Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Ad asks: 'Do You Know Fred Hubbell?'

Iowa Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell speaks during an Oct. 17 debate at Morningside College in Sioux City. (Justin Wan/Sioux City Journal)
Iowa Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell speaks during an Oct. 17 debate at Morningside College in Sioux City. (Justin Wan/Sioux City Journal)

Introduction

A full-page ad in the Oct. 10 newspaper got the attention of many readers and the Fact Checker team. The ad, paid for by Liberties We Prize LLC, attacks Fred Hubbell, a retired Des Moines businessman and Democrat running for governor against GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Source of claims

Liberties We Prize LLC, a company formed in late September, lists a Davenport law firm as its registered agent, according to Iowa Secretary of State records. A website referred to in the ad was reserved anonymously through a domain company specializing in hiding that information, according to who.is, a website that looks up domain owner information.

The Fact Checker team called the law firm and emailed the ad placement agency, asking them to forward our messages to the ad sponsor. We asked for additional sourcing information, part of our regular process for checking claims, and gave Liberties We Prize an opportunity to provide more information about its identity.

On Oct. 18 we received a reply from Kyle Apple, chairman of the University of Iowa College Republicans, who said he was approached by a group he would not identify that asked the College Republicans to conduct research.

Because The Gazette ad cost more than $1,000, Liberties We Prize should have filed a disclosure of the spending within 48 hours. No such disclosure was filed in that time period, according to the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board website.

However, Apple is listed as Liberties We Prize LLC’s secretary in filings made Oct. 22 and 23 to the board. The disclosure shows the company made two newspaper advertisement purchases totaling just over $18,000 as part of a larger multiplatform ad buy of just over $56,000. In a phone interview, Apple said he was made secretary of the organization this week, but would not identify any other officers or say who funded the advertisements.

Analysis

The ad contains many comments and rhetorical questions that are not measurable. But several other parts of the ad are. The Fact Checker team reviewed nine claims.

Claim 1: “After selling his family’s 130 year old Iowa insurance business to the giant multinational company ING, Fred was given a job as a senior financial executive. ... The U.S. government discovered that under Fred’s watch the company laundered money for Iran and Cuba in violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act. A $600 million fine, the largest ever, was levied for ‘knowingly and willingly conspiring’ in criminal activity. Shell companies in Romania and Curacao were used to provide state sponsors of terror access to the U.S. financial system.”

Analysis: ING was subject to a money laundering investigation involving the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Justice Department and Treasury Department for processing payments to and from countries under economic sanctions. A July 2012 settlement was worth $619 million, the largest fine ever at the time for violating sanctions.

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According to that settlement, ING opened a joint venture bank with Cuba in August 1994 and used a bank branch in Curacao, a small territory under Dutch control, to process the payments without alerting U.S. authorities. From October 2002 to July 2007, ING was accused of helping process over $1.65 billion in Cuban-linked payments and $1.35 million in Iranian transactions through U.S. institutions.

According to his profile in Bloomberg’s executives database, Hubbell was chief executive officer of ING’s U.S. Life and Annuities Operations from October 1997 to February 1999. He then was promoted to ING’s Executive Board in May 2000 to manage insurance activities in the Americas and the Netherlands, and left that board in 2006 to return to the United States.

Although Hubbell was on the ING Group board, he managed ING’s insurance operations instead of its banking business, where the violations would have occurred. The company specifically differentiates banking and insurance activities on its balance sheets.

Grade: It is true that Hubbell was a senior official at ING during the time in question. But there’s no link between his role and the ING’s actions that the ad raises. We give this claim a D.

Claim 2: “As a senior financial executive with Amsterdam-based ING, Fred helped lead the company into a downward spiral that ended in a €10 billion taxpayer bailout.”

Analysis: This claim cites an October 2008 New York Times article that reported ING would receive 10 billion euros from the Dutch government “after the financial services company became the latest victim of the global financial crisis.”

While ING did receive a bailout, it’s quite a reach to blame Hubbell for it. He was with ING leading up to the financial crisis of 2008 — again, he managed ING’s insurance activities from 2000 to 2006, according to Bloomberg — but even the ad’s only source blames the bailout on the global crisis, not ING or its management.

Grade: That earns this claim a D.

Claim 3: “Dutch taxpayers were stunned to learn that their bailout money was used to replace and automate the jobs of 7,000 workers. As a Dutch labor leader put it, the company ‘paid 7 billion euros to shareholders. Today the workers pay the invoice.’”

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Analysis: The ad cites a news article written in Dutch for this claim, but Reuters also covered this news in English. In an October 2016 article, Reuters reported that ING Group announced it would “shed 7,000 jobs and invest in its digital platforms,” a move that “drew swift criticism from unions.”

After leaving ING Group in 2006, Hubbell joined ING U.S.’s executive board in 2013, according to Bloomberg, just before American operations were spun off into a separate company. These layoffs three years later in Europe did happen, but they had nothing to do with Hubbell.

Grade: This claim gets an F.

Claim 4: “Accused of a [sic] fraudulently selling ‘vanishing premium’ policies, Fred settled a lawsuit with thousands of policyholders for $20 million.”

Analysis: Equitable of Iowa, which became part of ING in 1997, was among many insurance companies, including Metropolitan Life, Prudential, New York Life and Massachusetts Mutual, that faced judgments over “vanishing premiums” in the 1990s, according to the New York Times. These life insurance policies were sold with inaccurate projections of how long a customer would need to pay premiums before the dividends alone would pay for the policy.

Hubbell was president of Equitable from 1987 to 1997. An Arizona man sued Equitable in 1995 in Polk County, Iowa Courts Online shows. That suit later was merged into a class-action lawsuit decided Jan. 27, 1998, in the U.S. District Court’s Tampa Division. A federal judge approved a settlement that included $23 million for general relief for Equitable policyholders.

Because another pot of money was available to people who went through the claims review process, the settlement likely was closer to $40 million, Ron Parry, a Cincinnati-based attorney who represented plaintiffs in the suit, told the Fact Checker. The settlement order notes “many thousands” of class members, but states the deal does not admit any wrongdoing on Equitable’s part.

Grade: We give this claim an A.

Claim 5: “ ... the company (Equitable) now employs a third fewer people in Des Moines than before the sale.”

Analysis: Equitable of Iowa’s March 1997 annual report, filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, shows the company had 642 full-time employees. Equitable merged in 1997 with ING, which renamed its U.S. branch Voya Financial in 2014. Voya had 433 employees in Des Moines in February 2017, according to the Des Moines Register. Though he had retired from managing daily operations, Hubbell served on the Voya board of directors until July 2017.

Grade: This claim gets an A.

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Claim 6: “ING got half a million dollars from Iowa taxpayers to move three blocks in 2017.”

Analysis: The Iowa Economic Development Authority in 2017 awarded Voya $553,000 in tax credits and refunds toward a $9.8 million project to consolidate operations and create 15 new jobs, IEDA spokeswoman Jacque Matsen said. But the company didn’t get the tax benefits.

“The contract for this project actually is being terminated because Voya’s business plans have changed since the award was approved,” Matsen said.

Grade: The tax benefits were approved, but not awarded. The claim gets an F.

Claim 7: “In a Des Moines Register interview, Fred said, ‘If shopkeepers are going to survive, they must get more sales out of their employees.’ He then told a story of a Korean Younkers employee who took over a beauty salon in Burlington. ‘Americans ... are only willing to handle five customers in a given time period. She always squeezes in six or seven and so do the people who work for her.’ He went on to say, ‘The irony is that without these challenging economic times many Iowa retailers ... wouldn’t even recognize the potential behind improved productivity.’ In other words, recessions have a bright side, because business owners can push their employees to work harder.”

Analysis: Looking to the 1986 Des Moines Register article cited by the ad, the quote above is mostly accurate. However, the ad attributes the quote that begins with “Americans ...” to Hubbell — though in the original quote he is paraphrasing a statement made to him by the salon employee.

Grade: We give this claim a B.

Claim 8: “His annual salary was $1.3 million plus a large bonus. He also received a car and driver, 52 weeks of paid sick leave, free travel, free tuition for his children, and free housing.”

Analysis: His annual salary was $1.3 million plus a bonus of up to 45 percent of his salary based on company performance, according to a 2002 employment contract with ING on file with the SEC and available on its website. In addition to a car, Hubbell was provided an “English speaking driver.”

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ING provided Hubbell a housing allowance for accommodations in the Netherlands for which ever was less — the equivalent of up to $8,415 per month or interest-only payments on a mortgage loan if Hubbell chose to purchase a home. Hubbell’s contract provided two round trip airline tickets between United States and the Netherlands for the Hubbell family per year of employment, free tuition for his children to an English-speaking grade school, and if Hubbell can’t carry out his job due to illness or disability, he would collect his salary for 52 weeks as long as the contract remains in effect.

Grade: We rate this an A.

Claim 9: “Fred owns a $1 million house in Colorado, and a $2 million house in Arizona.”

Analysis: According to property filings with Routh County, Colo., and Maricopa County, Ariz., Fred and Charlotte Hubbell own houses in Steamboat Springs and Scottsdale assessed in 2018 at $966,230 and $2,031,600, respectively.

Grade: This claim gets an A.

Conclusion

This attack ad from Liberties We Prize has nearly 20 claims against Hubbell, but several of the assertions are repeats with different wording or did not meet the Fact Checker’s criteria of being verifiable.

In this ad, the most shocking claims are front-loaded in the early paragraphs and are mostly false, in one case even contradicting the source cited. The claims that are true, including those about Hubbell’s wealth, already have been largely reported.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in advertisements that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context. If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Dan Mika, Molly Duffy, Mitchell Schmidt, B.A. Morelli and Erin Jordan of The Gazette.

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