Joe Conason's Journal

Why won't Bush let the SEC release the Harken file?

By Joe Conason
Published July 16, 2002 2:01PM (EDT)

Letter rip
So what does it mean that George W. Bush signed a letter on April 3, 1990, promising not to sell his Harken stock for six months? And what does it mean that the letter was discovered in the Bush probe files released by the Securities and Exchange Commission? The letter's existence certainly "raises questions," as journalists cutely say, about the story told by Bush and his lawyers about his long-standing intention to sell the stock to pay off a bank debt. What it also suggests is that Bush knew more than he has acknowledged about the depth of Harken's financial troubles when he did sell several weeks later.

The purpose of that letter, after all, was to facilitate a public stock offering by Harken. The underwriters wanted the letter signed by all of the oil firm's officers and directors. But the stock offering was blown away a few weeks later -- and a few weeks before Bush sold -- when one of Harken's major bank creditors withdrew its support. If Bush knew that the "lockout" letter was no longer operative, he must also have known that the company was in terrible condition -- and that its stock was likely to fall when the bad news got out.

The president still has some explaining to do. And so do the SEC investigators who declined action against him after reading this rather incriminating document. Maybe he should consider Harvey Pitt's offer on Sunday's "Meet the Press" to release all the SEC files if he receives a request from the White House.

Incidentally, the AP reporter who broke the lockout letter story is Pete Yost, author of many a harsh dispatch about the Clintons during the Whitewater years. His byline should remind Republicans that they have only themselves to blame for legitimizing scrutiny of "old stuff" in the president's checkered career.

Popular, sure. But electable?
Corporate crime and economic distress are beginning to cut against Republicans, including Bush, according to two more polls released today. As I argued months ago, the president's popularity ratings should be measured alongside voters' growing reluctance to "reelect" (or elect) him. The pollsters at Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report appear to agree. Only 42 percent say they will definitely vote for him in 2004. The Zogby poll shows a 7 percent drop in the president's approval rating during the past two weeks. Both surveys show that a majority feels the country is heading in the wrong direction -- a troubling sign for Bush's allies in Congress, who will have to face the voters long before he does. [Posted: 1:45 p.m. PDT, July 16, 2002]

Bush's Texas Rangers scam revisited
Two columns on the New York Times Op-Ed page discuss unsavory aspects of George W. Bush's career in business and politics; it is hard not to wonder what might have been if these issues had been widely aired two years ago. The reporters who covered the 2000 election as a story of wardrobe palettes and invented gaffes, including more than one on the Times payroll, as well as the editors who encouraged them, might consider how poorly they served their readers. Maybe Bush pinched their cheeks so hard that their brains shut down.

Today, the Times columnists examine two consecutive episodes in the Bush bildungsroman, and they should be read in chronological order. Nicholas D. Kristof delves into the peculiar 1990 Arlington stadium deal -- a scam that increased the value of the Texas Rangers franchise while muscling small property owners off their land with government power -- and finds the Bush syndicate guilty of "sordid" cronyism and abuse of power.

Then Paul Krugman looks at Bush's relationship as Texas governor with the men who made him a multimillionaire, notably Tom Hicks, the investor who bought the Rangers from Bush and his partners in 1998. Bush "privatized" the financial assets of the University of Texas, rolled them into an entity called UTIMCO and placed them under the control of Hicks, who later turned around and bought the Rangers from the Bush group.

Neither Kristof nor Krugman has the space to examine these deals in the detail they deserve. That's the task neglected by political and national editors at the Times and other authoritative media over the past several years. In the meantime, here are a few highlights from the full story (which, as Krugman generously mentioned last Friday, I tried to tell in the February 2000 edition of Harper's.

Among the beneficiaries of the privatized UTIMCO's investment deals were various longtime Bush family political contributors including Sam and Charles Wyly (of McCain smear fame); the Carlyle Group (post-presidential teat for George H.W. Bush and James Baker III among others); Adele Hall of Hallmark Cards, a Bush Pioneer; and the Bass family of Fort Worth, who also had an important deal with Harken Energy around the time that Bush unloaded his Harken stock. (I should add that when the Harper's piece was first published, only the New York Post and the Drudge Report took notice of the Carlyle connection.)

Now that we've circled back to Harken, there is important news today about Bush's dealings with the ill-fated oil company. I wonder how long it will take for that story to get into the pages of the New York Times -- or for the Times to demand, as it once did of Bill Clinton, that the president release all the documents chronicling his financial dealings.

[Posted at 9:03 a.m. PDT, July 16, 2002]

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Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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