“Crony capitalism” is the latest indictment lodged against the Obama administration by Mitt Romney, who knows all too well the meaning of that term. As a private equity operator, he thrived in a financial sector that has always relied heavily on tax advantages, pension bailouts, state investments, and a panoply of other benefits conferred by elected officials expecting campaign contributions. Within the past few weeks, even as Romney loudly castigated the alleged cronyism practiced by the Obama White House, he attended fundraisers hosted by two of the nation’s legendary beneficiaries of tainted government largesse.
The Hamptons fundraiser for Romney that instantly became infamous — owing to the snobbish, boneheaded remarks of the donors pulling up in their gold-plated vehicles –– occurred at the Creeks, the huge gated compound on Georgica Pond owned by Ronald O. Perelman. Long one of America’s wealthiest investors, Perelman is a bipartisan crony who greases both sides in order to protect his own interests. Much was made of the fact that he maxed out to Barack Obama in 2008 and now supports Romney.
Years before anyone ever heard of Obama or Romney, however, Perelman became notorious for the sweetheart deal bestowed upon him in the aftermath of the savings and loan debacle. In December 1988, the Reagan-Bush administration eagerly rewarded him for taking over several thrift institutions left insolvent in the financial orgy of speculation and thievery that followed deregulation.
While most Americans were left holding the bag, in the form of a trillion-dollar bailout and a sharp recession, Perelman, then already the fifth-richest man in the country, walked away with a mind-boggling bonanza of property and tax benefits. For paying a paltry $315 million, he and his associates received $7.1 billion in sound assets, $5.1 billion in cash to indemnify bad loans, and at least another billion dollars worth of special tax breaks.
Only months before that deal was struck, Perelman had just coincidentally joined Team 100, an elite club of donors to the presidential campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush who gave $100,000 or more. Although today, in the age of Citizens United and SuperPACs, a figure like $100,000 sounds quaintly modest, even adjusted for inflation, it was a big donation two decades ago. As Common Cause later documented in exhaustive detail, a Team 100 member seeking a favor from government under Bush almost always got it (including Romney’s pal Donald Trump, who is one of the most successful crony capitalists of all time).
From the Perelman estate in the Hamptons, Romney soon found his way to the Teton Pines Country Club near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to attend another exclusive fundraising event and dinner, hosted by none other than Dick Cheney – former vice president, wanted war criminal, and ex-CEO of Halliburton, the energy and engineering conglomerate whose greedy suckling at the federal teat became legendary during the Bush administration.
Trading on the connections established during his first government stints in Congress and the White House with crony capitalists in Mideast and African countries, Cheney had no business experience but prospered at Halliburton. The firm’s profits were swollen by contracts in enemy nations, including Iraq, Iran, and Libya – but Cheney didn’t let any stinking sanctions get in his way. Yet those deals paled in comparison with the billions of taxpayer dollars that engorged Halliburtion during the Iraq war, with Cheney pushing the invasion and then controlling the occupation. Upon nominating himself for vice president in 2000, he had walked away with at least $34 million in stock and bonuses – probably the most lucrative investment Halliburton ever made.
What we know about Cheney, Perelman and Trump is enough to mock Romney’s rhetoric about crony capitalism, which is clearly intended for chumps, no matter what kernels of fact it may include. What we don’t know yet is the full extent of its absurdity — because his campaign still refuses to release the list of its bundlers.