Jeb Bush is seen in the view finder of a TV camera at a news conference in Ybor City. [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
By ALECIA SWASY
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 20, 1998
hat exactly does Jeb Bush do for a living?
The 45-year-old Republican nominee for governor has hawked luxury condos in South Florida, sold industrial sites for IBM, made bank loans in Venezuela and marketed giant water pumps in Nigeria. He has even tried to sell imported shoes to Wal-Mart.
His corporate ties are a web of more than two dozen companies, including obscure, privately held ventures called Uno, Uno Dos and Oriental Trading, and bigger public companies such as SunTrust, Anchor Glass, Ideon and American Heritage Life Insurance.
Bush's network is far-reaching and lucrative. The 27-year-old who arrived in Miami in 1980 so broke that he used his American Express card to pay his MasterCard bill is now worth $2.4-million.
The son of former President George Bush has followed the family's patrician play book: Hurry up and get rich, then go into public service.
Trading on the famous family name, Bush gained entry to exclusive business ventures courtesy of wealthy Republicans.
But Bush's hurried quest for financial success also reveals a naive reliance on his benefactors and a lack of scrutiny of those around him. He tapped his father's Washington connections to recruit help for some questionable businessmen, including one felon who remains a fugitive wanted by the FBI. He embraced business deals that have prompted lawsuits alleging mismanagement, stock manipulation and special treatment.
This go-along style marks how Bush operates in the business world. He has never been elected to public office and wants to be judged as a successful businessman. But he bristles when asked if the Bush name has helped his dealmaking. "Please don't obsess on that," he said.
While Bush's financial network is global, it is built largely around four powerful men:
Thomas Petway III, a Jacksonville insurance magnate, Republican fund-raiser and a leader on Jeb Bush's campaign finance committee. He invited Bush to an exclusive club to invest in the new Jacksonville Jaguars football franchise. He also lobbied to get Bush appointed to the board of Ideon Corp., a company that -- before its collapse -- paid its directors $50,000 a year, twice the average amount paid to directors at much larger public companies.
David Eller, a Broward County Republican fund-raiser who partnered with Jeb Bush to market water pumps to poor countries around the world. The company relied on pump sales financed by U.S.-backed loans when President Bush was in the White House. Jeb Bush's take: $648,250.
Richard Lawless, a former 15-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency who won state contracts to promote exports in Asia when Jeb Bush served as Florida commerce secretary. Later, he joined with Bush and paid him to find real estate property for Japanese investors. Just one deal in 1993 gave Bush a commission of $213,000.
One Miami real estate deal is typical of the privileged pattern of Bush's wealth-building: invest little but reap lots. In 1984, Bush put just $1,000 in an office building called Museum Tower. By 1990, he sold out for about $346,000. Similar deals followed. Who made it possible? Armando Codina.
Bush's political connections have intersected nicely with his business ventures. In one of the biggest real estate deals in South Florida, IBM Corp. hired Bush's company to sell its massive Boca Raton office park. Bush found a buyer: a group that included Mark Guzzetta, a key fund-raiser for former President Bush. Guzzetta is now finance co-chairman of Jeb Bush's campaign for governor.
And when Bush and Codina needed to unload Deering Bay, an upscale golf community that had lost millions, they found a buyer in Florida developer Al Hoffman. Today, Hoffman is the primary finance chairman of the Bush campaign.
"Some people won't support me because I'm George Bush's son. Others will give me a free pass because I'm George and Barb's boy," Jeb Bush said. "But I think the majority of people want to know about me."
* * *
The Bush tradition of business and politics started with Prescott Sheldon Bush, a U.S. senator from Connecticut who also served as managing partner of Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., a private banking firm that epitomizes old Wall Street. His son George Bush moved his young family to Midland, Texas, in the 1950s to get in on the oil boom. He helped found Zapata, an oil company named after the Marlon Brando film Viva Zapata! Prescott Bush's Wall Street connections and relatives repeatedly raised new money to help the fledgling oil company.
After George Bush sold his oil business, he entered politics, including stints as a congressman and ambassador, chairman of the Republican National Committee and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. By 1978, he wanted to challenge Republican favorite Ronald Reagan for president in the 1980 elections.
As Bush traveled the country looking for support, he met Armando Codina in Miami. Codina, who fled Cuba as a teenager, had just sold his wildly successful computerized accounting business and was using his millions to invest in real estate. Codina considered George Bush "Mr. Clean" and decided to work on his campaign.
Jeb Bush also worked full time -- unpaid -- on his father's presidential campaign. It was a gesture of thanks for "everything that he's done for me," including paying his tuition at the University of Texas. "There was an expectation that post-college, you're on your own," he said. "I've always been very independent."
Still, his earliest jobs came from friends of the family. After earning his degree in Latin American studies at the University of Texas, Jeb Bush was hired in 1974 by Texas Commerce Bank. The Houston institution was founded by the family of James A. Baker III, a pal of George Bush who would later run his presidential campaign and serve as U.S. treasury secretary and then secretary of state.
In 1977, Texas Commerce sent 24-year-old Bush to open a branch in oil-rich Venezuela. When the bank's top executives visited, they brought along bank director Lady Bird Johnson who arranged a visit with Venezuela's president.
Bush acknowledges he was a lousy banker. "I wasn't real good at collecting loans," he said. So it was an easy decision to quit banking and return to the states in the spring of 1979 to help his father campaign for president.
On the campaign, Codina took an immediate liking to the Spanish-speaking Jeb Bush. Bush often stayed at Codina's house.
A year or so later, after the Reagan/Bush ticket headed for the White House, the younger Bush needed a job. Codina, who had developed an intense loyalty to the vice president and his family, offered Jeb Bush a real estate job.
He also made Bush this proposition: Bush, with no investment, would get 40 percent of the real estate company's profits plus chances to invest in other ventures. A great deal for Bush. Not so bad for Codina, either. He got the clout that comes with a famous partner by changing the firm's name to Codina Bush Group.
"It's like hiring Norman Schwarzkopf," developer Hoffman said of Bush. "He'll command attention."
Bush, who later became president of the firm, had no experience in real estate.
* * *
After Bush moved his young family to Miami, making money -- lots of it -- became a priority. Bush was raised in a wealthy household and wanted the same living standards for his family.
He also was advised repeatedly by his own parents that if he wanted to go into politics, he would need to make his fortune first. He even told reporters that he had a mission: "I'd like to be very wealthy," Bush told a Miami News reporter in 1983 -- a year in which Bush earned $41,405 in salary. "And I'll be glad to let you know when I think I've reached my goal."
Now a millionaire, Bush is a lot closer to his financial objective.
"Can I never work for the rest of my life? No," said Bush in a recent interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "Should I be privileged to serve as governor, and assuming it's for eight years, I've got to go back to work after that. But I'll be able to take care of my family. This won't be a sacrifice to them financially."
At first, Codina's plan was to buy land and develop it for Latin American investors. Bush didn't have any spare money to buy into the deals. "Every penny I had was going to pay my MasterCard bills," he said. But as Bush began to earn more, he was invited to invest a token amount in some property deals.
One of their first ventures was Museum Tower, a downtown Miami office building on W Flagler Street. The site was considered the wrong side of the tracks, but Codina wisely saw what was coming with the development of the city's cultural district.
The Museum Tower deal proved a prototype for the Codina Bush partnership. Codina invited Bush to be one of the investors. For a contribution of just $1,000, Bush was given a 20 percent stake. Bush, who by then had taken classes and gotten a real estate license, said he "invested a lot of sweat equity" recruiting tenants and negotiating leases. It paid off: By 1990, Bush sold out for about $346,000.
Over time, Jeb Bush said he played a critical role in expanding the company's reach, especially its real estate brokerage business. "I learned the real estate business the hard way -- on the job," he said.
What is Bush's favorite real estate coup? Landing IBM in 1996 as a company client and selling its Boca Raton facility, once the heart of Big Blue's personal computer business.
Bush made numerous pitches to IBM executives in New York on how the Codina Bush firm could find a buyer. The maze of buildings with 2-million square feet of space, on about 565 acres, had an assessed value of $100-million. It was Boca Raton's biggest tract of developable land.
Bush says he landed the IBM account because he knew the local buyers and the South Florida market better than New York "suspender guys," -- an ironic put-down of investment bankers given his family's extensive business and political ties to Wall Street.
An IBM spokeswoman concurs that Bush and Codina's local ties were important and said the firm was satisfied with Bush's work. The property sold for $46.1-million, less than half of the assessed value, in early 1997 to a group called Blue Lake Ltd. Among the partners was Mark Guzzetta, the Republican fund-raiser. Jeb Bush was best man at Guzzetta's wedding. Guzzetta is now finance co-chairman of Bush's campaign.
Officials at Codina Bush won't disclose their commission. "It was an important transaction for us, not just for fees, but who the client was," said Hank Klein, a Codina associate that worked on the deal. "It was a trophy property . . . one of the largest we've ever done."
At times, some clients asked Jeb Bush to do more than find office space. They wanted his influence in Washington. When Bush didn't do his homework on who was asking him to open doors, his inattention got him in trouble.
One example occurred in George Bush's second term as vice president. Jeb Bush was approached in 1985 by Miguel Recarey Jr., owner of Miami-based International Medical Centers, a large health maintenance organization. Recarey said he needed an office building, but he also complained to Bush about the Department of Health and Human Services' tightening Medicare rules, which threatened to cut into IMC's profits.
Recarey asked Jeb Bush to call a Medicare official who had worked on George Bush's campaigns. Jeb Bush agreed to call to urge "fair treatment" for Recarey, but denies seeking special favors. Recarey paid Bush's real estate company $75,000, a fee some say was payment for Bush's intervention. Bush says it was for his real estate work. IMC never picked a building shown by Bush. (Bush has since said he wasn't aware that Recarey already had an arrest record and spent 30 days in jail in 1973 for income tax evasion.)
IMC was shut down by regulators in 1987 because it was insolvent. At least $200-million in Medicare money was missing. Recarey was convicted on various charges, but he fled the country. More than 10 years later, Recarey remains on the FBI's list of international fugitives wanted for fraud and bribery.
Bush said he's less gullible now.
Sometimes, even deals that went sour had their upsides.
In 1984, Codina and Bush bought 1390 Brickell, a Miami office building. A third partner defaulted and a savings and loan that held the note went belly up. S&L regulators eventually said Codina and Bush could keep the building.
They sold it in 1991 for $8-million. Bush characterizes the selling price as enough to cover their costs and legal fees.
Even though the building was a headache, the tax write-off eased the pain. In 1985, 1987 and 1988, Bush reported no income for federal income tax purposes because of large losses taken on real estate and other business investments.
* * *
Working with Codina brought investment opportunities beyond real estate. The two dabbled in the cellular phone business, but opted to sell out after about two years rather than endure a lengthy wait for federal licenses.
In one venture, Codina and Bush bought a shoe-importing business in 1990 called Oriental Trading Corp. Their aim was to fix the business or sell off the pieces. The company focused on smaller stores that needed to buy shoes on credit. But lenders said
But the investor group cashed out at a tidy profit by selling the inventory, real estate and other holdings. After initially investing $100,000 in cash, Bush's net profit in the 1993 sale was $244,000.
Bush became involved in banking again in 1986 when he joined the board of a new Miami bank called The Private Bank and Trust. Owned by a Swiss bank, the elite Miami institution focused exclusively on serving wealthy foreign -- mostly Latin -- customers. The bank managed investments for a fee, but took no deposits and made no loans. When clients called on the phone, the bank discretely answered "4643" -- the last four digits of the bank's phone number.
Bush was paid $1,200 as a director, but resigned after a year when he became Florida commerce secretary. The Private Bank, located on "bankers row" of Miami's Brickell Avenue, later moved its offices to Alhambra Plaza in Coral Gables -- the same penthouse that the Codina-Bush real estate group would later occupy.
The Private Bank was short-lived. In October 1991, federal regulators shut it down for making investments contrary to client instructions and putting funds in companies affiliated with or managed by the bank.
Bush said, "There were no financial problems for me to be aware of when I was a director."
* * *
While the bulk of Jeb Bush's fortune comes from doing business with Codina, his 20-month stint as Florida's commerce secretary in 1987-88 helped him cement ties with a group of wealthy Republicans and future business partners.
Bush got reacquainted with David Eller, owner of M&W Pump, a Deerfield Beach water pump company, who was tapped by then-Gov. Bob Martinez for the state lottery commission. Bush also met CIA veteran Richard Lawless. When Jeb Bush was commerce secretary, Lawless's consulting firm -- U.S. Asia Commercial Development Corp. -- won a state contract worth $160,000 to promote Florida exports in Asia.
And Bush got close to insurance executive Thomas Petway III. As a big economic booster for Jacksonville, Petway spent much of his time lobbying state officials in Tallahassee.
Petway, who ran Home Builders Insurance Services, would later offer Bush a rare chance to invest in the Jacksonville group seeking an NFL franchise. That group would become the owners of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but mire Bush and Petway in lawsuits alleging Petway pushed aside some local investors and offered special money-back terms to Bush. Bush sold his stake in the Jaguars back to the ownership group last year for just over $500,000. When first asked, he called the transaction basically a wash, but later acknowledged he had a gain of about $58,000. The lawsuits are pending.
Bush left the state commerce job in 1988 to campaign for his father's run for president. His friend Codina joined in, traveling to New Hampshire to walk door to door, handing out Florida oranges on a bitter cold day. Eller, the Broward County fund-raiser, attended the Republican National Convention as a delegate. He urged Jeb to remind George that he looked better if he took off his glasses when making a speech.
* * *
After two terms in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, George Bush was elected president in 1988. With Dad in the White House, Jeb Bush returned to Coral Gables to find a flood of new invitations to make some serious money beyond real estate deals.
"There was quite an array of characters who tried to get close to Jeb," Codina recalled. "This is a frontier town."
After Bush left his state job, he and Eller formed Bush-El Corp. in 1988 to market M&W's irrigation and flood control pumps. Bush went to Nigeria, where he pledged his father would increase aid to developing countries, according to Nigerian press reports.
One lingerig question about the pump sales in Nigeria: Did Bush use his political connections to line up U.S. backed loans needed to finance Nigeria's pump purchases? The sales depended on $74-million in loans from the federally backed Export-Import Bank of the United States. Eller declined to be interviewed, but in a written statement said Bush coordinated private financing, which fell through. But he contends Bush didn't have anything to do with getting the U.S.-backed loans. Nigeria has yet to repay most of the loans. If they fail to repay them, U.S. taxpayers foot the bill.
Bush said his commissions from Bush-El came from work in countries that didn't use U.S.-backed loans. But Bush-El has been sued by Robert Purcell, a former vice president of M&W, who alleges he was cheated out of $1-million because profits were diverted to the Bush-Eller partnership.
Eller's written statement called Bush "a highly effective business leader." Eller characterizes Purcell as a disgruntled former employee representing a competitor. Eller has filed a countersuit against Purcell.
Bush praised Eller as a "person of integrity," but added that the adverse publicity from their partnership has been difficult.
"I made money. That's the only benefit I can see," Bush said. "Otherwise, it's been unmitigated grief."
Bush invested no money in Bush-El. His total proceeds: $648,250. Eller and his family also gave the state GOP $25,280 in August and chipped in $5,250 to the Bush campaign.
Bush also made money working on land deals with former CIA staffer Lawless, who represented Asian buyers. The two began a series of real estate ventures in 1989 through a flurry of private companies. Bush formed Uno, Uno Dos and other companies as "investment vehicles for different deals" that included buying apartment complexes and a shopping center in Dade County. Lawless created U.S. Asia Florida, among other shell companies.
Lawless, a contributor to the Florida Republican Party, was widely reported in the New York Times and other national papers to be linked in 1988 to efforts to free U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Though it was denied at the time by the Reagan administration and Lawless, the U.S. intelligence officer was reported to be acting as an emissary between then-Vice President Bush and the government of Iran.
Other than calling Lawless a friend, Bush volunteers little about his past deals with the Washington-based businessman. "I would help them find the properties . . . and split fees between (Lawless' company) U.S. Asia" and the Codina realty company, Bush said.
Bush won't identify the overseas investors behind the various deals. His explanation: "They're not running for governor."
In 1993, one of his last commissions from Lawless totaled $213,000. Lawless, through one of his companies called Glennlevit Development Corp., recently contributed $35,000 to the state Republican party.
* * *
The Bush family tradition is to make money first -- then make a mark in government. By 1993, Jeb Bush decided he was ready. His net worth had climbed to $2.26-million. He challenged Lawton Chiles in the race for governor. Codina pleaded with him to stay in real estate.
"You're selling out at the wrong time," Codina told Bush. But he didn't listen. Codina paid him $795,652 to buy out Bush's stake. When Bush looked likely to beat Chiles, Codina removed the Bush name from the company.
But Bush lost. He soon decided to return to Codina and the Coral Gables business, with its teak and marble offices at Penthouse 2 in Alhambra Plaza.
Bush loved his office, the one just across from Codina's. But, he told two Times reporters, the "opulent" surroundings were not his choice. Codina leased the offices already decorated.
By 1995, Bush told Codina that he was eager to work but would have more distractions outside of real estate. "I didn't have the same intensity," Bush said. Codina welcomed him back, agreeing to give Bush 10 percent to 20 percent of the company's profits, down from his earlier 40 percent. And Codina put his Bush's name back on the brokerage business.
Thanks to Bush's new statewide recognition from his 1994 campaign, his business dealings multiplied. Bush seemed particularly attractive to those looking to add some star power to their boards of directors.
After bringing Bush aboard as an investor in the Jacksonville Jaguars, Petway asked Bush to meet with Paul Kahn. Bush was familiar with Kahn. The former AT&T Universal Card executive had held a fund-raiser for Bush's 1994 campaign.
Kahn now ran Safecard Services, a Jacksonville company that soon changed its name to Ideon Corp. Ideon sold credit card protection services for an annual fee. If your cards were stolen, you could make one call and Ideon would notify all the card companies of the loss.
Bush was invited to become an Ideon director. He said he "did some checking around and heard nothing bad" about Kahn. While the company was embroiled in numerous lawsuits, Bush said the litigation "seemed to be subsiding."
When he joined the board in 1995, Bush was richly rewarded as a director. He was paid more than $50,000 a year plus stock options -- more than double what was typically paid directors of far larger companies.
If Ideon at first looked good to Bush and his fellow directors, the company's prospects soured quickly. Kahn proved to be a big spender and his new product launches bombed. Bush said he did everything he could to help turn the company around.
By 1996, Kahn was out. Bush and the seven other directors agreed to sell Ideon to CUC International. Lawsuits filed against the Ideon board for stock manipulation and weak oversight were settled early this year for $15-million, all paid by CUC.
Many question why Bush was so naive as to join a company as mismanaged as Ideon. Even a quick reading of the company's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission before signing up would have made many potential directors just say no. For instance, the company had a big accounting write-off in late 1994, a sign of trouble. Nor did Bush take notice of the cozy ties between Kahn and several of his fellow directors. Several directors were paid large consulting fees that compromised their ability to oversee company managers objectively.
Petway, who brought Bush into both the Ideon and the Jaguars deals, declined to talk to the Times. Petway and his company gave $101,000 to the state GOP and $5,500 to Bush's 1998 campaign. Bush calls Petway a "good friend."
Yet another board, Tampa's Anchor Glass, paid Bush a hefty $30,000 director's fee, plus $1,500 per meeting and $500 for each committee session. Former Anchor chief executive James Malone, a Republican donor, said he recruited Bush in 1995 so he could get some real estate expertise on the board. Bush said he joined to help preserve Florida's Anchor jobs.
All of Bush's board service paid off: In 1995 alone, his board fees were $108,000.
* * *
By all accounts, Bush is blessed with high energy. He puts in 16-hour days on his many projects. That didn't stop the curious from occasionally asking his real estate partners: "Does he really work?" said brokerage associate Hank Klein.
Klein said Bush is intense about his work. "He has a level of impatience," he said. Most nights, Bush and Klein would have late calls to review the day. At times, they would jog before dawn. "Jeb is a gazelle," Klein said. "He's running through life."
By last year, Bush's preference for politics won out over real estate. Once again, he told Codina he was running for governor. Codina didn't try to talk him out of it. "This time, he's obsessed," Codina said.
That sale prompted environmentalists to question if Bush can be objective about land-use issues, if he defeats Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay this November.
Codina and Bush dismiss such concerns. Bush officially resigned June 30 and is no longer an owner of any of the Codina properties. Yet Bush still refers to it as "our company," even as he's trying to downplay his connection.
Codina hasn't moved anyone into Bush's office across the hall. The developer, who is now worth an estimated $75-million, doesn't attend political events. He has donated $25,000 to the state party and $3,500 to Bush's latest campaign. On occasion, he takes his friends George and Barbara Bush sailing on his 54-foot Bertram yacht christened What a Country!
For his part, Jeb Bush is focused only on the Nov. 3 election. He campaigns as a businessman, sometimes in a navy suit, other times in his khakis. He favors black cowboy boots decorated with gold flourishes and stitched with the familiar red and white JEB! campaign logo. They were a gift from his father.
Addressing a summer meeting of Florida A&M University alumni, Bush preaches the need to embrace capitalism. "The American Dream is shattered for far too many people," he tells a couple of dozen people gathered at Tampa's DoubleTree Hotel. "Too few people have confidence in capitalism."
If capitalism has been good to Jeb Bush, his political connections have proved to be a financial bonanza. The man who vowed to make a lot of money has succeeded reasonably well.
By the end of 1997, Jeb Bush sold off most of his real estate holdings and stakes in innumerable private business deals. His last payment from Codina was a bonus of $630,000. His net worth, including his investments, home and belongings was put at $2.4-million. To simplify his investments, he put the bulk of his liquid assets -- $1.2-million -- into 10 mutual funds.
Bush did that to avoid "front-page headlines in newspapers about implied conflicts," he explained. "I still get them. . . . Maybe I'm stupid."
Bush held on to one investment -- his stake in Winston Capital, his brother Marvin's venture capital fund. The fund puts money up for private companies needing capital to expand.
"It has nothing to do with Florida . . . real estate . . . or state government," Bush said.
Besides, he didn't want to sell out just yet. "I shouldn't just lose money every time I decide to run for office."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett, along with information from Times wires and files, contributed to this special report.