By Greg Roumeliotis and Luisa Beltran and Kevin Gray
NEW YORK/MIAMI (Reuters) - Marc Leder, the host of the fundraiser where Mitt Romney labeled 47 percent of Americans as people who paid no tax and believed the government has a responsibility to care for them, has spent most of his career in relative obscurity.
But the 50-year-old private equity executive, who made his fortune buying and selling distressed companies, has been thrust into the headlines, finding his way first into the tabloids as the result of a contentious divorce and raucous parties and, more recently, onto the front pages thanks to the Romney event.
Leder, co-founder of Sun Capital Partners Inc, held the $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in May at his Boca Raton, Florida, home during which the Republican presidential candidate was secretly video taped dismissing Obama's supporters - almost half the country's voters - as too dependent on government.
The tape was released this week and put Romney on the defensive in the face of accusations from Democrats that he didn't care about the poor or the middle class and wouldn't be a president for all Americans.
"I hosted a fundraiser for an old friend in May," Leder said in a statement provided by his firm's spokesman, who declined to comment further for this article.
"I believe all Americans should have the opportunity to succeed, to improve their lives, and to build even better lives for their children. I have supported people from both political parties who share this view and make it a priority, even though their ideas on how to achieve it may differ."
The financier has thrown his financial weight behind Romney, an "old friend" Leder credits with inspiring his move from investment banking into private equity. Out of the $337,000 Leder has spent in political donations in this election season, $321,600 has gone to Mitt Romney and other Republicans and Republican-aligned groups, according to Reuters calculations.
People who know Leder describe him as the quintessential private equity executive - a confident, outgoing personality, who is interested in even the smallest details at the more than 80 companies owned by his firm.
"He is very much into detail ... He focuses on the garnish on a plate and says why do you need to put a pickle on a plate if nobody's eating it?" said George Michel, CEO of Sun Capital portfolio company Boston Market, a fast food chain.
Michel described Leder as being a relentless optimist who works all hours, but finds time for his children.
Leder has also followed in the footsteps of other prominent private equity executives such as Blackstone Group LP's Stephen Schwarzman by drawing attention for his lavish parties and lifestyle.
Controversy has plagued Leder of late. His private equity firm is one of those being investigated by the New York state attorney general for potential tax dodging, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters earlier this month.
A father of two daughters and one son, Leder divorced his wife of 22 years in 2009 after she cheated on him with their children's 23-year-old tennis coach, according to court papers filed by Leder's lawyer in their divorce proceedings.
His ex-wife, Lisa, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. A lawyer for her did not respond to a request for comment.
Leder's ex-wife described him in a 2009 divorce filing as a very successful private equity investor with "enormous annual income."
The Leders "enjoy a very high standard of living including multiple multi-million dollar homes, private jet travel and other luxuries," said the divorce petition, which was filed by his ex-wife's lawyer and included a request the court determine how their assets should be distributed.
Lawyers for both argued over the value of the couple's estate at the time. An attorney for Lisa Leder put the couple's marital estate at $400 million, while a lawyer representing Marc Leder said the value stood at more than $100 million.
The issue was at the center of a months-long legal battle as Leder's ex-wife sought documents and other testimony to determine the value of Sun Capital and Leder's stake in the firm.
Court documents filed by both of their lawyers and a transcript of a June 2009 court hearing depicted a lavish lifestyle that included a 10,000-square-foot mansion in Boca Raton, Florida, a family vacation house in the ski resort town of Stowe, Vermont, personal staff and a Sun Capital employee responsible for paying the family's bills.
Leder's parties in the Hamptons and St. Barts drew the attention of the New York Post. The paper described one Bridgehampton party as being "as if the Playboy Mansion met the East End," citing attendees describing nudity and public sex acts.
Leder has never commented on such claims, but has denied hosting wild and crazy parties.
Sources who know Leder paint a mixed picture of him following his divorce. Some said he devoted less time to the firm to pursue recreational activities and dating. Others said his reputation as someone who likes to party a lot is unwarranted.
"He's not as colorful as they make him out to be. I could certainly point to a lot of private equity executives who would be a lot more flamboyant. And he is only working harder. He has not slackened off at all, maybe just the opposite," said Cliff Roesler, managing director at Angle Advisors, who's known Leder for seven years and socialized with him.
FOLLOWING IN ROMNEY'S FOOTSTEPS
Like Romney, Leder made his fortune in the private equity industry, using money from investors to buy companies and sell them at a profit. He co-founded Sun Capital in 1995 with fellow Lehman veteran Roger Krause and his firm has since invested in more than 300 companies and amassed about $8 billion of capital under management.
Romney played a key role in Leder's career. As an investment banker, Leder would talk to Romney about deals. When Leder launched Sun Capital, Romney was an early backer, investing in the new firm's deals. Sources familiar with the two men say that they have been close ever since.
Romney's old firm, Bain Capital LLC, and Sun have also remained close, with Sun buying some non-core businesses of companies that Bain acquired.
But while Bain carried out leveraged buyouts, Sun focused on a subset of such deals involving companies in various degrees of distress in need of a major turnaround. About a third of the companies that Sun invests in have negative cash flows.
This can make deals very lucrative should they work out. Earlier this year, Sun Capital sold transmission parts manufacturer Raybestos Powertrain LLC, making 110 times its money, according to a person familiar with the matter.
But such transactions come with much more risk. Sun Capital has seen several companies file for bankruptcy on its watch, including ice cream maker Friendly's, cargo and utility trailer manufacturer Pace American and auto parts supplier Mark IV Industries.
"He is great and talented person and has done a great job in building Sun," said Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Financo LLC, a New York-based investment banking firm where Leder started his career.
Sun Capital is currently fundraising, seeking $3 billion from investors for its sixth buyout fund, according to sources.
Its fifth fund was valued at 1.23 times its investment cost as of the end of July according to the Oklahoma Police Pension and Retirement System, not a stellar performance but better than many other private equity firms that launched in 2007, at the height of the credit bubble preceding the financial crisis.
Their fifth fund is not among the top performing 25 percent of private equity funds launched in 2007, according to data firm Preqin, but is in the second quartile.
Leder's political contributions go beyond Republican candidates. Excluding his support for Romney, from 2002 to present he's given $63,200 to Republicans and $44,900 to Democrats.
He is also friendly with hip hop entrepreneur and liberal activist Russell Simmons and has supported his non-profit work in the arts.
"Marc Leder is a friend of mine and has been for many years," Simmons said in a statement. "While Marc and I have different views on American politics, we share the same view on giving back."
Aside from Simmons' Art for Life charity, Leder also donates to charities, including Best Buddies International, which fosters friendships between people with and without intellectual disabilities, and the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Cohen in Washington, D.C. and David Toll in New York; Writing by Michael Erman; Editing by Paritosh Bansal, Martin Howell and Andre Grenon; Desking by Vicki Allen)
(This story was corrected to change Leder's age in paragraph 2 after his spokesman changed the age provided from 51 to 50)