Chrysler Bankruptcy Exposes Dirty Politics

Chrysler's sad tale that led to this week's bankruptcy hearing in New York is not only an important business and political story. It also encompasses morality, the rule of law and strong-arm tactics used by some politicians.

Our story begins with the slow downfall of Chrysler, which succumbed to bankruptcy after experiencing a steep sales decline of 48 percent in one year. During its slide, Chrysler borrowed money from lenders and in return signed a contract promising that as so-called senior creditors, they'd get paid before anyone else if the company went under.

These creditors, by the way, represent something of a cross-section of America: the University of Kentucky, Kraft Foods' retirement fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pension funds, teachers' credit unions, and so on.

A normal bankruptcy filing would be straightforward. Senior creditors get paid 100 cents on the dollar. Everyone else gets in line.

But President Obama and his allies don't want that to happen. So they interfered on behalf of unions (the junior creditors) and publicly upbraided the senior creditors who were asserting their contractual rights and threatening to head to bankruptcy court.

Last week Mr. Obama lambasted them as "a small group of speculators" who "endanger Chrysler's future by refusing to sacrifice like everyone else."

Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, sent reporters a statement calling the creditors "vultures" and "rouge hedge funds." Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm piled on, taking aim during her radio address at a "few greedy hedge funds that didn't care how much pain the company's failure would have inflicted on families and communities everywhere."

It must be a coincidence that the United Auto Workers has handed $25.4 million to federal politicians over the last two decades, with 99 percent of that cash going to Democrats. And that Mr. Obama's final campaign stop on Election Day was a UAW phone bank.

If those politicians thought about this a bit more, they'd probably realize their mistake. Creditors didn't force Chrysler's management to head to the capital markets and beg for funds: It was poor management, uncompetitive wages, and a union that opposed pay cuts.

Without those greedy "vultures" and "rogues" injecting sorely-needed cash into a business they knew was risky, Chrysler might have been forced to declare bankruptcy much earlier. (And now that lenders know they may be demonized by the president, will they be as likely to help out next time?)

One of the better critiques of this unusual situation comes from Clifford Asness, managing partner at a $20 billion hedge fund named AQR Capital Management. His essay responds to what he called "toxic demagoguery" and says "the president's attempted diktat takes money from bondholders and gives it to a labor union that delivers money and votes for him."

On Wednesday, the list of creditors standing up for their rights shrunk and now includes OppenheimerFunds, Stairway Capital, Schultze Asset Management, Group G Partners, and Foxhill Capital Partners - which hold a combined $295 million of about $6.9 billion in secured Chrysler debt.

A document that the non-TARP creditors filed with the bankruptcy judge about the proposed sale to Fiat says: "The sale is far from an arm's length transaction, but rather, is the result of a tainted sales process dominated by the United States government... It is a sale that was orchestrated entirely by the Treasury and foisted upon (Chrysler)... Well before the filing, (Chrysler) had ceased to function as an independent company and had become an instrumentality of the government."

So if you're keeping score, you have a bankrupt company depending on the government for money negotiating with some TARP-funded creditors depending on the government for money and still more creditors who may hold insurance policies with AIG, which depends on the government for money. And we're already hearing similar allegations about General Motors and political interference.

One disturbing report came from a well-respected attorney representing the dissident Chrysler creditors. Thomas Lauria, the head of White & Case's bankruptcy practice, says that he was threatened by Steven Rattner, the White House's auto task force chief. (A White House spokesman denies making any threats.)

"I represent one less investor today than I represented yesterday," Lauria said on a Detroit radio show. "One of my clients was directly threatened by the White House and in essence compelled to withdraw its opposition to the deal under threat that the full force of the White House press corps would destroy its reputation if it continued to fight. That's how hard it is to stand on this side of the fence." Lauria said that his clients were willing to compromise on 50 cents on the dollar, but the government offered them only 29 cents.

In the Federalist Papers in 1788, James Madison wrote that "laws impairing the obligation of contracts are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation." Unfortunately, Washington politicians seem to pay little attention to history, morality, or the rule of law.

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    Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.

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