In 2011, Gene Sperling had a problem. He was working as President Obama’s chief economic advisor but his government salary did not cover his expenses. He and his wife lived in a Georgetown townhouse valued today at around $2 million, but did not have enough equity to qualify for a second mortgage or credit line. He didn’t want to sell the house and he wanted to keep working at a prestigious but relatively low-paid public service job.
And so Sperling turned to a close friend from law school: Howard Shapiro. A top partner at the Washington powerhouse law firm WilmerHale, Shapiro had loaned Sperling money before and was willing to do so again. Sperling asked the White House Counsel’s office and the Office of Government Ethics for permission to borrow from Shapiro, whose firm frequently negotiates with the government on behalf of some of the nation’s leading corporations. Officials approved the transactions.
So in 2011, Sperling borrowed between $100,000 and $250,000 from Shapiro at 5 percent, a rate that appears to be well below the interest banks charged at the time for comparable loans. Sperling listed his borrowing on his financial disclosure forms.
In each of the next two years, Sperling went to Shapiro again, taking out two more loans that brought his debt to a total of between $300,000 and $600,000. (The forms require disclosure of a range, not specific figures.) The loans are unsecured. Sperling consolidated earlier loans from Shapiro, one made in 2006 and the 2011 loan, into the later ones.
Today, Sperling is advising the Hillary Clinton campaign on economics. In a “Funny or Die” spoof shown last month to the Democratic National Convention, he warned that Donald Trump’s policies would lead to dangerous levels of debt for the country.
Sperling served as a counselor to the Treasury Secretary in 2009 and 2010. He became the director of the National Economic Council at the White House in January 2011 and served until early 2014. Now in the private sector, he consults with a variety of companies, including the asset manager Pimco, home sharing service Airbnb and Renovate America, a green energy finance company.
Shapiro is a partner and litigator at WilmerHale and the firm routinely represents clients with business before the federal government. Shapiro and WilmerHale’s clients have included major financial institutions, such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.
The loans from Shapiro to Sperling were reviewed and cleared by White House Counsel and the Office of Government Ethics, according to White House spokesman Eric Schultz. No issue came before Sperling that prompted him to recuse himself.
Experts questioned whether an ordinary person could obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars in unsecured loans from a bank or other lender. Personal loans exist, but typically max out at around $40,000 or $50,000 and carry higher interest rates than what Shapiro charged his friend.
In an illustration of the typical rate for unsecured consumer loans, Sperling reported on those same forms that he had received a consumer loan in 2011 for dental care from Care Credit that carried an interest rate of 14.9 percent. That same year, he was paying 13.15 percent interest on credit card debt of between $15,000 and $50,000.
Craig Holman, a government ethics specialist of Public Citizen, said that the transactions appear to be at odds with federal ethics rules. Because the loans were at below-market rates, Holman said, Sperling received a financial benefit akin to a gift. Federal rules bar executive branch employees from accepting gifts from “prohibited sources,’’ defined as anyone with business before the federal government. There can be exemptions for personal friendship, but Holman said such gifts should be barred because of the conflicts of interest they pose.
“I have a hard time seeing how such a major law firm would not have any business pending before White House,’’ Holman said. “This would appear to me to violate ethics rules. I don’t see any way around it,” he says.
Sperling said in a statement emailed to ProPublica that he violated no rules. "Until I left the White House in 2014 at the age of 55, I had worked every single year of my career in either public service or in near-full time non-profit work. When our savings were depleted during my most recent public service, I took personal loans from my very closest friend of more than 30 years so that I could afford to remain in public service without having to sell our house when we had only two more years left with both of our children at home.
“Prior to receiving the loans, I discussed them with the Office of the White House Counsel, and the White House Counsel and the Office of Government Ethics approved them. The loans were disclosed on my financial disclosure forms each year and were completely available to the public as early as four years ago. Only now, four years later has there been an effort — clearly an organized effort — to make an issue of them."
Other ethics experts were less concerned than Holman. That it was disclosed and cleared by the ethics office “takes the guy off the hook. What more is he supposed to do?” says Kenneth Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom who specializes in federal gift and gratuity rules.
WilmerHale did not comment. Shapiro did not respond to calls and an email requesting comment.
Sperling spent almost his entire career in public service, working for various political campaigns and serving in the Clinton administration, where he was also director of the National Economic Council. In 2008, Sperling had income of $2.2 million, according to a Bloomberg story. He made $887,727 from Goldman Sachs and $158,000 for speeches, the majority to financial companies.
Shapiro is WilmerHale’s chair of its Litigation/Controversy Department and a member of its Securities Department. He specializes in white-collar defense and complex corporate litigation. Shapiro himself was criticized for his judgment while serving in government. As the FBI’s general counsel under President Bill Clinton, Shapiro tipped off the White House about a potentially damaging Congressional investigation.
Sperling played a role in at least one matter that concerned some clients of WilmerHale. In 2012, President Obama singled Sperling out to thank him for his role in the federal and state government’s settlement with five major financial institutions over foreclosure and mortgage servicing abuses. WilmerHale was one of the many law firms involved in negotiating the settlement. Sperling says he was not involved in the negotiations, but only helped decide that settlement money would go toward reducing principal on mortgages for borrowers whose homes were worth less than their mortgages.
In 2011, Congress passed a patent reform law that contained an amendment that helped WilmerHale. The amendment would have relieved the law firm of a possible $214 million malpractice payment to a client.
Sperling oversaw patent reform as part of his work at the White House. Sperling says he had no involvement in the bill, which was signed by President Obama in September 2011.