November 24, 2008
By Dave Michaels
The Dallas Morning News
Michael Temchine/Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Jeb J. Mason is deputy assistant secretary for business affairs and public liaison U.S. Department of the Treasury.
WASHINGTON – It's every SMU grad's dream: to be young, handsome, and closely involved with deciding how to spend $700 billion.
Attention, Class of 2000: Your fellow alum, Jeb Mason, is living it.
Mr. Mason, 32, has spent his entire career inside the Bush administration. His first assignment: running the mailroom for President George W. Bush's transition office. His latest: overseeing the Treasury Department's contacts with Washington's influential community of lobbyists, trade groups and think tanks.
Mr. Mason is the gatekeeper to Henry Paulson, considered the most powerful treasury secretary in more than a decade.
In the month since Treasury began distributing bailout funds, requests have come from a range of special-interest groups: automakers and mortgage brokers, timeshare companies and even a bait-and-tackle shop that complained its local banks weren't lending, according to Treasury officials.
"They all have their own constituents and want to be in the know, so they call me," said Mr. Mason, who carries the title of deputy assistant secretary for business affairs. "I guess I'm the first line of defense."
Mr. Mason joined Treasury after working in the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives under Karl Rove, the ultimate authority on using policy to enhance the president's political agenda.
Mr. Paulson started giving him assignments during his interview for the job, so Mr. Mason figured he was hired.
"I thought he was going to be an energetic person to come into the Treasury late in the administration when very often administrations are seen as becoming irrelevant to some degree," Mr. Mason said. "And I thought he was going to make it relevant."
He didn't anticipate a crisis, however. Since October, Mr. Mason has fielded as many as 50 calls a day from groups inquiring about Treasury's use of bailout funds. Some are from consultants whose clients, hedge funds and other institutional investors, are looking for insight into Treasury's next move.
The loudest plea for help has come from U.S. automakers, although life insurers and consumer-finance companies have also sought access to the program, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Detroit's advocates want $25 billion to help the companies survive a severe downturn in car purchases. Lots of lobbying
Community banks also have ratcheted up the pressure on Treasury to announce rules that would give them access to the asset relief program.
"Naturally a lot of people say, 'Gee, you guys have this $700 billion program, and with just X million or X billion, you could save our business,' " said Mr. Mason, who grew up in Lake Highlands.
"You have all these people, every constituent you can possibly imagine, coming to your doorstep and looking for help," he said.
So far, Mr. Paulson has resisted calls to give bailout funds to businesses other than banks.
Critics complain the bailout was hastily arranged and made for Wall Street institutions that fueled the housing bubble. Some banks that received the cash have used asset relief programfunds to buy other banks or pay dividends, which has annoyed lawmakers.
After initially saying the program would buy distressed mortgage-related assets, Mr. Paulson announced a change in policy two weeks ago. Treasury said it would focus on investing in banks, which set off a frenzy of lobbying from institutions worried they'd be left out.
"The day that happened, [Mr. Mason's] phone probably rang off the hook," said Josh Denny, associate vice president of public policy at the Mortgage Bankers Association, who belonged to the same SMU fraternity as Mr. Mason. "There wasn't initially a lot of public information about what it meant." Praise for Mason
Some groups give Mr. Mason and others at Treasury high marks for listening to how the asset relief program could be used to help institutions beyond Wall Street.
Ellen Seidman, a former top Treasury official under President Bill Clinton, noted that Treasury recently opened the asset relief program to smaller institutions that focus their lending in low-income areas.
"At least in this one little corner of the world, they were consciously listening to people other than the usual suspects," said Ms. Seidman, financial services policy director at the New America Foundation.
Mark Kitchens, a senior vice president of AARP, said Mr. Mason arranged a meeting with Mr. Paulson that helped provide the group with crucial answers.
"Jeb was instrumental in setting that up and making sure the information flow was well-coordinated," said Mr. Kitchens, a Fort Worth native. "That continues to this day."
Like many Treasury officials, Mr. Mason has kept late hours and worked a succession of weekends during the recent crisis.
"Most of these guys are not of Washington, and Jeb brings to that inner circle some Washington experience and some political acumen," Mr. Denny said.
Mr. Mason said he'll probably return to Texas next year, although he hasn't had time for a planned trip to meet with people who could steer him toward the right job.
"It's a real credit to him that he's finishing out the term, turbulence and all, and not seeking greener pastures before the time is up," said Jonathan Grella, who was a spokesman for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and is a friend of Mr. Mason's. "Nobody would begrudge him if he did."
AT A GLANCE: JEB J. MASON
Position: Deputy assistant secretary for business affairs and public liaison, U.S. Treasury Department
Born: April 2, 1976, in Dallas
Education: Bachelor's degrees in public policy and economics, Southern Methodist University, 2000
Career: U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 2006 to present; White House executive office of the president, May 2005 to December 2006; Bush-Cheney campaign, April 2004 to November 2004; Coalition Provisional Authority, Iraq, April 2003 to September 2003; U.S. Department of Homeland Security, December 2002 to April 2003; the White House, January 2002 to December 2002; office of the secretary of defense, March 2001 to January 2002
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research