In early 1989, seven weeks after his father moved into the White House, Jeb Bush took a trip to Nigeria.
Nearly 100,000 Nigerians turned out to see him over four days as he accompanied the executives of a Florida company called Moving Water Industries, which had just retained Bush to market the firm’s pumps. Escorted by the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, Bush met with the nation’s political and religious leaders as part of an MWI effort to land a deal that would be worth $80 million.
“My father is the president of the United States, duly elected by people that have an interest in improving ties everywhere,” he told a group of dignitaries in a private meeting, according to a video documenting the visit. “The fact that you have done this today is something I will report back to him very quickly when I get back to the United States.”
Just days after Jeb Bush returned home, President George H.W. Bush sent a note to Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida, thanking him for hosting his son. “We are grateful to you,” President Bush wrote on White House stationery.
MWI eventually got the deals it was seeking. Former employees said Bush’s participation was crucial. “There’s no question about it: ‘Here is the son of the president of the United States.’ It was a big deal,” Cornelius Lang, MWI’s former controller, told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “He could open doors we couldn’t.”
Today, as he works toward his run at the White House, Bush touts his business experience as a strength that gives him the skills and savvy to serve as the nation’s chief executive. He has said he “worked my tail off” to succeed. As an announced candidate, Bush soon will be making financial disclosures that will reveal recent business successes and show a substantial increase in his wealth since he left office as Florida governor in 2007, individuals close to the candidate told The Post.
But records, lawsuits, interviews and newspaper accounts stretching back more than three decades present a picture of a man who, before he became Florida governor in 1998, often benefitted from his family connections and repeatedly put himself in situations that raised questions about his judgment and exposed him to reputational risk.
Years after Bush’s visit to Nigeria, MWI was found to have made dozens of false claims to the U.S. government about its dealings in Nigeria, according to a civil jury verdict in a case brought by the Justice Department. MWI has denied the allegations and appealed the verdict. Bush was not a party to the lawsuit.
Five of his business associates have been convicted of crimes; one remains an international fugitive on fraud charges. In each case, Bush said he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing and said some of the people he met as a businessman in Florida took advantage of his naiveté.
Bush, now 62, has said that he has learned to be more careful about vetting his associates, telling the Miami Herald during his first, failed run for Florida governor in 1994 that getting “burned a couple of times” made him “better at deciphering people’s motives.”
He has been involved in myriad business ventures dating back to the early 1980s, taking time out to run for governor three times, winning the first of two terms in 1998. He has brokered real estate deals in Florida, arranged bank loans in Venezuela, marketed industrial pumps in Thailand, wholesaled shoes in Panama, promoted a building-materials company to Mexican interests and advised transnational financial services firms. He sat on more than a half dozen corporate boards. Since leaving office in 2007, Bush’s income has soared from speeches, corporate boards, consulting and managing investments for others.
“Jeb Bush had a successful career in commercial real estate and business before serving as Florida’s governor, said Kristy Campbell, a Bush spokeswoman. “He has always operated with the highest level of integrity throughout his business career.”
Before he became governor in 1999, he was comfortable but not rich. He did not earn the kind of fortune that his dad and brother George did as young men. In his late 20s, George H.W. Bush started a successful oil company in Texas. In his 40s, George W. Bush made an investment in the Texas Rangers baseball team that eventually earned him nearly $15 million.
At first glance, Jeb Bush’s dual biography as a businessman-politician can be hard to reconcile. Bush the politician presents the image of a man who is appealing, well-disciplined, intelligent and moderate. Bush the businessman has sometimes lent his name and credibility to money-making ventures that involved dubious characters.
He and his friends have explained this seeming incongruity by saying that he has been the victim of people who took advantage of his good nature.
“The only documented allegations come down to the fact that he did business with people that later turned out to be deadbeats and crooks,” said Tom Feeney, who was on the ticket as lieutenant governor during Bush’s 1994 campaign.
Bush’s business activities and missteps have been widely covered over the years, by the Miami Herald, the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones magazine and other publications, along with books by political scientists and journalists.
Bush declined to be interviewed for this article. Campbell suggested that reporters contact Armando Codina, a real estate developer in Miami and a Bush family friend who helped launch his career.
“I have a very high regard for Jeb and consider him a very insightful and intelligent businessman,” Codina said. “He is a workaholic and in my opinion he was a great governor, and would make a great president.”
One morning in March, Bush framed himself as a businessman for a Chamber of Commerce audience in Greenville, South Carolina.
“I’ve signed the front side of a paycheck,” Bush said. “I’m proud that I’ve been in business and know how it works.”
During a speech in New Hampshire in April, he underscored his business philosophy.
“Anybody in business knows that it’s not all the way the progressives decide it for us – kind of the top-down, driven approach where we are all supposed to get in line and it’s just going to happen because it’s all planned out,” he said.
“America at its best is an America that is dynamic, that embraces the unforeseen, that takes risks; that when there’s a failure, you dust yourself off and go at it again, and again and again. And the interaction of all of us together creates more prosperity, more potential, more innovation, more creativity than any government program ever created.”
It is the free-market credo that serves as Bush’s guiding light: No reward without risk.
John Ellis Bush, the third of six children, has always followed a prescription for success passed on by his father: Make enough money to take care of your family before going into public service.
He graduated from the University of Texas in 1974, in less than three years, with honors and a degree in Latin American studies. Married at 21, he took a job as a loan officer at a bank in Houston founded by the family of James Baker III, who later managed George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign and served as his chief of staff.
Bush left banking in 1979, later professing boredom with the work, and moved his young family to Miami, a melting pot of intrigue and economic activity.
Soon after he arrived, he began volunteering on his father’s presidential campaign in the state and met Codina, a Cuban exile who had become a wealthy real estate developer and now managed the Bush campaign in Dade County.
After Ronald Reagan won the election and George H.W. Bush became vice president, Codina offered the 27-year-old Jeb a remarkable opportunity: to partner in a real estate brokerage firm. Bush would receive 40 percent of the fees from what became the Codina Bush Group.
Bush would consider his work with Codina to be the defining experience of his business career.
“I formed a business with my friend Armando Codina in Miami,” he said in his recent New Hampshire appearance. “It started with three people . . . and we built it into the largest full-service commercial real estate company in South Florida.”
One of his endeavors involved a high-rise office building that Codina was developing on Flagler Street in Miami, called Museum Tower. Starting in 1984, Bush negotiated leases and recruited tenants for the building.
He eventually received about $340,000 in bonuses for his work.
“Jeb played an important role in the success of Museum Tower,” Codina recently told The Post.
One of Bush’s real estate associates described him as an impatient, driven man who sometimes put in 16-hour days – and then got up to run before dawn.
“Jeb Bush is a gazelle,” Hank Klein told the St. Petersburg Times. “He’s running through life.”
As he came of age in the hothouse Miami real estate market, Bush associated with some people who later ran afoul of the law. One of them was a tenant in Museum Tower, a high-rolling young Colombian named Alberto Duque, who had somehow secured$124 million in loans to finance a small bank and a coffee company. Duque drove around town in a Rolls-Royce and hosted Bush and other Miami luminaries at a lavish dinner. He once flew Bush to Costa Rica on his private jet to attend the presidential inauguration.
In 1986, Duque was convicted on 60 counts of bank fraud involving up to $100 million in loans. After serving seven of 15 years in prison, he fled from a halfway house and remains a fugitive.
Duque put Bush in an uncomfortable spot. Reporters covering his first campaign for governor in 1994 asked why someone as prominent as Bush would associate with such a person. Bush said Duque had simply fooled him.
“It just goes to show that the hallmark of a great confidence man is effortless deception,” Bush told the Herald.
From 1984 to 1986, as he pursued his career, Jeb also served as chairman of the Dade County Republican Party, where he met people who would become business associates.
Among them was Miguel Recarey Jr., a wealthy healthcare entrepreneur who had once served time for tax evasion and boasted that he knew Santo Trafficante Jr., a Florida mobster. Recarey owned International Medical Centers, or IMC, a health-maintenance organization in Miami that grew rapidly in the 1980s through hundreds of millions of dollars in payments from the Medicare system.
In 1985, he retained Bush to find office space for IMC, eventually paying him $75,000, though a lease was never signed.
Recarey needed approval from the Department of Health and Human Services to continue to receive new business from Medicare patients. He asked Bush if he would intercede on his behalf with regulators in Washington, according to congressional testimony. At the time, his father was vice president.
C. McClain Haddow, then chief of staff to the HHS secretary, told The Post recently that Bush’s intervention “certainly altered the trajectory of the decision” in Recarey’s favor.
In 1987, IMC was shut down as regulators searched for $200 million in missing federal funds. Recarey fled the country. He remains a fugitive in Spain.
Bush said he was unaware of wrongdoing at IMC and said he was not paid by Recarey to lobby HHS on his behalf. He said he was only doing a favor for a fellow Florida businessman.
“At the time, I didn’t feel I was doing business with a crook,” he later told The Herald. “Unfortunately, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought.”
Campbell recently told The Post, “As Governor Bush has said multiple times, he only recollects making a call to HHS and simply asking for a fair shake for Mr. Recarey as other Florida leaders did as well. It is unfortunate that he turned out to be a bad actor.”
Matthew Corrigan, a political science professor at the University of North Florida and the author of “Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida,” described Bush’s attitude in these years as “a little bit of damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
“His judgment on who to associate with is lacking,” Corrigan said.
Bush provided another favor that later raised questions, this time for Camilo Padreda, a Cuban immigrant and real estate developer who was the Republican Party’s finance chairman in Dade County. In 1985, Padreda had landed on the front pages of Miami newspapers for allegedly having a role in a scheme to bribe a city zoning official, but he was never charged.
In 1986, Bush accepted $75,000 from Padreda to work as the leasing agent on an office building Padreda had financed with help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Padreda asked to reach out to regulators at HUD on behalf of a friend who wanted HUD to provide loan insurance on an apartment building south of Miami.
The friend, Hiram Martinez Jr., obtained the loan but later defaulted. Both Martinez and Padreda were eventually convicted of fraud for inflating the value of the property.
The cavalcade of Florida crooks would be a recurrent irritant as Bush pursued his political career. But in a statement to The Post, Codina said Bush’s “record for having only a few clients who ultimately turned out to be less than truthful is remarkable, and that record would compare favorably with any firm in this business, either in Miami or another city.”
Bush’s relationship with MWI, the Florida pump-maker, offers insight into his approach to business at the time.
Weeks after George H.W. Bush moved into the White House in early 1989, Jeb Bush teamed up with a Republican donor named J. David Eller to promote the worldwide sale of industrial water pumps. Bush and Eller, the owner of Moving Water Industries of Deerfield Beach, Florida, registered a consulting firm called Bush-El Corp. to promote MWI’s products and split commissions on sales.
In March, Eller, Bush and their wives, along with MWI employees, traveled to Nigeria for the opening of a small factory that MWI was building in the country’s northeast corner. Eller hoped to convince the Nigerians to take on loans from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which would be used to buy MWI’s pumps and agricultural equipment. The Ex-Im Bank, which provided financing to promote U.S. manufacturing sales overseas, had earlier granted loans to Nigeria for that purpose.
The president’s son made for an ideal company representative, according to multiple former MWI employees.
“It always was about the influence of Jeb Bush being the son of the president,” Mike Carcamo, a former MWI sales executive, said in a recent interview with The Post. “Jeb was getting paid for influence, just to be Jeb.”
Three years later, the Ex-Im Bank approved loans worth $74.3 million for Nigeria.
When news accounts about the trip first appeared that year in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, MWI downplayed Bush’s role and Bush declined to comment. But the White House weighed in on his behalf.
“The president’s children should not be deprived of career opportunities just because they are members of the first family,” White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said at the time.
In 1994, when Jeb Bush prepared for his first run for Florida governor, he sold his share of Bush-El to Eller and reported earning $648,000.
Four years later, as Bush made his second gubernatorial bid, a former MWI employee alleged in a civil whistleblower lawsuit that MWI had falsified paperwork and paid “irregular” commissions for the Nigeria deals.
Bush said that he was unaware of any wrongdoing. He and the company said he was not paid for making the trip to Nigeria and did not receive any commissions from the deal. Bush said he took precautions to stay out of deals that involved U.S. government agencies, such as the Ex-Im Bank.
“You either trust me or you don’t,” he told reporters in 1998 during his second run for governor. “I’m not involved.”
Bush won the race, but the questions about Nigeria did not stop. The allegations triggered an FBI investigation that included at least 47 interviews over more than two years. The FBI focused on MWI’s payment of more than $25 million in commissions to its agent in Nigeria and sought to determine if that money was used to bribe Nigerian officials, according to FBI interview reports obtained by The Post.
Bush was not questioned by the FBI. “We do not now have evidence that Bush had any involvement in the contracts at issue . . . though this remains a possibility,” said a confidential Justice Department memo from January 2002 cited by the Naples Daily News in a story on the Nigeria trip in February.
His brother, George W. Bush, was president at the time of the investigation. The Justice Department ultimately decided not to pursue a criminal fraud case. Instead, it filed a civil suit against MWI alleging that the company made false claims in certifications to the Ex-Im Bank about the commissions paid to its Nigerian agent. The case dragged on for years. Justice sought Bush’s testimony, but a judge ruled that it was not relevant.
In November 2013, a jury in Washington found that the company made 58 false claims in the certifications, at a cost of $7.5 million in damages to the government. A federal judge ruled last year that the firm should pay $580,000 in civil penalties.
The company is appealing.
Eller did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement to The Post, William Bucknam, general counsel for MWI, said that the allegations against MWI were generated by a disgruntled employee and are baseless.
In 1998, shortly before he was elected governor, Bush said that he recognized the need to be more discerning in his dealings.
That year, he was named in an investors lawsuit involving Ideon, a credit card services firm that was losing millions. Bush had secured a seat on the board of Ideon through a political ally, Thomas Petway III. As a board member, Bush made $50,000 a year, plus expenses.
“I’m 45 years old,” he told the St. Petersburg Times. “I have to have better radar.”
For the next eight years, Bush presided for two terms over an administration devoted to conservative market-oriented policies. When he entered office, his net worth stood at about $2 million, according to his financial disclosure statements. Eight years later, it dropped to $1.3 million.
In 2007, he leapt back into the private sector, displaying the same energy he had during his real estate days in Florida.
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said Bush showed a new zeal for making money.
“He was just grabbing at things,” she said. “He is just driven by the free market.”
Weeks out of office, Bush launched Jeb Bush & Associates in a suite at the plush Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida. Those offices would serve as the base of an expanding and more sophisticated constellation of money-making ventures.
For a time, Bush also sat simultaneously on the boards of six corporations, including health industry giant Tenet Healthcare, earning as much as $3 million in fees and grants of stock, according to a Post analysis of financial documents. He also made more than 100 speeches at $50,000 or more per appearance, according to a New York Times report.
In June 2007, Bush signed on as an adviser to Lehman Brothers, the financial services giant. When Lehman was on the verge of collapse during the mortgage-meltdown crisis the next year, Richard Fuld Jr., Lehman’s beleaguered chief executive, asked Bush to use his cachet and reach out to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, then the second-richest man in the world. That effort failed. When the London-based Barclays bank bought Lehman’s North American operations, Bush moved to that firm as a senior financial consultant. He reportedly made $1 million a year.
Bush was being more careful in his business dealings now, but he still ran into trouble when yet another high-rolling Miami businessman, Claudio Osorio, asked him to join a start-up firm called InnoVida. The firm made prefabricated building panels for emergency housing in disaster areas.
Before committing, Bush visited factories in Miami and Dubai. He also commissioned a background check on Osorio. When the check came up clean, Bush said, he became an InnoVida consultant, receiving $15,000 a month and stock options for his part-time advice. In 2008, Bush was made a member of the company’s board.
The next year, the head of U.S. operations resigned after telling a board member the company was being mismanaged.
Bush remained on the board until September 2010. By then, another board member, Christopher Korge, became concerned about the company’s unaudited financial reports and inconsistent statements by Osorio. He went to other board members.
“I have to tell you I was impressed with Jeb’s response,” Korge, a prominent Miami Democrat, said. “When I informed him of what I had found and that I thought the CEO was perpetrating a fraud, Jeb Bush became immediately engaged and worked with me to try to stop the continuation of this fraud.”
Bush resigned from the board and returned his most recent $15,000 monthly fee. In 2011, after the company declared bankruptcy, Bush returned $270,000 of the $469,000 he had received in fees. A Bush adviser told The Post that he refunded more than half of his fees to help compensate other creditors.
Osorio eventually was charged with taking $40 million from investors and $10 million from a federal loan program intended to finance construction of homes in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He was sentenced to 12 1 / 2years in prison and ordered to pay$24 million in restitution. Craig Toll, InnoVida’s chief financial officer, got a four-year sentence.
“It is now obvious that Mr. Osorio deliberately misled a board of prominent business leaders about his company’s dealings and that is why he is now in jail,” Campbell wrote in a statement.
In 2008, Bush entered into perhaps his most lucrative venture yet. He and a former Lehman banker, Amar Bajpai, formed Britton Hill Partners LLC to make investments for wealthy clients. Five years later, they launched Britton Hill Holdings to make a wider array of investments.
Last year, when the value of investments under Britton Hill Holdings reached more than$100 million, the firm had to disclose limited details under Securities and Exchange Commission rules. It revealed that it had three funds devoted to fracking exploration, shipping of liquified natural gas and aviation services.
A leading investor in each of the three Britton Hill Holdings funds is HNA Corp., a private Chinese holding company. Among other businesses, HNA owns Hainan Airlines – one of China’s largest.
In March, Britton Hill announced that Bush was stepping away from all company business as he considered a run at the White House.
“I have enjoyed the experience,” Bush said in a statement, “of starting and building a business with my talented partners.”