Loeffler and her husband Jeff Sprecher, CEO of global exchange operator ICE, have an estimated $800 million fortune–and the conflicts to go with it.
In late March, with the stock market reeling from the effects of coronavirus, an explosive story took over the news: Members of the U.S. senate, who had received early briefings on the potential effects of the coronavirus, had dumped stock positions, allowing them to avoid massive losses. No one had ditched more than newly appointed Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler, who got rid of more than $20 million of shares from late January to March. Three months after becoming a senator, Loeffler was already a poster child for Washington swampiness.
But despite all the bad headlines, the truth was that Loeffler hadn’t gotten much richer from those stock trades. The reason: She was already extremely rich, worth far more than most realized. Many reports have noted that Loeffler, 49, and her husband, 65, hold a roughly $500 million stake in a company called Intercontinental Exchange, which serves as the parent to the New York Stock Exchange. But after accounting for more than a decade of share sales and dividend payments, while also taking a closer look at Loeffler’s financial disclosure report, Securities and Exchange Commission filings and property records, Forbes estimates that Loeffler and her husband are worth at least $800 million.
If they’ve invested wisely over the years, they could be worth as much as $1 billion. (Representatives for Loeffler and Sprecher did not comment on the value of their fortune.) Either way, it’s enough to make Loeffler, in all likelihood, the richest person on Capitol Hill. Other contenders include Senator Mitt Romney of Utah and Senator Rick Scott of Florida whose fortunes, based on a review of financial disclosures filed with the Senate, could exceed $275 million apiece.
The story behind Loeffler’s fortune begins in 1997 with her husband, Jeff Sprecher. Then 42, Sprecher was working at a successful power plant developer and living in Beverly Hills, California when he negotiated to buy a struggling Georgia company called Continental Power Exchange. His goal? Build out a platform that would allow traders to easily buy and sell energy commodities online.
In 2000 Sprecher took Continental and formed Intercontinental Exchange, also called ICE. He brought on companies like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley as early shareholders, giving them equity in the business in exchange for promises to execute a minimum number of transactions through Sprecher’s platform each year. “I figured my own personal stake, or net worth, or reward that came out of it, would work out just fine as long as the company did well,” Sprecher said in a 2018 podcast. And it did. At first, Enron dominated the online energy trading market, but when its accounting scandal broke, Sprecher’s business took off.
Loeffler, originally from Illinois, joined the company in 2002, after getting her MBA at DePaul University in Chicago and building her career at Toyota, Citi and William Blair. Two years later she and Sprecher married. In 2005, Sprecher took the business public. His 4.5% stake was worth more than $10 million at the time. He continued buying up exchanges and clearing houses around the world—even the famous New York Stock Exchange—growing the company (and his own fortune) through a series of acquisitions. Loeffler, meanwhile, rose to become head of marketing, communications and investor relations at the firm.
As their fortune expanded, so did their lifestyle. In 2009, Sprecher and Loeffler purchased a 7-bedroom, 15,000-square-foot Atlanta estate for more than $10 million. When the home first hit the market, it boasted over-the-top features like a pool house with sections imported from a castle in France, a fossilized dinosaur footprint under glass and a hearth from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, according to a 2007 story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2010, Loeffler, who played basketball in high school, purchased a stake in the city’s WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream.
Since 2014 the value of ICE stock has more than doubled. Loeffler and Sprecher have also bought three homes in Florida, a condo in Chicago and a $4.3 million pad along the Georgia coastline. They used their home base in Atlanta to host charity events and political fundraisers, like a reported $25,000-a-head event for Mitt Romney.
Events led to connections, and connections led to opportunities. When Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson retired at the end of 2019, Governor Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler to fill his seat. She left her position running an ICE subsidiary and took office in January 2020. By March, she found herself caught up in controversy.
Loeffler denied any wrongdoing related to her stock trades, but in a reputation rebuilding effort, she announced, via a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that she was planning to divest from publicly traded equities in managed accounts. While that would allow her to avoid questions over her ownership in companies like Cisco or FedEx or Pfizer, it left one very large, conflict-causing asset in her family’s portfolio: a more-than $500 million stake in ICE.
In other words, the couple’s plans to “divest” looked a lot like the way Donald Trump divested. They said they would get rid of individual stock holdings—a sliver of the family fortune—while holding onto a stake in the core business, ICE. That meant that, in the eyes of government watchdog Craig Holman, Loeffler remains “a walking conflict of interest.”
In May, the Georgia senator stepped down from her position on the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Commodities, Risk Management, and Trade, explaining the decision as a move to “avoid potential attacks.” Still, Loeffler remains on the overarching committee, which as recently as last year held a full committee hearing on reauthorizing the Commodities Future Trading Commission, a government agency that regulates her husband’s business. Loeffler could also face votes on nominations for appointees to the CFTC and the Securities and Exchange Commission, another agency that watches over ICE.
“There has to be vigorous oversight of the markets, and Congress has an important role to play in that,” says Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington. “She needs to do everything possible to mitigate against her ability to vigorously carry out that function. By her husband maintaining these interests, it really hinders her ability to be part of that function.”
Forbes found no evidence that Loeffler is breaking any Senate rules or federal laws, which allow for some mixing of business and politics. ICE has continued to lobby the U.S. Senate since Loeffler became a member, but in accordance with Senate rules, has not lobbied her office, according to representatives for the company and Loeffler. Like the president, senators are exempt from the federal conflicts-of-interest statute, allowing Loeffler to take positions that benefit ICE, without violating the law.
A spokesperson for Loeffler said the legislator has promised to recuse herself from “any Senate matter where there is a conflict of interest.” When asked for examples of times Loeffler has recused herself, the spokesperson referred Forbes to their previous statement.
As long as Loeffler and her husband hold onto their stock, there are no easy solutions—even recusal can cause complications for a legislator. “If she recuses because of a conflict of interest arising from her husband's business, it also means that Georgia has 50% less of a voice in what happens,” says Donald Sherman, former chief oversight counsel for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “In a divided government, with a closely divided Senate, one vote can certainly be decisive. It's a disadvantage to folks back home if their senator has a conflict.”
As Loeffler heads toward a special election in November, facing both Democratic and Republican challengers, she is following the Trump playbook to set the narrative. “The liberals unfairly target President Trump every day—just like they’re unfairly targeting conservative Kelly Loeffler,” a narrator declares in a recent campaign ad, as an image shows Loeffler beside Trump, “But they’re both standing strong.”