Ariel Investments Builds First-Class Connections

In its harshest light, lobbying is about wielding influence. In soft focus, it’s a way of building and cementing relationships.

Few corporations have been more successful with the gentler approach than Ariel Investments, the Chicago mutual fund company headed by John Rogers Jr.

Ariel enjoys top-shelf ties to Washington through long-standing personal connections to the Obama White House, illustrated in the map below. (An interactive version can be seen at Muckety.com.)

Washington connections of Ariel Investments

Rogers is a friend of Craig Robinson and his famous sister, First Lady Michelle Obama. His ex-wife is Desiree Rogers, former social secretary to the Obama administration and current CEO of Johnson Publishing Company.

The president of Ariel is the equally well-connected Mellody Hobson, who sits on such prominent corporate boards as Starbucks, Estee Lauder and Groupon. She and Rogers are fundraisers for President Obama’s re-election bid, as they were for his 2008 campaign.

The connections don’t end there. The late James E. Bowman, father of Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, served as a director of Ariel.

Former Ariel Vice President Matthew Yale served as deputy chief of staff at the Department of Education during the first two years of the Obama administration.

Ariel’s lobbying activities are low key. Ellen Chube, a former lobbyist with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, is a vice president of the company and Rogers’s chief of staff.

Ariel employs the Raben Group as its lobby firm in Washington, paying it a steady $20,000 per quarter throughout 2011 and 2012.

The client-lobby relationship has taken an unusual form as the two firms partnered to raise awareness about racial and ethnic disparities in retirement plans.

The project resulted in a study released last month, showing that African-Americans and Hispanics had been especially hurt by the economic downturn.

Many had tapped into retirement savings to cover short-term debts. In 2010, 8.8 percent of African-American workers took hardship withdrawals, compared to just 1.7 percent of whites.

In addition, 63 percent of African-Americans and 57 percent of Hispanics who left their employer in 2010 cashed out their retirement savings.

“Minority workers disproportionately affected by layoffs feel like they have no choice other than drain their retirement savings in order to make ends meet while unemployed,” Hobson said after the report’s release.

The report – and by extension, Ariel Investments – received widespread media coverage and helped forge uncounted new connections.

Collaborators in the project included the Ariel Education Initiative, a nonprofit affiliate of Ariel Investments; Aon Hewitt; Raben Group and the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies.

According to initiative tax returns, trustees of the nonprofit arm include Sarah Duncan, sister of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who ran the program in the 1990s.

In a case study published on its web site, the Raben Group says it was hired by Ariel to raise awareness about racial and ethnic disparities in retirement savings.

The Ariel Education Initiative obtained a $250,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2008 to study minority workers’ underinvestment in corporate 401(k) plans.

Raben put together a campaign that included outreach to Congress and the Obama administration, as well as to employers and unions.

Ariel’s more traditional lobbying activities include contacts with Congress, the White House, the Department of Labor, Treasury and the Office of Personnel Management. Areas of concern include regulatory and legislative reform related to retirement security, and government measures addressing racial and gender disparities.

Its lobbyists are Robert Raben, a former assistant attorney general and counsel to the House Judiciary Committee; and Alaina Beverly, a former lobbyist with the NAACP.

Laurie Bennett is a longtime newspaper journalist and winner of the Polk Award. She is co-founder of Muckety.com and also blogs for Forbes.

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