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Tim Pawlenty's ties to Morgan Stanley executives could create image issues

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Douglas Healey/The Associated Press

Many wealthy executives in the financial sector have written checks to help Tim Pawlenty. But executives with Morgan Stanley, which has been ensnared in federal probes of Wall Street abuses, have opened their wallets especially wide to the former Minnesota governor.

Pawlenty’s aggressive pro-business stance as governor coupled with government scrutiny of Morgan Stanley could create image problems with some voters still angry about the Wall Street bailout.

In the last election cycle, Morgan Stanley executives donated $79,500 to Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC, more than any other company’s executives except for Federated Insurance, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Morgan Stanley executives also donated $1,600 to Pawlenty’s two gubernatorial campaigns.

Morgan Stanley executive Bill Strong, co-chair of Pawlenty's GOP presidential campaign, has been spearheading much of the fundraising. Strong, who also co-chaired the Minnesotan’s PAC, is a veteran GOP fundraiser from Chicago who started raising money for Pawlenty in 2009. Last month, Strong hosted a fundraiser for Pawlenty in Chicago which, together with one in Texas, raised $800,000.

The Texas event drew some prominent names from the financial world: it was hosted by Tom Hicks, a private equity investor. Texas billionaire homebuilder Bob Perry, who last cycle gave $7 million to American Crossroads, the GOP allied group, is also on board with Pawlenty.

Strong’s money harvesting background is well known: in 2008 he raised at least $500,000 for Sen. John McCain’s failed GOP bid. Fred Malek, a chairman of McCain’s finance team, told iWatch News that “Strong is as good as they come as a fundraiser.”

But Pawlenty’s tight ties with Morgan Stanley executives could create political problems for his campaign. The Wall Street firm has been implicated in several federal investigations in recent years related to the nation’s financial and mortgage crises.

Late last month in a deal with the Justice Department, a unit of Morgan agreed to pay $2.35 million to settle charges that it wrongfully foreclosed on 17 active duty military personnel.

Back in 2009, Morgan struck an agreement with the SEC to pay a $500,000 fine to settle allegations that its Nashville office misled customers by not revealing ties it had to money management firms it recommended and then received commissions from.

In May 2010, Morgan Stanley was reportedly facing a criminal probe by the SEC and Justice into whether it misled investors about its packaging of mortgage-backed securities.

Last month New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened a similar probe into Morgan Stanley and two other Wall Street firms.

A spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley declined comment.

Travis Plunkett, the legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, told iWatch News that the American public is “still very angry about the role of Wall Street banks in triggering the recession. Any candidate who is taking serious money from Wall Street or has top campaign officials from Wall Street will probably face angry questions from voters.”

The Pawlenty campaign downplays these concerns. “Gov. Pawlenty has been vocal in his opposition to the bailouts,” campaign spokesman Alex Conant said. Conant added that Pawlenty has stressed that “when he’s elected president, Wall Street won’t be getting any more bailouts.”

Pawlenty endeared himself to Wall Street interests and others in the financial sector because of his stances on issues and legislation that helped their corporate fortunes when he was the Gopher state’s governor for two terms through last year.

In 2008, Pawlenty vetoed a bill that was widely opposed by Wall Street interests which would have imposed a one-year ban on certain foreclosures. The bill, which passed in both Minnesota chambers with bipartisan support, would have benefitted some 12,000 homeowners, many of whom had subprime loans.

“The bill was consistently opposed by members of the financial industry and their lobbying associations,” Jim Davnie, a Minnesota House member and Democrat who was one of the act’s sponsors, told iWatch News.

Pawlenty at the time explained his veto by stating that no other state in the nation “has enacted a bill like (this). There is a reason for that—it is not sound policy.”

On Pawlenty’s watch, the Minnesota Commerce Department also moved to cut regulations, added Davnie. In a symbolic move, the department’s main regulatory division was renamed the market assurance division, he said.

The Wall Street firm has other ties to the state that predate Pawlenty’s years as governor. In 2009, Morgan Stanley and Morgan Stanley & Co. were paid over $700,000 in commissions for managing stocks for the Minnesota State Board of Investment. The board oversees the state’s government pension fund.

Despite Pawlenty’s strong ties to the financial world, Mitt Romney has an even larger contingent of Wall Street bundlers and allies. Strong has his work cut out for him: Romney’s exploratory committee hauled in $10 million one day last month when hundreds of his top fundraisers spent a day in Las Vegas dialing for dollars. Fundraisers for Romney predict he could raise about $40 million for this quarter.

Strong should be able to bank on Pawlenty’s good ties to the finance community. In the last election cycle, two of the other top 10 donors to Pawlenty’s PAC hailed from the financial sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.Executives from Citadel Investment Group, a Chicago-based hedge fund chipped in $50,500 and U.S. Bancorp executives donated $29,500, according to the Center’s data. Overall, the leadership PAC raised $3.3 million in 2009-2010.

“We’re confident that we’ll raise the resources we need to be successful,” Conant said. “We’re working really hard to develop a national finance network and we’re having success.” Conant said the campaign will “raise considerably less,” than others who have run for national office before.

The money chase for Pawlenty could be a bit more challenging for Strong in the coming months: he will move to Hong Kong to become co-chief executive of the Asia-Pacific region for Morgan Stanley.

Conant stressed that Strong’s move shouldn’t impact his fundraising for Pawlenty and that he will probably be going back and forth periodically for his business.

iWatch News reporters Mike Hudson and Aaron Mehta contributed to this story.