As the global economy has tanked in recent years, international companies have sought every advantage they can muster in seeking to score business deals abroad. One tactic, especially favored by big energy firms, is to retain the services of a middleman or “fixer.” These obscure but vital players use clout, brains and wiles to broker deals between industry and third-world leaders, and to generally grease the gears of the global oil and gas trade.
Which on the surface makes it hard to understand why U.S. and foreign firms continue to seek the services of Neil Bush. The son of one president and brother of another, Neil’s political clout has declined since Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in 2009, and neither brains nor wiles is Neil’s strong suit. Two decades ago, the Washington Post observed that his business ventures had “a history of crashing and burning in spectacular fashion,” and time, alas, seems not to have improved his record.
Neil claims to have 30 years in the energy industry, though at least 10 people from the Texas oil patch I spoke with said they had never heard of him playing any notable role in the energy business. Of the former first sibling, one international oil executive and consultant said, “I can’t imagine anything he could bring to the table.”
Yet Bush, who declined comment for this story, seems to have no trouble staying busy and prosperous. Chinese firms hire him to try to open doors in Africa, and U.S. companies retain him to do the same in Central Asia. Neil is also the founder and CEO of a number of small energy companies — it’s not clear exactly what they do or if he has financial backers — and lives a life of ease and comfort in Houston, where he resides with his second wife in a luxury condo and regularly graces the social pages.
He travels far in search of deals. As the chairman of Houston-based TX Oil, Neil met with Turkmenistan’s crackpot Stalinist dictator, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, in an effort to gain offshore oil concessions in the Caspian Sea. The tightly controlled state media claimed that he brought a letter from former President George H.W. Bush wishing “sound health and successes” to Berdymukhammedov, and thanking him for inviting Neil “to your beautiful country and for receiving him personally despite your heavy work load.”
In November 2010, Neil returned to the country for the Turkmenistan International Oil and Gas Conference, and TX Oil hosted the event’s closing cocktail party. “The oil business is in the Bush family bloodline,” he declared, according to an account in an energy industry publication, Nefte Compass.
TX Oil is still reportedly in the running for Turkmen concessions, alongside brand name competitors like Chevron and ConocoPhillips. Not everyone seems happy about Bush’s potential involvement. “It is the eastern tradition to receive all guests with open arms,” said a story in News Central Asia. “However, as independent observers we would recommend that the government of Turkmenistan should consider carefully before committing to any proposals brought by Neil Bush. For one thing, [his company] is a virtually unknown entity … On top of that, he has a history of questionable business practices.”
Indeed, he does. Neil first distinguished himself when the Silverado Savings and Loan of Denver went belly up in 1988 at a time when his father was finishing a second term as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. While serving on the S & L’s board of directors, Neil voted to approve $100 million in loans to two of his business partners — he somehow neglected to mention the relationships to fellow board members — who both subsequently went bankrupt. This adventure in socialized capitalism cost U.S. taxpayers $1.3 billion.
One of the loan recipients was JNB International, an energy exploration company Neil founded with $100 out of his own pocket, and somewhat larger sums from two Denver real estate moguls. “Tell him Neil Bush called,” he reportedly told a secretary when leaving a message for a Denver oilman during this period. “You know, the vice president’s son.”
The family safety net spared Neil from the full consequences of his misdeeds. In regard to Silverado, federal investigators found “breaches of his fiduciary duties involving multiple conflicts of interest.” The younger Bush was banned from banking and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine at a civil trial, but a Republican fundraiser held on his behalf helped ease the sting of settling that debt.
Neil went on to found a gas-exploration company called Apex Energy with $2.3 million from Bush-family friend Louis Marx Jr. Neil, who put up $3,000 of his money, received $300,000 in salary over the next two years, at which point Apex went broke. Little gas was ever found.
Next up came a brief stint at TransMedia Communications, owned by a cable TV baron who had raised more than $300,000 for George H.W. Bush. Neil’s annual pay was $60,000 and his job description was daunting: “learn the business.” In 1993, two years after the conclusion of the first Gulf War, the emir of Kuwait flew Bush Sr. over on his private plane for a ceremony honoring him for leading the coalition that evicted Saddam Hussein. Neil and former Secretary of State James Baker traveled along to try to arrange a power plant deal for Enron, which never happened.
The post-Silverado years proved dark for Neil, so it was fortunate that another family friend, Jamal Daniel, stepped in to help out. A Syrian-American fixer with substantial interests in the international energy business and beyond, Daniel has close ties to the ruling families in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Daniel, who lives in Houston, was a major donor to the presidential campaigns of both Bush Sr. and Bush Jr., and to the latter’s 1994 Texas gubernatorial campaign. In 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, he and other Bush administration cronies set up New Bridge Strategies LLC to advise companies seeking business in post-Saddam Iraq. The consulting firm didn’t work out so well — probably because few businesses cared to invest in war-torn Iraq — though the Paris-based newsletter Intelligence Online reported in June that Daniel had invested in an oil deal in Iraqi Kurdistan, so the invasion wasn’t a total loss for him. (There is no indication that Neil had any role in the investment.)
Daniel treats Neil like next of kin. Over the years, he has paid for Neil’s family to take a trip to Disneyland Paris and bought Neil and his wife, Sharon, a $380,000 cottage in Maine. Neil also married his second wife, Maria, at Daniel’s Houston mansion.
In return, Neil has occasionally exerted himself. Back in the late-1990s, Daniel made Neil co-chairman of Crest Investment Corporation and paid him $60,000 annually for a few hours of work per week. Separately, Daniel and other Bush Family Friends financially backed Neil’s education company, Ignite! Much of the firm’s business was obtained through sole-source contracts from school districts in Texas. In 2006, his mother donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund with specific instructions that it be earmarked to buy Ignite! products for local schools that took in hurricane evacuees.
Yet for all the handouts from the Bush family network, Neil’s ventures still failed to generate much profit. His famously nasty 2003 divorce proceedings with Sharon revealed that he was essentially broke. At the time, a well-placed source told me, he drove a minivan owned by his mother. The proceedings also revealed that on at least three business trips to Asia, women Neil didn’t know came into his hotel room unbidden and had sex with him. The practice, he acknowledged, seemed “very unusual.”
“You don’t think he was picked to be part of all of those business deals because he was so brilliant, do you?” Marshall Davis Brown, Sharon Bush’s attorney, asked when I met him at his Houston office. “He had a big hat but no horse.”
Neil has received relatively little press attention since his divorce, though he has been living well. In February 2005, Mexican magnate Jaime Camil hosted a 50th birthday party for Neil at his estate in Acapulco. The Houston Chronicle reported that two dozen Houstonians flew down for the festivities. “Saturday night, the host-with-the-most pulled out the stops at his expansive villa,” wrote the newspaper’s society columnist. “A lavish fireworks display topped off a night that included a 16-piece mariachi band, dancers from Mexico City’s Ballet Folklorico and gourmet fare.”
The truth is, failure has been very good to Neil. He currently resides in a $1.6 million, six-bedroom, five-bathroom condominium located near Houston’s upscale West Oaks Mall. He has in recent years set up at least 10 firms in Houston and Austin, according to incorporation records filed with the Texas secretary of state’s office. His companies have generic names like GCC Source Point, Global XS2, BTZ Holdings and ATX Oil, and it’s hard to find out much about them since they are registered as limited liability companies (and hence little public disclosure is required), mostly don’t have websites and almost never turn up in news accounts. If he has consummated any deals through these firms, they were probably not big.
One of Neil’s firms is registered at an address that doesn’t exist and several are registered at his condo, including a firm called Nexus Energy, which actually operates from (or at least has an office at) an oil firm headed by his current wife’s ex-husband, Robert Andrews. Neil established Nexus in late 2008 “to pursue business opportunities both overseas and in the United States,” according to a corporate profile it has distributed. “[Neil has] cultivated many relationships among private business people and large energy related enterprises in Asia and the Middle East. Nexus seeks to leverage these relationships to act on behalf of a client or partner company.” In November 2009, Neil represented Nexus at an energy conference in New Orleans, at which Karl Rove tagged along.
Firms from China regularly retain Neil, which isn’t surprising given the deep ties his family has there. Bush Sr. was appointed as U.S. liaison in Beijing under President Gerald Ford, and during his presidency sought greatly expanded trade with Beijing while downplaying human rights concerns. George W. Bush also forged a close relationship with China, and Neil’s deceased uncle, Prescott Bush Jr., was a close friend of former premier Jiang Zemin and did a good deal of business there.
In March of this year, Bush Sr., wife Barbara and Neil had dinner at the residence of the Chinese consul general in Houston. The Chinese government expressed hope in a written statement that the Bushes would “continue playing an important role in making contributions to … the friendship between the two peoples.” For their part the Bush family said the visit felt “like home,” and expressed special pleasure at being served “their favorite Beijing Roasted Duck.” The consul general and the Bushes also “exchanged views on China-U.S. relations … and other issues of their common interest.”
These sorts of ties have surely contributed to Neil’s list of Chinese clients, mainly companies seeking natural resource deals in Africa, including Shougang Holdings, a state-owned steel giant. In 2009, Neil led a delegation of the company’s officials to Liberia, where Shougang was seeking an iron ore mining concession. The Neil connection didn’t help: An Israeli firm ultimately won out.
The same year Neil traveled to Ghana with executives from oil giant Sinopec, the world’s seventh largest firm and a major competitor of U.S. companies. Neil managed to get meetings with top local political leaders. A source familiar with Bush’s efforts said that he opened doors in Ghana with the help of his friend Chris Wilmot, a businessman originally from Ghana who now lives in Houston. “Chris has the ties in Ghana that go all the way to the top,” this person told me. “Neil was riding on his coattails over there.” To no avail. Neil’s clients didn’t get the deal they were angling for.
On a weekday morning, I stopped by TX Oil’s headquarters in a bland office building on Westheimer Road in Houston. New Age music played from a Bose system in the reception area, which was decorated with a cowboy painting, an aquarium and a leather sofa. The office wasn’t bristling with activity, and the secretary told me no one would be available to talk to me about TX Oil.
“Is there a brochure or any information you can give me?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she replied with a cool smile.
Why do companies keep hiring Neil? It can’t be for his business acumen. More likely, his employers write checks out of friendship, loyalty and interest in currying favor with his family’s business and political network. In a reflection of the declining value of the Bush family name in the age of Obama, Neil does not seem to command the fees he once did.
In 2002, he received payments of $2 million in stock and $10,000 per board meeting from Grace Semiconductor — a firm backed by the son of Jiang Zemin — even though he knew nothing at all about semiconductors. Last December he was named a director of China Timber Resources Group, which has forest resources in Guyana and China. Neil’s director’s fee is a mere $1,200 a month, which the company said “was determined with reference to his experience, scope of work, level of involvement, seniority as well as the prevailing market conditions.” Ouch.
It’s getting tougher to be a fixer who can’t fix much.
Ken Silverstein is an Open Society Institute fellow and contributing editor to Harper’s magazine.