Bought and paid for

Gore's oily family friends, Bush's profitable Harvard connections and other stories you're not likely to read about.


Mark Hertsgaard
January 21, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Vice President Al Gore delivered a scathing speech back on Oct. 7, 1997, at Georgetown University in Washington chiding those who "ignore the scientific warnings [about global warming] and continue stubbornly on our current course." How will our children and grandchildren ever forgive us, Gore asked, if we do not act in the face of overwhelming evidence that burning more oil and coal is changing the earth's climate?

On that very same day, thanks to recommendations Gore made as part of his crusade to "reinvent government," the Department of Energy announced that Occidental Petroleum was buying the Elk Hills reserve in California, 47,000 acres of oil-rich, publicly owned land that had been off-limits to commercial development since 1912. President Nixon had tried to open up Elk Hills to private interests in 1973, after the first oil shock. President Reagan tried three separate times to do the same. Each time, Congress blocked the sale. But Al Gore, with President Clinton's help, succeeded.

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The purchase of Elk Hills tripled Occidental Petroleum's domestic oil reserves overnight. It also enriched Occidental's stockholders, including Gore's father, Al Gore Sr. The elder Gore owned more than $500,000 worth of Occidental stock at the time of the Elk Hills purchase in 1997. When he died the following year, his son became the executor of his estate and, according to the vice president's federal income disclosure forms, the estate continued, as of May 1999, to hold the Occidental stock.

The close relationship Gore and his father have enjoyed with Occidental Petroleum is detailed in "The Buying of the President 2000," a new book by Charles Lewis and the Center for Public Integrity. Lewis is the founder and executive director of the center, a nonpartisan watchdog group of journalists in Washington whose scoops include the Lincoln Bedroom fund-raising scandal. A former investigative reporter with "60 Minutes" and ABC News, Lewis founded the Center for Public Integrity in 1990. In two previous books, "The Buying of the President" (1996) and "The Buying of the Congress," and nearly 40 reports, the center's journalists have relentlessly illuminated one of the most important political stories in the United States today: what politicians appear to do in return for their biggest funders. For any American who doesn't want to be a chump this election year, "The Buying of the President 2000" is an essential read. It also has the promise of making life miserable for every leading presidential candidate -- if the nation's political journalists take the trouble to read the book.

"The Buying of the President 2000" reports that Occidental gave $50,000 after one of Gore's fund-raising calls from his White House office. "Indeed," according to the book, "since Gore became part of the Democratic ticket in the summer of 1992, Occidental has given more than $470,000 in soft money to various Democratic committees and causes." And Gore himself has received $35,550 in Occidental campaign contributions during that same period, the center estimates.

And there's much, much more: Lewis' fascinating dissection of the more than 50-year relationship between Gore's family and Occidental Petroleum begins when the elder Gore was serving in the House of Representatives. Occidental was then run by Armand Hammer, once described as "the godfather of American corporate corruption" and a master of double-dealing who laundered funds and placed spies in the United States for Moscow to protect his vast oil and gas holdings in the Soviet Union. Hammer buddied up to Gore Sr. by putting him on the payroll of his New Jersey cattle ranch in the 1940s. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wanted to prosecute Hammer, but backed off for fear of Hammer's friends in Congress, including Gore, who ascended to the Senate in 1952. Before long, charges "The Buying of the President 2000," the advantages of being friends with Hammer were inevitably passed on to Gore Jr.

In the 1960s, when zinc ore was discovered near the Gore farm in Tennessee, Hammer bought the land, sold it to Gore Sr. and then paid him $20,000 per year for the mineral rights. Gore Sr. later sold the land to his son, who has received the $20,000 every year since (though the mineral rights were transferred in 1985 to Union Zinc). When Gore Sr. left the Senate in 1970, "Hammer gave him a $500,000-a-year job as the chairman of Island Coal Creek Company, an Occidental subsidiary, and a seat on Occidental's board of directors," according to the book. Meanwhile, Al Jr. and his wife, Tipper, hosted Hammer at Ronald Reagan's 1984 inauguration and again at President Bush's in 1988. "In return," according to the book, "Hammer and members of his family bent over backwards to get money into Gore's campaigns," and the largesse continued after Hammer died, in 1990, and Gore became Clinton's vice president.

Occidental, meanwhile, appears to be a particularly toxic friend for Gore to have. The company, in the form of its subsidiary, Hooker Chemical, was responsible for one of the great environmental tragedies of modern American history, the contamination of Love Canal, N.Y. Of course, Gore claimed a few weeks ago on the campaign trail that it was he who "discovered" the Love Canal tragedy and publicized it through Senate hearings, which makes his familial ties to the company especially embarrassing.

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Laura Quinn, a Gore spokeswoman, said she saw no contradiction between Gore's environmental reputation and his opening of Elk Hills to commercial development. She disputed that Gore's actions were in any way a form of favoritism to Occidental. "The vice president doesn't have the ability to rule firms in or out of a federal bidding process," said Quinn. "A number of other firms bid on Elk Hills, and Occidental Petroleum was chosen because it offered twice as much as anyone else did."

It's probably cold comfort to Gore, but "The Buying of the President 2000" also reports incriminating information about Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in particular his long and friendly relationship with the Harvard Management Company, the private investment firm whose only client is the multibillion-dollar endowment of Harvard University.

Of course, Harvard has been the intellectual den of iniquity the Republican faithful love to hate ever since Richard Nixon's dark mutterings about the ultra-liberal Harvard professors in John F. Kennedy's White House. But Nixon could never voice such charges without sounding slightly creepy. Bush manages to make a joke of them, like when a reporter, during a recent debate, invoked a Harvard professor's opinion while pressing Bush on a question. "Consider the source," Bush cracked, eyes twinkling. Instantly, the crowd burst into laughter.

Give him credit for nerve. According to "The Buying of the President 2000," a close relationship between Bush and Harvard Management began in 1986, when the company helped bail out one of his failing oil companies, Harken Oil and Gas, by investing at least $20 million in it. Then, in 1990, when Bush suddenly unloaded two-thirds of his shares in Harken -- netting a profit of nearly $850,000 -- two months before the company's debt restructuring sent its stock price plummeting, Harvard Management appears to have been the silent partner that took the unwanted shares off his hands. The move triggered an insider-trading investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

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And in 1995, when he was governor of Texas, Harvard Management had secured a real-estate deal from the pension fund of Texas's 800,000 public school teachers -- buying a Dallas hotel, without a public bid, for $27 million less than the pension fund had spent on building improvements alone. And, for that matter, Bush did make it into Harvard Business School despite having a mere C average in college.

"These allegations are totally ridiculous and simply not true," said Scott McClellan, spokesman for the Bush campaign. Regarding Harvard's investments in Harken Oil and Gas, McClellan said, "The SEC said there was nothing there." As for the hotel purchase from the teachers fund, he said, "Apparently there's a lack of understanding of how state government works, because in 1995 the board [of the fund] was controlled by former [Democratic] Gov. Anne Richards' appointees." Harvard Management offered only a "no comment."

The book also chronicles how Wall Street investment firms have long been Bill Bradley's foremost financial patrons, while John McCain has been the beneficiary of major donations from the gambling industry. It reports on dozens of other similarly incriminating "coincidences" in its 342 densely argued pages, and none of the leading candidates, nor their sponsors at the Democratic and Republican national committees, get off easy.

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Why hasn't this book sparked a firestorm of coverage and determined inquiry from the rest of the news media? Some activists angry at Occidental for drilling a pipeline through the Colombian rain forest have begun to heckle Gore, chanting, "What about Occidental? What about Occidental?" But generally, there hasn't been much of a ripple caused by the book's publication. Every political journalist in the country has been alerted to the book's publication. And certainly Lewis and the center have a proven record of fairness and reliability. "We're obviously disappointed we haven't gotten more press for this book," said Lewis.

The most optimistic explanation for the media's silence is that reporters just haven't gotten around to reading "The Buying of the President 2000" yet, or perhaps they're taking the time to independently investigate and verify the book's charges before sharing them with the public. Of course, citizens are free to go buy the book themselves. But first they have to hear about it.


Mark Hertsgaard

MORE FROM Mark Hertsgaard

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