problem of our campaign finance system,” said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause. “Politicians are dependent upon people who can either write big checks or bundle a lot of money.”

A Washington Times investigation earlier this week found that top donors to Mr. Obama had been rewarded with perks, and that the DNC was attempting to secure hefty donations by promising potential contributors special access to senior administration officials.

One of the donors whose names surfaced in The Times report was Mr. Wolf, who has become an informal adviser to the president, serving on a board of economic experts, attending a major speech on financial regulation, and, in August, accepting an invitation to participate in one of the nation’s most exclusive golf outings.

Mr. Wolf is typical of many in the close-knit universe of the president’s top donors. Like most of Mr. Obama’s top money men, Mr. Wolf has said in interviews that his support for the president blossomed naturally, was driven by a belief he was the best man to run the country, and had nothing to do with his personal or business enterprises.

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But also like many of those donors, he has work ties that could turn a relationship with the president into something beneficial. As with any major financial institution, UBS has financial interests that can rise and fall based on the fate of federal legislation, the efforts by regulators, and the actions taken by federal agencies.

The company maintains a lobbying team in Washington, and its federal filings show that team has lobbied the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department and the White House on matters including the ongoing regulatory restructuring of the financial services industry.

UBS Americas, which is owned entirely by UBS AG, also sought to influence federal lawmakers on the Troubled Asset Relief Program, estate tax issues, potential climate change initiatives, according to lobbying disclosure reports.

Mr. Wolf gave more than $200,000 to federal politicians and political action committees since 2000, including $30,500 to a joint fundraising committee backing Mr. Obama last year, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.

UBS Americas also maintains a hefty political action committee. And $5 billion in federal bailout funds went from AIG to UBS.

The highest-profile example of federal engagement came with the dispute between UBS and the IRS, which involved not only the Treasury Department but also the State Department. UBS and the U.S. reached a $780 million settlement earlier this year to resolve accusations that the bank was helping U.S. citizens hide money from federal tax collectors.

In a separate settlement reached in August, the U.S. agreed to drop a lawsuit demanding that the company turn over information on nearly 20,000 American citizen’s bank accounts. The settlement gave the U.S. access to nearly 4,500 of the accounts.

Mr. Wolf’s division of the bank was not involved in the case, UBS officials said, and Mr. Wolf would not have been privy to any of the negotiations.

Mr. Arena, the UBS spokesman, said Mr. Wolf’s efforts on behalf of the president never crossed any lines.

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“Robert acts in a private capacity as an outside economic adviser to the administration as a member of the [President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board] along with other leaders from the worlds of business, academia and labor,” he said.

Mr. Wolf has said he began helping then-Sen. Obama because he had an abiding interest in politics and a distinct hatred of the Iraq war.

The two first met in December 2007. After raising money for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004, Mr. Wolf was invited to a gathering at the office of billionaire George Soros to talk about the coming election season.

They talked presidential politics, Mr. Wolf told The Washington Post last year, “but at that point there was no ask.” As he left, the banker handed his card to an Obama aide, and the senator called him early the next morning to invite him to dinner.

The young senator’s announcement that he would run for president was still a month away when the two finally dined at Olives on K Street Northwest. “We talked about things important to me, and to him, and the future of the nation, and family values, and our ideas on health care and the war and the economy,” Mr. Wolf told The Post.

After a second dinner, Mr. Wolf was on board. Over the next several months, he became one of the candidate’s most prolific fundraisers, tapping a huge network of friends and colleagues in the New York area.

After his election, Mr. Obama began to turn to Mr. Wolf for economic advice. He tapped the businessman for a seat on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, a diverse group that offers wide-ranging suggestions on major economic issues.

Other members include Jeffrey Immelt, the General Electric chief executive; David F. Swensen of Yale University; and Martin Feldstein, a former chief economic adviser to President Reagan. The group will hold its second meeting next week.

Jim McElhatton contributed to this report.

• Matthew Mosk can be reached at mmosk@washingtontimes.com.

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