This Hedge Funder Also Has Billions. But He Doesn't Give Like the One on That TV Show

It's no secret that Showtime's hit TV show, Billions, is inspired by the real-life story of how U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara spent years investigating hedge fund star Steve Cohen for insider trading. In its second episode, the show veered into the territory of philanthropy, looking at a cynical effort by the hedge funder Bobby Axelrod to win legitimacy through a huge, high-profile gift that includes naming rights for a building. Axelrod predicts his name will stay up “until some guy richer than me wants it to come down.” (Which is how things often work, although not always.)

Now to the obvious question: Is Steve Cohen's own philanthropy also a transactional bid for respect? It's a question people might wonder, since Cohen and his wife Alex—who have $12 billion—sure have given away a lot of money in recent years, following a federal probe that ensnared a number of Cohen's former employees, though he himself escaped any criminal charges. Also, wouldn't you know it—the latest big Cohen gift, $75 million to establish the Alexandra & Steven Cohen Hospital for Women and Newborns at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, was announced the same week as that episode of Billions aired. It also came not long after the SEC reached a final settlement with Cohen allowing him to return to managing outside money within two years, a major victory for Cohen, who is now seemingly on a path to rehabilitation.

Is his philanthropy aimed at accelerating that process? We've mused before on that question. As we wrote in 2014:

So what do you do if you're a disgraced billionaire with more money than all but three of the largest foundations in the United States? Well, maybe you start acting like some of those big foundations—setting out on a long journey to slowly donate your way back to respectability. 

That's what Michael Milken did. Over the past quarter century, Milken has gone from being the most high-profile white collar criminal of his time to a top leader in philanthropy, especially on issues of education, medical research and public policy...

...it is simply true that well-deployed money can help repair damaged reputations and, quite apart from Mike Milken, there's a long history of philanthropy being used this way—going back to John D. Rockefeller.

All that said, there's actually little evidence that redemption is the main motivator for the Cohens' philanthropy, which they've been engaged in for many years and which they were ramping up even before Preet Bharara set out to harpoon one of the biggest whales in finance. It might be a factor in the tempo of gifts in recent years, but it's hard to see it as a decisive driver. 

The Cohens' latest big gift underscores that point. 

The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation is one of the largest and most consistent grantmakers for children’s health in New York, and the new gift is part of a well-established pattern. 

It will create a 246,500-square-foot facility that will provide maternal fetal care and neonatal care. Proposed features include 75 private antepartum/postpartum private rooms and well-baby bassinets, 60 private neonatal intensive care bassinets, 16 labor and delivery rooms, five C-section operative suites, five post-acute care bays and 14 ultrasound rooms, MRI capabilities, and an operating room in its neonatal intensive care unit.

“Every child deserves access to the highest-quality care, and we know that a child’s health starts with a healthy mother, pregnancy and delivery,” Alex Cohen, president of the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, said in a press release. “Steven and I are grateful to be able to help New York-Presbyterian build a facility that gives mothers-to-be and their children world-class care and medical services from start to finish.”

To close out 2015, the foundation also committed $20 million to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to support inpatient care for children with cancer and other diseases. In the past, the Cohen Foundation gave $15 million to the Stamford Hospital Foundation to centralize children’s specialty health services into one location and a $50 million grant to establish the Alexandra and Steven Cohen Pediatric Emergency Department at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

Steve and Alex Cohen have four children together, and pediatric health giving has been a very personal passion for them over the years. For example, Alexandra was born in Washington Heights at Babies Hospital. That hospital is now called Columbia Presbyterian and Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, the facility receiving that $50 million emergency department gift. The New York Presbyterian network has also received steady funding from the couple over the years.

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The bulk of Cohen giving for children’s hospitals has always been centered on New York City and in Connecticut. These grants are usually in the millions, and the gifts often come with naming rights. The new pre- and post-natal care facility is set to open for patients in 2020.

To gain some insights on Alex Cohen’s approach to life and giving to others, read her recent blog, 2016 New Year, New Beginnings, in which she talks about her teenage eating disorder and how she learned to accept and love herself. Alas, the Greenwich, Connecticut-based foundation Alex leads does not accept unsolicited grant proposals. But you can try to connect via Facebook and Twitter.

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