Despite Populist Rhetoric, Lisman's Past Includes Membership in a Wall Street Secret Society | Off Message

Despite Populist Rhetoric, Lisman's Past Includes Membership in a Wall Street Secret Society


Bruce Lisman - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File: Paul Heintz
  • Bruce Lisman
Since he founded Campaign for Vermont in 2011, Bruce Lisman has pitched his personal political advocacy group as a sort of everyman's crusade for representation in Montpelier.

That's always been a stretch, given his 24-year career at the failed investment bank Bear Stearns and the $1 million-plus he's plowed into CFV. Now, thanks to a new book by former New York Times reporter Kevin Roose, we know that Lisman also belonged to an elite secret society of the powerful and wealthy during his Wall Street days. (WDEV's Mark Johnson and Green Mountain Daily's "farjas" first noted the Vermont connection.)

In an excerpt from the book, called Young Moneypublished Tuesday on New York magazine's website, Roose describes the society as "a sort of 1-percenter's Friars Club" whose annual dinners are filled with elitist, sexist and homophobic humor.

Founded in 1929, Kappa Beta Phi counts a slew of top bankers, regulators and titans of industry as members. Among them? Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, AIG CEO Bob Benmosche, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink and hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones.

Also on a membership list procured by Roose is a pair of Vermonters: Lisman and Sugarbush owner Win Smith, whose father helped found the company that became Merrill Lynch and who himself served as a senior Merrill exec. According to the list, the fathers of two former Vermont politicians — Howard Dean and Gaye Symington — served as "grand swipes," or leaders, of Kappa Beta Phi in the '60s and '70s.

In his book, Roose recounts sneaking into the society's annual dinner at New York's St. Regis Hotel in January 2012. Before he got the boot, the undercover reporter watched the group's newest class tell jokes and sing songs about the 2008 financial crisis while dressed "in leotards and gold-sequined skirts, with costume wigs."

Lisman, who was inducted into Kappa Beta Phi in 2001, says he hasn't attended the dinner since roughly 2008, shortly before he left Wall Street. As he remembers it, "Traditionally, it's been designed to poke fun at the industry and themselves."

He says he doesn't remember the details of the performance he put on as an inductee, other than that, "A couple of us were poking fun at our own leadership in our firm. I think that's generally how these things are."

Lisman says he doesn't recall the dinners as fostering an atmosphere of intolerance, adding, "I thought the original purpose was laugh at yourself. Things change. I don't know this person who wrote the article. I certainly wasn't there. I don't know if he told a straight story or if it was exaggerated."

Smith, who was inducted in 2000, recalls performing a spoof of the theme song from the musical "Annie" when he joined the club.

"The audience judges you. Usually they hooted and hollered and threw rolls at you," he says. "They dress you in costumes so you look like a total fool."

"It was always billed as kind of a fun, one-time get-together, where fierce competitors got together, enjoyed the company of one another and spoofed one another," Smith says. "When I was there, it was kind of a fun, jerky evening. It wasn't an old boys club, because there were women inductees, Christians, Jews, blacks and whites."

Smith says he only attended the dinners two or three times and distanced himself from the organization when he left Wall Street in 2002. 

"I didn't want to come back, because it wasn't fun anymore," he says. "They send me a bill every year and I throw it away."

While Smith says he doesn't recall any mean-spirited humor, he wonders whether the tradition still makes sense in the post-bailout world.

"I realized you can make fun of yourselves... but with the damage done in 2007 and 2008, that's not a joking matter," he says. "It was probably something that made sense, but the question is, in this time, does it still make sense?"

Asked if his membership in Kappa Beta Phi detracts from Campaign for Vermont's populist message, Lisman says he doesn't think so.

"I haven't thought of this organization in a long time. It is what it is," he says. "But I don't think it detracts from our messaging. It doesn't dilute the challenges we all face, and it doesn't change the solutions that are out there."

Then again, if Lisman ends up running for governor this fall, as he has denied interest in doing, you can bet his opponents will dredge up the matter.

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