Last fall, Robert F. Smith, the billionaire founder of Vista Equity Partners, a private equity firm, paid $139 million to federal authorities to settle one of the biggest tax evasion cases in American history.

His investors barely blinked.

The cultural institutions and colleges that benefited from Mr. Smith’s philanthropy, including Carnegie Hall and Morehouse College, have also stood by him, and he remains at the helm of his company.

The muted public reaction from the public pension plans, sovereign wealth funds and endowments that invest in Vista’s funds highlights an unflattering reality of the financial world: Investors are often willing to overlook the misdeeds of money managers if they’re posting solid returns. And in a prolonged era of low interest rates, private equity is one of the few places where big investors can expect better returns than the bond market.

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