If you say “Jefferson County” to a professional in muniland, you will likely get a shudder of mild revulsion. This Alabama county is the biggest example of Wall Street aggression towards a public entity since Orange County, California declared bankruptcy in 1994 after buying too many interest-rate derivatives. Dodd-Frank, the financial-reform law that’s been in effect for a year, changed the rules for municipal bonds and derivatives. But did it change them enough to avert a repeat scenario?
First, a little background: Jefferson County was ordered by the federal EPA to build a sewer system at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. The construction went over budget and was rife with massive corruption that has ensnared 17 people. The funding of the sewer project was equally corrupt. JP Morgan was under investigation for bribery in 2009 and eventually reached a settlement with the SEC. The Washington Post reported this at the time:
J.P. Morgan Chase agreed to a $722 million settlement with federal regulators over accusations that the bank and two former executives made illegal payments to win municipal bond business from Jefferson County, Ala.
The Securities and Exchange Commission said Wednesday that J.P. Morgan and former managing directors Charles E. LeCroy and Douglas W. MacFaddin paid $8 million to friends of Jefferson County commissioners who voted to hire the bank to carry out municipal bond offerings and other transactions to finance a new sewer system. The friends worked for local financial firms, but did not work on the deal.
The financial deals arranged by J.P. Morgan ultimately resulted in millions of dollars in losses and pushed the county to the brink of bankruptcy, causing residents to pay much higher rates for water and sewer services.