Private Equity’s Influence-Peddling Machine
Private equity firms have become among the top investors in direct political influence. Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman donated $20 million to the Senate GOP’s super PAC and $3 million to an outside group backing President Donald Trump. Schwarzman has served as an outside adviser to Trump and bundled contributions for his reelection campaign. Top Blackstone executives also donated big sums to Biden. And the firm’s hospital staffing company helped bankroll a $54 million dark money campaign against bipartisan “surprise billing” legislation that could have cut into its profits.
Offering big speaking fees to media elites is one less-scrutinized facet of this larger influence campaign. Indeed, it is now a common side hustle for prominent political pundits and well-known journalists who are actively shaping and policing America’s political discourse — and who are limiting the conversation to terms that avoid offending wealth and power.
For the most part, the lucrative cottage industry of speaking fees is a taboo subject operating in the shadows of ritzy closed-door confabs. Few if any of the beneficiaries disclose their cash hauls to unwitting viewers watching them on Sunday-show style panels where they’re depicted as dispassionate observers of Washington events.
But now, conference agendas obtained from state pension systems provide a glimpse into the lucrative world of “buckraking,” whereby political and media icons trade their fame for paid speeches to corporate groups lobbying the government. The documents spotlight several annual investor conferences held by the Blackstone Group and the Carlyle Group, two of the world’s most powerful private equity firms, with a combined $800 billion worth of assets under management.
Beneficiaries include David Axelrod, Fareed Zakaria, and Nate Silver. Even legendary Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward speaks to corporate lobbying groups.
The speakers’ listed fees represent more money than many Americans earn in a year — and the fees are in exchange for speeches that briefly entertain wealthy people with outsize influence on our political and legislative processes. Many of the luminaries doing the speeches head back to their day jobs doing roundtables for corporate-owned media outlets, where they depict legislation as too progressive and insist the Left is responsible for Democratic Party incompetence.
Our reporters reached out to Carlyle, Blackstone, and the Beltway influencers named in this story to verify their appearances at the conferences. The firms and most of the speakers didn’t respond.