Joe Conason's Journal

The fascinating details of Neil Bush's business affairs evoke memories of the "China scandals" that once plagued the Clintons.

Published November 26, 2003 7:55PM (EST)

Bush's little brother and the Clinton rules
On certain days, we seem to be living in a strange parody of the Clinton era. Like today, for instance, which brings news of the fortunes and misfortunes of President Bush's brother Neil.

As fans of the ruling dynasty know, Neil Bush is winding up an exceptionally messy divorce. Lawyers representing his ex-wife Sharon have extracted fascinating details of his current business affairs, evoking memories not only of his involvement with the infamous Silverado Savings and Loan but also of the "China scandals" that once plagued the Clintons. Apparently the presidential sibling is now on the payroll of a Taiwan-based company with powerful connections in Beijing.

Sharon Bush's attorneys questioned her former husband last March, but the documents that included his deposition weren't released until yesterday. According to this Reuters dispatch, Neil Bush admitted under oath that he made a highly lucrative deal in August 2002 with Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. That company, which is reportedly "backed by Jiang Mianheng, the son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin," recently opened a large manufacturing plant in Shanghai.

Bush explained that he had been invited to join Grace's board by Winston Wong, a co-founder of the company and son of the chairman of Taiwan's largest business group, Formosa Plastics. His consulting contract with Grace will eventually provide Bush with $2 million in stock. (Wong has also provided financing -- along with numerous other Asian and Arab investors -- for Ignite!, Bush's educational software company.)

Why would Winston Wong and Jiang Mianheng procure the costly services of Bush, who barely escaped prosecution and whose business history ranges from moribund to disastrous? That same question occurred to Marshall Davis Brown, a lawyer for Sharon Bush.

"You have absolutely no educational background in semiconductors do you?" Brown asked Neil Bush during the March 4 deposition.

"That's correct," he responded.

"And you have absolutely, over the last 10, 15, 20 years, not a lot of demonstrable business experience that would bring about a company investing $2 million in you?"

Bush replied that he didn't think Grace had invested $2 million in him because he hasn't actually received any of the stock yet. Reuters only provides a few more brief excerpts from the deposition, although his wife's attorneys questioned him closely about several curious business deals that provide tidy sums for little or no work.

All this is business as usual in the Bush tradition of crony capitalism. Cashing in on the family name is an entitlement that very few of them have passed up. But I can't help wondering about the media firestorm this news would have created if the errant relative's name were Clinton (or Rodham) instead of Bush.

We'll see whether the Chinese Communist angle draws the attention of the Washington press corps. But the media, almost always enticed by sexual misbehavior, has mostly avoided the gamy stories that have already emerged from the Bush divorce. That subject arose again during the March deposition, when Sharon Bush's lawyer asked about women who had mysteriously showed up at Neil Bush's hotel rooms in Thailand and Hong Kong for sexual assignations. Neil Bush insisted that he didn't pay the women and didn't know who might have arranged for their services.

His ex-wife's attorney sounded skeptical. "Mr. Bush, you have to admit it's a pretty remarkable thing for a man just to go to a hotel room door and open it and have a woman standing there and have sex with her," said Brown.

"It was very unusual," the errant husband replied.

Obviously this could provide rich material for cable television, with Sharon Bush's lawyers telling tales on "Hardball" or "Larry King Live." Yet I suspect that discretion, -- and double standards known as "the Clinton rules" -- will prevail.

Hatching a real scandal
On Capitol Hill, another peculiar story carries echoes of past pseudo-scandals. Remember "Filegate," the phony accusation that the Clintons had spied on Republicans by misusing FBI personnel files? Today, Sen. Orrin Hatch admitted that members of his staff had hacked into his Democratic colleagues' computers to steal confidential memos concerning their strategy for defeating Bush judicial nominees. The victims were Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Dick Durbin, D.-Ill.

Leaked to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, those documents were played up as evidence of partisan perfidy. At the time, Hatch mocked the complaint by Kennedy and Durbin; he strutted around claiming that the leaker was probably a conscience-stricken Democratic staffer. "I was shocked to learn that this may have occurred," Hatch said in a statement reported by AP. "I am mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files may have occurred on my watch." The Senate's sergeant at arms is still pursuing a full investigation of the thefts and leaks.

Perhaps someone should tell Scott McClellan and the White House staff that finding illegal leakers isn't always impossible -- and that they ought to be trying harder to uncover the perpetrators who outed Valerie Plame.
[11:30 a.m. PST, November 26, 2003]

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