Billionaire GOP presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy bragged during last week’s debate that he was the “only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for” — even as he has brushed off concerns that the ultra-rich have too much influence over politics and policy.

But over the past few years, Ramaswamy leveraged relationships in the conservative dark money world in order to drum up lucrative public pension investments and consulting business from Republican state financial officers.

Public employees and retirees, who depend on their pensions for retirement income, were largely kept in the dark about these relationships. Ramaswamy and executives at his “anti-woke” asset manager, Strive Enterprises, did not register to lobby in any of the dozen states where they contacted state financial officers — even as Ramaswamy or other Strive employees met with government officials and sought pension business. In a couple of cases, local ethics lawyers said that Strive should have registered to lobby.

On the 2024 campaign trail, Ramaswamy has pitched himself as a Trumpian outsider. He has made an abrupt jump in the polls, although former President Donald Trump remains the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential ticket. Corporate media has credited Ramaswamy’s “media ubiquity” (a.k.a. their own coverage of him) with his recent rise to prominence. But a Lever review reveals Ramaswamy blazing a more traditional path to power and wealth: using connections to help expand his fortune and facilitate his entry into the political world.

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To build their business, records show Ramaswamy and Strive have relied in part on relationships with conservative state officials who belong to the State Financial Officers Foundation (SFOF), a nonprofit organization that does not publicly disclose its donors and is closely linked to conservative activist Leonard Leo, architect of a billion-dollar political influence machine. SFOF bestowed Ramaswamy its lifetime achievement award in 2022, the year he launched Strive, and Ramaswamy has delivered speeches to the organization and other conservative groups that have worked with SFOF on financial issues in recent years.

“The State Financial Officers Foundation helped legitimize Ramaswamy as an ‘anti-woke’ expert and provided Strive with behind-closed-door access to its most valued prospective clients: state pension funds,” said Colette Rosenberg, a researcher with the nonpartisan watchdog group Documented, which has been tracking Strive’s business across states. “Ramaswamy and Strive used that access to sell Strive to pension fund decision makers around the country.”

Ramaswamy stepped down as CEO of Strive in February to run for president, but he retains a stake estimated at 40 percent of the firm worth $120 million. His recent personal financial disclosure values his stake in Strive Enterprises at more than $50 million, and lists additional Strive holdings worth up to $55 million. In June, Strive announced that it had surpassed $750 million in assets under management.

By the end of June, Ramaswamy had pumped more than $16 million of his own fortune into his presidential campaign — more than 80 percent of the total that he had raised.

This summer, two former Strive employees filed separate lawsuits against the firm, Ramaswamy, and his co-founder. The lawsuits allege that Ramaswamy encouraged employees to violate securities laws and overstated the firm’s growth potential.

One of the former employee’s lawyers told Businessweek that Strive “was founded, in retrospect, largely as a PR mechanism for the presidential campaign of Ramaswamy.”

“Value maximization is our fiduciary duty as an asset manager,” a Strive spokesperson told The Lever. “Strive meets with the investment staff at public pensions and those that oversee the pensions on a regular basis, as well as every other type of asset manager and asset allocator… Strive is educating the same pension funds on why shareholder capitalism outperforms, and we are having frank discussions about the fiduciary duties of asset managers and asset allocators.”

The Ramaswamy campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“A Warm Introduction”

The 38-year-old Ramaswamy is one of the youngest billionaires in America. He largely got rich by founding a biotech firm that won backing from major investors and cashing out even when his ventures failed.

But Ramaswamy rose to public prominence thanks to his interest in the culture war. In 2021, he published the book Woke Inc., a screed against corporate social responsibility.

Then, in May 2022, Ramaswamy launched Strive with backing from billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel and from Sen. J.D. Vance’s (R-Ohio) venture capital firm. He’s used Strive as a podium from which to carry out his crusade against environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing — which encourages investors to consider the environmental and social consequences of their investment decisions, and the governance of the firms in which they are investing.

In an interview with CNBC last year, Ramaswamy characterized the firm’s business as “a message to corporate America to focus on excellence over politics.”

The idea presented by Ramaswamy and conservatives is that, by considering potential social and climate impacts in their investments, these asset managers are failing to fulfill their obligations as fiduciaries to act in the best interest of their investors.

“What I think is happening today is a problem, where the biggest asset managers on the planet — BlackRock, State Street, Vanguard — I think they’re using their clients’ capital to advocate for viewpoints in the boardrooms of corporate America that most of their own clients disagree with,” he said, arguing that this constitutes “a sort of fiduciary breach.” (Ramaswamy is personally invested in corporations that have been outspoken on ESG issues.)

Strive, for example, offers a “U.S. Energy ETF,” which is heavily invested in domestic fossil fuel companies. During the first GOP primary debate last week, Ramaswamy claimed that “the climate change agenda is a hoax.”

Ramaswamy’s grievances with the political establishment apparently have little to do with the corrupting influence of money in politics. A New Yorker profile last year said that “the issue” of how money compromises the political and policymaking processes “seemed to bore him.”

While the issue may bore Ramaswamy, political influence was foundational to his work with Strive.

Last spring and summer, Ramaswamy or Strive executives contacted financial officers in at least 12 states — Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia — to pitch Strive’s exchange traded funds, bundles of securities such as stocks and bonds that are traded on exchanges, and in some cases its advisory services, according to records obtained by Documented.

In all 12 of those states, the top financial officer was a member of the dark money nonprofit, SFOF. The State Financial Officers Foundation works with CRC Advisors, a consulting firm chaired by Leo, the conservative activist and Trump judicial adviser who helped build the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority.

Ramaswamy also sits on the board of the Leo-backed Philanthropy Roundtable and is a member of two Leo-backed groups, the young conservative network Teneo and the conservative lawyers network, the Federalist Society.

“The creation of Strive was part of Ramswamy’s strategy to capitalize on the culture war issue du jour,” said Rosenberg of Documented. “Ramaswamy used Strive to boost his image and connections with the movers and shakers of Republican politics while using those new connections to profit from his relentless campaign against ESG by driving state funds out of companies like BlackRock into his asset management firm.”

For example, in August of 2022, Strive co-founder Anson Frericks had lunch in Austin, Texas with a fossil fuel billionaire and Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, a member of SFOF. Weeks earlier, Hegar had introduced Ramaswamy for a talk he was giving on Woke Inc.

The following month, Hegar obliged when Frericks requested “a warm introduction” to Texas officials overseeing an “emerging managers fund.” Records show the Texas Employees Retirement Fund has invested $100 million in Strive’s “anti-China” exchange traded fund.

This winter, Strive moved to pitch another product to the state of Texas: Strive Advisory, a proxy advisory firm that sits under the same parent company as Strive’s asset manager, and shares some employees. Proxy advisors give investors — such as pension funds — advice on how to vote on shareholder resolutions.

In February, a Strive executive requested a meeting with the Texas Teacher Retirement System to pitch the firm’s proxy advising services. In advance of the meeting, Dale West, senior managing director for the Teacher Retirement System, wrote to the Strive executive in a confirmation email, “Be sure to bring us some ‘Vivek for Prez’ bumper stickers. (Too soon?)”

Officers of Strive also met with top financial officers from other states. In West Virginia, State Treasurer Riley Moore met with Strive officials, including at an SFOF event, according to records obtained by Documented.

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“Treasurer Moore first met Mr. Ramaswamy when he spoke as part of the National Review Institute’s Ideas Summit at The Greenbrier here in West Virginia during May 2021,” his office told The Lever.

In June 2022, the Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System set up a meeting on ESG, and then- treasurer (now auditor) Scott Fitzpatrick suggested Ramaswamy present to the pension board. Fitzpatrick is an SFOF member and outspoken critic of BlackRock and ESG investing; his spokesperson confirmed that Fitzpatrick had been connected with Ramaswamy through SFOF. Pension fund staff suggested that the meeting be kept to “education” and “not include someone who is actively recruiting investors for a fund.”

A spokesperson for Fitzpatrick said in an email that Ramaswamy launched Strive after his meeting with the Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System had been scheduled. “With that development, there was a discussion about whether he should still attend the conference,” they noted. “The decision was made that Fitzpatrick would reach out to Ramaswamy to explain that if he spoke at the conference, his talk would need to be educational and not a Strive pitch. Fitzpatrick had that conversation with Ramaswamy and he agreed.”

Just after the meeting, the pension fund tried to stop BlackRock from proxy voting on its behalf — before ultimately pulling their money from the firm.

Ramaswamy later reached out to Missouri retirement fund officials offering to “assist with proxy voting and shareholder engagement needs.”

“They Definitely Should Have Registered”

Despite its contacts with state officials, Strive never registered any lobbyists in Texas — nor in other states where employees of the firm met with pension officials in order to seek out business.

Under Texas law, meeting with pension officials to seek business counts as lobbying, according to Andrew Cates, a government ethics lawyer in the state. But the registration requirement is only triggered when the person attempting to influence public officials has been paid more than $1,760 in a calendar quarter for their activities.

While it’s entirely plausible that Strive officials reached this compensation threshold, it’s difficult to verify without looking under the hood.

“It’s really hard to prove,” said Cates. “It all really comes down to doing that calculation” — figuring out how much a Strive employee makes in a year, calculating the average hourly rate, and looking at how much time they spent meeting with government officials — “and it sucks because it’s hard to get those numbers to make it. The only way you’ll really get it is in discovery and a trial.”

Still, Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, said the lack of registration raises transparency and accountability concerns.

“Our view is that anybody trying to advise the teacher retirement system on where to make their investments should be registered as a lobbyist, so the public can have access to their registration,” Robison told The Lever, pointing out that in Texas, most retired teachers don’t get Social Security, making them dependent on the retirement fund.

“Transparency is very important in these types of transactions — they definitely should have registered as lobbyists, and if it’s not the law it should be,” said Robison.

The state of Indiana has also entered a formal business relationship with Strive to take advantage of the firm’s advisory services. Last November, the Indiana Public Retirement System signed a contract with Strive’s advisory arm to review the state’s investment policies, according to the Indiana Capital Chronicle. The contract listed Ramaswamy’s rate at $4,000 an hour, with a total cap of $150,000. Two other Strive officials were also listed on the contract.

The contract says that Strive Advisory “may be asked to advise” — or give its opinion — on asset managers that compete with Strive Asset Management. According to Jesse Coleman, a researcher at Documented, the metrics listed in Strive Advisory’s pitch materials would favor investments offered by Strive Asset Management.

“That raises a lot of questions because with all of the other proxy advising services, there’s a firewall” between the advisory service and the asset manager, Coleman told the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

“Strive is making recommendations about services they offer — if you know that the advice you are giving could make you more money, you will change your advice,” said Abe Schwab, an Indiana ethics expert and member of the Allen County Ethics Commission. “Why would we want state taxpayer dollars going to a business that is obviously not following best practices?”

Emails obtained by Documented show that, in February, Strive executives pitched the firm’s proxy advisory services to officials at the Florida State Board of Administration, which manages retirement savings for public employees.

The agency ultimately signed a previously unreported contract with Strive Advisory that began in May. The contract gives the Florida State Board of Administration access to Strive’s proxy voting recommendations, plus possible compensation and reimbursement for “educational and training services on topics relevant to the strategies and products provided.”

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In South Carolina, Ramaswamy met with state House Republicans and pension officials — a meeting facilitated by SFOF member and state treasurer Curtis Loftis. Local ethics lawyer John Crangle told the Post and Courier that Ramaswamy’s activity raised “a question of whether he’s engaged in unregistered lobbying.”

“Mr. Ramaswamy cold-called Treasurer Loftis about engaging in business, much like vendors do every week,” a spokesperson for the Loftis told The Lever. “The state treasurer’s office has not made any investments in Strive funds nor entered into any contracts for advisory or consulting services.”

Two recent lawsuits against Strive cast a shadow over the firm’s business practices. Both allege that Ramaswamy and co-founder Frericks pressured employees to violate securities laws — by using pitch materials that promised future returns and by asking employees who weren’t registered to sell securities to peddle them anyways.

One suit, brought by a former employee in Kansas in June, says that Ramaswamy “misrepresented the company’s finances to employees and investors,” according to Businessweek.

The second suit was brought by a former employee in New Jersey this August. That employee, Joyce Rosely, alleges that in addition to pressuring employees to violate securities laws, both Frericks and Ramaswamy “unlawfully engaged in securities sales activities despite the fact that neither has a securities license.”