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Transparency around investing in essential public assets shouldn’t just be a talking point, as evidenced by two recent transactions whose public relations were handled very differently.

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority’s two recent infrastructure deals offer a startling contrast that investors should ponder when they invest in essential public assets.

In the UK, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) made a well-publicised purchase of a 15 percent stake in London’s Gatwick Airport from Global Infrastructure Partners, the fund manager who won the bidding for the airport late last year. Londoners curious to know about their airport’s new part-owner could simply read a blurb about in the paper or online and go on with the rest of their day without thinking much about it.

In the US, ADIA also made an acquisition last year. The sovereign wealth fund purchased a minority stake in Chicago Parking Meters, the concessionaire who bought the parking meter lease from Chicago for $1.15 billion last year.

Unlike with the Gatwick transaction, though, this is how many Chicagoans learned that funds managed by Morgan Stanley Infrastructure Partners no longer hold 99 percent of the concessionaire:

“In fact, a Chicago News Cooperative investigation has found that investment arms of the oil-rich Abu Dhabi government hold more than a 25 percent stake in the company that privatised the city’s 36,000 parking meters. German financial company Allianz also has a large minority interest, and the remaining 50.1 percent is held by partnerships assembled by Morgan Stanley.”

The excerpt, taken from an article published by the Chicago News Cooperative in December, put Mayor Daley on the defensive, as people began to wonder who was profiting from their 36,000 parking meters, whose rates increased drastically post-privatisation. The article was based on internal documents obtained by the Cooperative and features a “declined comment” from Morgan Stanley.

A Morgan Stanley spokesperson declined to comment on the Cooperative's story.

Now, to be sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing sophisticated providers of long-term capital on board a public-private partnership such as the Chicago Parking Meters. And ADIA certainly fits the bill.  But this important point may well get lost in the message if Chicagoans are convinced that it takes an investigation by the press to discover who’s getting a share of their parking meter dollars.

Take it from someone who knows. Leonard Shaykin, co-founder of infrastructure investment firm LambdaStar Infrastructure Partners, used to be chairman of the Chicago Sun-Times, one of the two big daily newspapers in Chicago. Speaking at a panel on public-private partnerships during the Infrastructure Investor: New York Forum in September, he gave attendees some sound advice on what to avoid “if you want to get a newsroom activated”:

“When a junior investigative reporter asks, ‘oh, I understand there’s a transaction happening, tell me about it’ and the response is, ‘no comment,’ what happens is he goes back to the editorial room, they immediately add to it dollars and senior people to find out where the fix is,” he said.

“And so it is absolutely critical in infrastructure investing in the United States, I think, that you understand how the media is,” he added.

Luckily, with Australian and Spanish investors already investing in their infrastructure, Chicagoans weren’t too put off by ADIA’s investment. But one need only look back to the furore that surrounded the planned acquisition of US ports by Dubai’s DP World in 2006 to realize that investments around core infrastructure assets require a more sophisticated PR strategy than “no comment”.