Presidential brother watch

Globe-hopping Neil Bush has impressive new business partners, but what are they buying?

By Joshua Micah Marshall
Published April 12, 2002 10:49PM (EDT)

In the annals of the modern presidency, few things have become more familiar than the errant presidential sibling milking his brother's good name for a few -- or more than a few -- bucks. These days that task has fallen to Neil Bush, the 46-year-old younger brother of the president, who's circling the globe, under the protection of the Secret Service, looking for big shots in the world of international politics and finance who might want to invest a couple million dollars in an interactive education software company that no one seems to have heard of.

Bush, you may remember, raised eyebrows last January by telling a Saudi Arabian audience that the "U.S. media campaign against the interests of Arabs and Muslims, and the American public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could be influenced [by] a sustained lobbying and PR effort." Long before that, in the late 1980s, Neil Bush made bigger news for his controversial role as a director of Silverado Savings and Loan, which collapsed and cost taxpayers roughly $1 billion. (Federal regulators accused Bush of various conflicts of interests, but he was never charged. A civil suit against Bush and other Silverado officers was later settled for $26.5 million.)

Bush spent most of the Clinton years as a venture capitalist. But in 1999, just as his brother geared up to run for president, he founded Ignite! Software -- a company that creates interactive educational software programs. (Ignite did not return calls requesting comment.) Ignite's product is not well-known in the education industry field, but it does get some respectful reviews. "They're new entrants in the market," says Keith Kruger of the Consortium for School Networking, "but from what I know, it's a serious product based on some good research." Whatever the merits of the company, though, it's getting a lot of attention from a series of international investors named by the Associated Press who you might not normally expect to take an interest in a small Texas-based start-up.

One investor is Winston Wong, a second-generation Taiwanese semiconductor tycoon who recently founded Shanghai Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation with the son of Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Last December Neil Bush visited Beijing to share dinner with Jiang Zemin and meet with political heavyweights like Wu Jichuan, China's minister of the information industry.

According to the New York Times, Bush negotiated with the education minister of the United Arab Emirates to introduce Ignite's software to the emirate's schools.

Hamza El Khouli, an associate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and chairman of First Arabian Development and Investment Company, not only invested with Ignite, he also hosted Bush, his family and Ingite's CEO Kenneth Leonard on the Red Sea last March.

Of course, some of Ignite's investors are closer to home. There's Tim Bridgewater, a top Bush fundraiser, who co-founded Interlink Management with Neil Bush in 1994. Les and Anne Csorba are also Bush contributors and worked in the first Bush White House in the White House Personnel Office and the Office of Personnel Management, respectively. And former President Bush and Barbara Bush have even chipped in, too.

Why would so many foreign oil and computer industry magnates be investing their money in Bush's education software start-up? Good question. "This is a fairly common practice," says Bill Allison of the nonpartisan watchdog group the Center for Public Integrity. "It's one way for special interests to sidle up to the president by giving business to his family members. It's a way to get around the campaign finance laws."

Actually, it's one the Bush clan has a fair degree of experience with. Back in 1990, when Bush Sr. was still president, oil industry watchers were stunned to learn that the island nation of Bahrain --- located just off the coast of Saudi Arabia --- had selected a tiny and untested oil company named Harken Energy to develop offshore drilling rights for 35 years -- even though the company had no experience drilling in water or overseas. George W. Bush had recently joined the Harken board. Richard Lawless, a former CIA agent with close connections to former President Bush and extensive business dealings in Asia, has reportedly arranged numerous highly lucrative business deals for Bush brother Jeb, now governor of Florida. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Jeb's commission for a single Lawless-arranged deal helping find American property for Japanese investors netted Bush a tidy $213,000.

There's no way to prove, of course, that Winston Wong or Mohammed Al Saddah ponied up their money just to get access to the Bush family. But it does make you wonder.

There's also no way for the president to stop his brother from participating in such questionable dealings, just as the first President Bush couldn't stop George W. from bidding on and receiving contracts for drilling projects in Bahrain. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment for this article.) It's exactly the sort of situation where you'd hope the president could exercise a bit of moral authority. "Maybe this is as good an argument as any for beefing up family values," quips Allison.

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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George W. Bush