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Excerpt: ‘Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right’

While it is well-known that deep pockets finance the big names in politics, much about the private world they inhabit and how their money is allocated remains hidden. The network of hard-right billionaires extends far beyond the infamous Koch brothers. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right opens the curtain on these shadowy figures, showing the aggressive maneuverings they employ to control and corrupt our politics.  What follows is an exclusive excerpt.

Only one full guest list of attendants at any of the Koch summits has surfaced publicly. It was for a session in June 2010. Like Mrs. Astor’s famous 400, which defined the top bracket of New York society in the late nineteenth century on the basis of those who could fit into the Astors’ ballroom, the Kochs’ donor list provides another portrait of a fortunate social subset. They were mostly businessmen; very few were women. Fewer still were nonwhite. And while some had made their own fortunes, many others were intent on preserving vast legacies they had inherited. While those attracted to the Kochs’ meetings were uniformly conservative, they were not the predictable cartoon villains of conspiracy theories but spanned a wide range of views and often disagreed among themselves about social and international issues. The glue that bound them together, however, was antipathy toward government regulation and taxation, particularly as it impinged on their own accumulation of wealth. Unsurprisingly, given the shift in the way great fortunes were made by the end of the twentieth century, instead of railroad magnates and steel barons who had ruled in the Astors’ day, the largest number of participants came from the finance sector.

Among the better-known financiers who participated or sent representatives to Koch donor summits during Obama’s first term were Steven A. Cohen, Paul Singer, and Stephen Schwarzman. All might have been principled philosophical conservatives, with no ulterior motives, but all also had personal reasons to fear a more assertive federal government, as was expected from Obama.

Cohen’s spectacularly successful hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisors, was at the time the focus of an intense criminal investigation into insider trading. Prosecutors described his firm, which was based in Stamford, Connecticut, as “a veritable magnet of market cheaters.” Forbes valued Cohen’s fortune at one point at $10.3 billion, making his checkbook a formidable political weapon.

Paul Singer, whose fortune Forbes estimated at $1.9 billion, ran the hugely lucrative hedge fund Elliott Management. Dubbed a vulture fund by critics, it was controversial for buying distressed debt in economically failing countries at a discount and then taking aggressive legal action to force the strapped nations, which had expected their loans to be forgiven, to instead pay him back at a profit. Although Singer insisted that he didn’t buy debt from the poorest of the poor nations, his methods, while highly lucrative, brought public scorn and government scrutiny. Even New York’s tabloid newspapers chimed in. After Singer supported the campaign of the former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a July 2007 New York Post story was headlined “Rudy’s ‘Vulture’ $$ Man” with the subhead “Profits Off Poor.” Singer described himself as a Goldwater free-enterprise conservative, and he contributed generously to promoting free-market ideology, but at the same time his firm reportedly sought unusual government help in squeezing several desperately impoverished governments, a contradiction that applied to many participants in the Koch donor network.

Stephen Schwarzman, who was in general less of a political activist than Singer, might have first become involved in the Kochs’ political enterprise out of happenstance. In 2000, he paid $37 million for the palatial triplex that had previously belonged to John D. Rockefeller Jr. at 740 Park Avenue, the same Manhattan co-op building in which David Koch bought an apartment three years later. By the time Obama was elected, Schwarzman had become something of a poster boy for Wall Street excess. As Chrystia Freeland writes in her book Plutocrats, the June 21, 2007, initial public offering of stock in Blackstone, his phenomenally successful private equity company, “marked the date when America’s plutocracy had its coming-out party.” By the end of the day, Schwarzman had made $677 million from selling shares, and he retained additional shares then valued at $7.8 billion.

Schwarzman’s stunning payday made a huge and not entirely favorable impression in Washington. Soon after, Democrats began criticizing the carried-interest tax loophole and other accounting gimmicks that helped financiers amass so much wealth. In the wake of the 2008 market crash, as Obama and the Democrats began talking increasingly about Wall Street reforms, financiers like Schwarzman, Cohen, and Singer who flocked to the Koch seminars had much to lose.

The hedge fund run by another of the Kochs’ major investors, Robert Mercer, an eccentric computer scientist who made a fortune using sophisticated mathematical algorithms to trade stocks, also seemed a possible government target. Democrats in Congress were considering imposing a tax on stock trading, which the firm he co-chaired, Renaissance Technologies, did in massive quantities at computer-driven high frequency. Although those familiar with his thinking maintained that his political activism was separate from his pecuniary interests, Mercer had additional business reasons to be anti-government. The IRS was investigating whether his firm improperly avoided paying billions of dollars in taxes, a charge the firm denied. Employment laws, too, would prove an embarrassing headache to him; three domestic servants soon sued him for refusing to pay overtime and maintained that he had docked their wages unfairly for infractions such as failing to replace shampoo bottles from his bathrooms when they were less than one-third full. The tabloid news stories about the case invariably mentioned that Mercer had previously brought a suit of his own, suing a toy-train manufacturer for overbilling him by $2 million for an elaborate electric train set he had installed in his Long Island, New York, mansion. With a pay package of $125 million in 2011, Mercer was ranked by Forbes as the sixteenth-highest-paid hedge fund manager that year.

Other financiers active in the Koch group had additional legal problems. Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, was enmeshed in a prolonged legal fight over his decision as chairman of the compensation committee of the New York Stock Exchange to pay his friend Dick Grasso, the head of the exchange, $139.5 million. The sum was so scandalously large that it forced Grasso to resign. Angry at his critics, Langone reportedly felt that “if it wasn’t for us fat cats and the endowments we fund, every university in the country would be fucked.”

Another Koch seminar goer from the financial sector, Richard Strong, founder of the mutual fund Strong Capital Management, was banned from the financial industry for life in a settlement following an investigation by the former New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer into his improperly timing trades to benefit his friends and family. Strong paid a $60 million fine and publicly apologized. His company paid an additional $115 million in related penalties. But after Strong sold his company’s assets to Wells Fargo, the Associated Press reported that he would be “an even wealthier man.”

Many participants in the Koch summits were brilliant leaders not only in business but also in tax avoidance. For instance, the Colorado oil and entertainment billionaire Philip Anschutz, a founder of Qwest Communications, whom Fortune magazine dubbed America’s “greediest executive” in 2002, was fighting an uphill battle on a tax matter that practically required an accounting degree to explain. Anschutz, a conservative Christian who bankrolled movies with biblical themes, had attempted to avoid paying capital gains taxes in a 2000–2001 transaction by using what are called prepaid variable forward contracts. These contracts allow wealthy shareholders such as Anschutz, whose fortune Forbes estimated at $11.8 billion as of 2015, to promise to give shares to investment firms at a later date, in exchange for cash up front. Because the stock does not immediately change hands, capital gains taxes are not paid. According to The New York Times, Anschutz raised $375 million in 2000–2001 by promising shares in his oil and natural gas companies through the firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

Eventually, the court sided against Anschutz on something of a technicality. The former Times reporter David Cay Johnston wrote that in essence the court had ruled that “prepaids done slightly differently than the Anschutz transactions will survive. But why should they?” he asked. “Why should anyone get to enjoy cash from gains now without paying taxes?” Johnston concluded, “The awful truth is that America has two income tax systems, separate and unequal. One system is for the superrich, like Anschutz and his wife, Nancy, who are allowed to delay and avoid taxes on investment gains, among other tax tricks. The other system is for the less than fabulously wealthy.”

Some donor families had clearly committed tax crimes. Richard DeVos, co-founder of Amway, the Michigan-based worldwide multi-level marketing empire, had pleaded guilty to a criminal scheme in which he had defrauded the Canadian government of $22 million in customs duties in 1982. DeVos later claimed it had been a misunderstanding, but the record showed the company had engaged in an elaborate, deliberate hoax in an effort to hoodwink Canadian authorities. He and his co-founder, Jay Van Andel, were forced to pay a $20 million fine. The fine didn’t make much of a dent in DeVos’s fortune, which Forbes estimated at $5.7 billion. By 2009, DeVos’s son Dick and daughter-in-law Betsy were major donors on the Koch list and facing a record $5.2 million civil fine of their own for violating Ohio’s campaign-finance laws.

Energy magnates were also heavily represented in the Koch network. Many of this group too had significant government regulatory and environmental issues. The “extractive” industries, oil, gas, and mining, tend to be run by some of the most outspoken opponents of government regulation in the country, yet all rely considerably on government permits, regulations, and tax laws to aid their profits and frequently to give them access to public lands. Executives from at least twelve oil and gas companies, in addition to the Kochs, were participants in the group. Collectively, they had a huge interest in staving off any government action on climate change and weakening environmental safeguards. One prominent member of this group was Corbin Robertson Jr., whose family had built a billion-dollar oil company, Quintana Resources Capital. Robertson had bet big on coal—so big he reportedly owned what Forbes called the “largest private hoard in the nation—21 billion tons of reserves.” Investigative reports linked Robertson to several political front groups fighting efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control pollution emitted by coal-burning utilities. Almost comically, one such front group was called Plants Need CO2.

Another coal magnate active in the Kochs’ donor network was Richard Gilliam, head of the Virginia mining concern Cumberland Resources. The dire stakes surrounding the sinking coal industry’s regulatory fights were evident in the 2010 sale of Cumberland for nearly $1 billion to Massey Energy, just weeks before a tragic explosion in Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine killed twenty-nine miners, becoming the worst coal mine disaster in forty years. A government investigation into Massey found it negligent on multiple safety fronts, and a federal grand jury indicted its CEO, Don Blankenship, for conspiring to violate and impede federal mine safety standards, making him the first coal baron to face criminal charges. Later, Massey was bought for $7.1 billion by Alpha Natural Resources, whose CEO, Kevin Crutchfeld, was yet another member of the Koch network.

Several spectacularly successful leaders of hydraulic fracturing, who had their own set of government grievances, were also on the Kochs’ list. The revolutionary method of extracting gas from shale revived the American energy business but alarmed environmentalists. Among the “frackers” in the group were J. Larry Nichols, cofounder of the huge Oklahoma-based concern Devon Energy, and Harold Hamm, whose company, Continental Resources, was the biggest operator in North Dakota’s booming Bakken Shale. As Hamm, a sharecropper’s son, took his place as the thirty-seventh-richest person in America with a fortune that Forbes estimated at $8.2 billion as of 2015, and campaigned to preserve tax loopholes for oil producers, his company gained notoriety for a growing record of environmental and workplace safety violations.

One shared characteristic of many of the donors in the Kochs’ network was private ownership of their businesses, placing them in a low-profile category that Fortune once dubbed “the invisible rich.” Private ownership gave these magnates far more managerial latitude and limited public disclosures, shielding them from stockholder scrutiny. Many of the donors had nonetheless attracted unwanted legal scrutiny by the government.

It was, in fact, striking how many members of the Koch network had serious past or ongoing legal problems. Sheldon Adelson, founding chairman and chief executive of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, the world’s largest gambling company, whose fortune Forbes estimated at $31.4 billion, was facing a bribery investigation by the Justice Department into whether his company had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in securing licenses to operate casinos in Macao.

The Kochs had looming worries about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, too. As Bloomberg News later revealed, the company’s record of illicit payments in Algeria, Egypt, India, Morocco, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia was spilling out in a French court. Further, in the summer of 2008, just a few months before Obama was elected, federal officials had questioned the company about sales to Iran, in violation of the U.S. trade ban against the state for sponsoring terrorism.

Meanwhile, another donor, Oliver Grace Jr., a relation of the family that founded the William R. Grace Company, was at the center of a stock-backdating scandal that resulted in his being ousted from the board of Take-Two, the company behind the ultraviolent Grand Theft Auto video games.

The legal problems of Richard Farmer, the chairman of the Cincinnati-based Cintas Corporation, the nation’s largest uniform supply company, included an employee’s gruesome death. Just before the new and presumably less business-friendly Obama administration took office, Cintas reached a record $2.76 million settlement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in six safety citations including one involving a worker who had burned to death in an industrial dryer. The employee, a Hispanic immigrant, had become caught on a conveyor belt leading into the heat source. Prior to the fatal accident, OSHA had cited Cintas for over 170 safety violations since 2003, including 70 that regulators warned could cause “death or serious physical harm.” As Obama took office, the company was still fighting against paying a damage claim to the employee’s widow and arguing that his death had been his own fault. Farmer, too, ranked among the Koch group’s billionaire donors, with a fortune that Forbes estimated at $2 billion.

Given the participants’ unanimous espousal of anti-government, free-market self-reliance, the network also included a surprising number of major government contractors, such as Stephen Bechtel Jr., whose personal fortune Forbes estimated at $2.8 billion. Bechtel was a director and retired chairman of the huge and internationally powerful engineering firm Bechtel Corporation, founded by his grandfather, run by his father, and, after he retired, by his son and grandson. Paternalistic and family-owned, Bechtel was the sixth-largest private company in the country, and it owed almost its entire existence to government patronage. It had built the Hoover Dam, among other spectacular public projects, and had storied access to the innermost national security circles. Between 2000 and 2009 alone, it had received $39.2 billion in U.S. government contracts. This included $680 million to rebuild Iraq following the U.S. invasion.

Like so many of the other companies owned by the Koch donors, Bechtel had government legal problems. In 2007, a report by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction accused Bechtel of shoddy work. And in 2008, the company paid a $352 million fine to settle unrelated charges of substandard work in Boston’s notorious “Big Dig” tunnel project. The company was facing congressional reproach too for cost overruns in the multi-billion-dollar cleanup of the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington State.

Antagonism toward the government ran so high within the Koch network that one donor angrily objected to federal interference not just in his business but on behalf of his own safety as well. Thomas Stewart, who built his father’s Seattle-based food business into the behemoth Services Group of America, reportedly loved flying in his helicopter and corporate jet. But when a former company pilot refused to take his aeronautic advice because it violated Federal Aviation Administration regulations, according to an interview with the pilot in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Stewart “rose out of his chair, and screamed, ‘I can do any fucking thing I want!’”

Footnote: In 2010, Stewart, his wife, daughter, and two others were killed in a helicopter crash that investigators reportedly believed was caused when his five year old daughter, who was sitting in the cockpit, kicked the controls.

Excerpted from DARK MONEY: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer Copyright © 2016 by Jane Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Why Cheap Oil Isn’t Bad For The Environment

It stood to reason that collapsing prices for oil would make clean energy relatively more expensive. That would dampen the public’s craving to install solar panels and build wind turbines.
Well, let’s try to reason again. A lot of opposing forces are shaking the old assumptions. In the jaws of bargain oil, the U.S. Department of Energy expects Americans to increase their use of renewable power this year by almost 10 percent. Why is this time different?

Consider solar power. Over the past 18 months, the price of oil has fallen by 75 percent, yet the installation of solar panels proceeds apace. The advocacy group Solar Foundation reports that jobs in solar energy increased last year by more than 20 percent. Most of them were for installers.

As for wind power, Denmark-based Vestas, one of the big three wind-turbine companies, says that business continues to boom in North America, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Its stock price doubled last year.

What’s going on? For starters, while the price of oil has fallen, so have the costs of green energy technologies. For another, strangling air pollution in China and India has fed a desire for clean energy greater than the urge to find the cheapest source.

And international alarm over carbon’s role in global warming has taken root in concrete ways. It appears that vows to cut fossil-fuel use at the Paris climate-change summit are being taken seriously.

In this country, Congress recently extended tax credits for new wind and solar projects. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, meanwhile, is requiring states to cut power-plant emissions.
Sharply lower oil and gas prices have translated into enormous savings for consumers. Some developing countries have used their newfound cash to cut subsidies for gasoline. Countries dependent on imported oil are using the savings to invest in wind power, according to Vestas.

Drops in oil prices act like tax cuts, and American consumers may be spending some of their bounty on SUVs and trucks. That’s not great environmental news. On the other hand, SUVs and trucks are now so much more fuel-efficient than in the past.

Within the fossil-fuel world, a sharp drop in oil prices has rearranged the economics with environmental benefits. As The Economist magazine explained, “Cheap oil has a green lining, as it drags down the global prices of natural gas, which crowds out coal, a dirtier fuel.”

Another green lining is that it makes drilling in hard-to-reach places, such as the Arctic, less economically feasible. This offered good timing for Obama’s proposal to extend “wilderness” designation to millions of the acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Drilling and mining are off-limits in wilderness-designated areas. ANWR has long been a battleground between environmentalists and oil companies.

Some economists worry that the oil-price “tax cut” isn’t doing much for the American economy because consumers seem to mostly be saving the money instead of spending. Cheer up. Saving should be regarded as deferred spending, and in any case, it’s about time Americans amassed an economic cushion.

Of course, the drop in energy prices has hurt oil-and-gas-producing parts of this country, Alaska in particular. Happily, the economies of oil-producing Texas and North Dakota have become considerably diversified. Energy is not the only game. Certainly, oil and gas are not. Texas has become America’s biggest producer of wind-powered electricity.

Renewable energy is not the environmental plaything mocked years ago by the drilling interests and their politicians. Two months ago, in the midst of an oil-price tumble, Goldman Sachs said it was quadrupling its bet in alternative energy to $150 billion. Hard numbers have clearly taken over the debate, and clean energy is winning.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

Photo: A pump jack stands idle in Dewitt County, Texas January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Anna Driver

Iran Boosts Oil Output, Foreign Firms Keen To Seal Deals

By Sam Wilkin and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran ordered a sharp increase in oil output on Monday to take immediate advantage of the lifting of international sanctions, and some foreign firms raced to snap up deals as Tehran emerges from years of international isolation.

Others were more wary, mindful of the risk of falling foul of residual U.S. penalties despite the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Saturday by the United States, European Union and United Nations.

Those measures were scrapped as part of a landmark deal between Iran and world powers, rewarding the Islamic Republic for scaling back its atomic energy program in ways that U.S. President Barack Obama said would prevent it from getting its hands on a nuclear bomb.

“We will be committed to the nuclear deal as far as the other side is,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday, adding that his country was “morally and religiously committed not to seek weapons of mass destruction”.

The agreement restores Iran’s access to tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets, reopens the country to foreign investment and allows it to resume selling oil on world markets, albeit at a time when they are drowning in excess supply.

Deputy Oil Minister Rokneddin Javadi said Iran could increase output by 500,000 barrels a day “and the order to increase production was issued today”.

The sanctions revoked at the weekend had cut Iran’s oil exports by about 2 million barrels per day (bpd) since their pre-sanctions 2011 peak, to little more than 1 million bpd.

Oil prices touched their lowest since 2003 on Monday as the market braced for additional Iranian oil exports.

The lifting of sanctions opens up business opportunities across a host of sectors, from planes to telecoms.

“Iran is a huge market and in our focus,” Kaan Terzioglu, head of Turkey’s biggest mobile operator, Turkcell, said in an interview with Reuters.

He said Iran could be a target market as the company looks for regional acquisitions: “We are closely watching the Iranian market and in touch with all of its fixed line and mobile operators.”

 

NEW MIDDLE CLASS

Dennis Nally, global chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, told Reuters before the start of this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos that the audit and consultancy firm was seeing strong client interest in opportunities in Iran.

“Without question the energy, energy-related and infrastructure industries stand to benefit, but also sectors like retail, with the potential creation of a new middle class,” he told Reuters.

A clutch of German firms were among those to signal their appetite to ramp up business ties with Tehran, and the Berlin government said it planned to revive state export guarantees for companies that wanted to do so.

Daimler said its trucks division had signed letters of intent with joint venture partners in Iran in order to re-enter the market, where it was selling up to 10,000 vehicles a year until 2010. Its rival Audi said it had representatives in Iran right now to discuss the “growing potential for luxury cars”.

Herrenknecht, a family-run German tunneling company that helped to build the Tehran metro in the 1990s, said it expected Iran to put up new projects for tender, and it was ready to pounce on the opportunity.

Commerzbank, Germany’s number two lender, also said it was considering the possibility of returning to Iran.

That announcement was especially striking, less than a year after Commerzbank agreed to pay $1.45 billion to U.S. authorities for sanctions violations partly linked to Iran. At the time, it joined a long line of foreign banks similarly penalized – France’s BNP Paribas alone paid $8.9 billion.

For that reason, most international banks are expected to tread very carefully to avoid violating U.S. trade sanctions that remain in place.

 

DEALS AND DIPLOMACY

In further signs of likely deals in the pipeline, Switzerland’s Zurich Insurance said it would look into insurance cover for corporate customers doing business with Iran, and the head of British Airways’ parent company IAG said it hoped to start flying to Tehran “in the very near future”.

Russia, another party to last year’s nuclear deal, said it was looking to sell military helicopters to Iran and export more grain. India’s national aluminum company NALCO said it would soon send a team to Iran to explore setting up a smelter complex worth about $2 billion, taking advantage of cheap and plentiful gas there.

Spain’s foreign minister said Madrid and Tehran were discussing the building of an Iranian-owned oil refinery on the southern tip of Spain.

In a burst of diplomatic activity that will provide opportunities for discussing investment deals, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit both Iran and its regional arch-rival Saudi Arabia this week.

In Rome, a diplomatic source said the Iranian president would travel to Italy and France next week on his first trip to Europe since the lifting of sanctions.

The nuclear deal removed restrictions that stifled Iran’s economy for most of this decade – on banking, money transfers, insurance, trade, transport and technology procurement.

This will allow Iran to satisfy pent-up demand for goods and services that it had trouble obtaining at affordable prices under sanctions, from aircraft to factory machinery, medicines and some consumer goods such as cosmetics and branded clothing.

In an indication of the scale of potential deals, the transport minister said at the weekend that Iran intended to buy 114 civil aircraft from Airbus – a deal that could be worth more than $10 billion at catalog prices. Airbus said on Saturday it had not yet held commercial talks with Iran.

 

OPPORTUNITIES AND RISKS

Entering the Iranian market is not without risks: indebted local banks, a primitive legal system, corruption and an inflexible labor market. Many foreign companies will remain wary that sanctions could “snap back” if Tehran is later found in breach of the nuclear agreement.

“A lot of work has been done to get to where we are now. A similar and sustained effort will be required in the future,” U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Yukiya Amano said on a visit to Tehran. “We must maintain the momentum.”

U.S. companies look set to lag rivals from other countries in restoring trade with Iran, because Washington will retain broad sanctions that predate the nuclear crisis and were imposed over other issues such as terrorism and human rights abuses.

But U.S. business with Iran may still increase, after the U.S. Treasury said on Saturday that it would permit foreign subsidiaries of American companies to trade with Iran – a channel that big multinationals may be able to exploit.

A big foreign investment presence may take longer to rebuild than trade ties. Some firms may want to wait until they see the stance of the next U.S. president towards Iran; many will worry about “reputational risk”, or exposure to legal action from shareholders or lobby groups, if they invest there.

Further complicating the picture, the United States imposed new sanctions on Sunday on 11 companies and individuals for supplying Iran’s ballistic missile program, even as it removed the old nuclear-related measures and carried out an exchange of prisoners with Tehran.

The new sanctions are much smaller in scope, but Tehran denounced them on Monday. Foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari said they had “no legal or moral legitimacy”, because U.S. weaponry sold to regional allies was used to commit “war crimes against Palestinian, Lebanese and most recently Yemeni citizens”.

 

(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Dubai, Edward Taylor, Irene Preisinger and Georgina Prodhan in Frankfurt, Michael Nienaber and Gernot Heller in Berlin, Conor Humphries in Dublin, Ben Hirschler in Davos, Angus Berwick in Madrid, and Jatindra Dash and Krishna N. Das in New Delhi; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Peter Millership and Pravin Char)

Photo: An Iranian woman walks past a revolutionary mural in Tehran, Iran, January 17, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA

Meet Canada’s Very Own Donald Trump

It’s not often that Canadian businessmen make comments bombastic enough to garner attention in the American news cycle, but Kevin O’Leary is determined to change that. The business tycoon and television personality (sound familiar?) shot to the front pages of every news site in Canada for promising to invest $1 million into Alberta’s oil industry. (Yes, you read that correctly: one million, with an “M.”) His offer came with a single demand: the resignation of Alberta’s premier, Rachel Notley, a social democrat who stunned political observers in May 2015 by ending a 44-year-old conservative political dynasty in the province.

“I’ll put the first million down,” said O’Leary in an interview with Newstalk 1010, a conservative radio station based in Toronto. “Please, I’m asking her please, please step down, do it for the sake of Canadians, do it for the sake of all of us.”

O’Leary has made a name for himself by being something of an anomaly in the Canadian landscape: a public figure who is solely obsessed with the accumulation of capital and little more. He rose to fame as one of the investors in Dragon’s Den, the Canadian version of Shark Tank, where for eight years he eviscerated inventors who didn’t agree to his business terms. In his own words, during a bizarre episode on SqueezePlay, a show he hosted years ago, “I need dough and I need dough every month. You got to pay Daddy number one.” In January 2014, he celebrated the fact that 85 people were reported to have as much wealth as the poorest half of people in the world. “It’s fantastic and this is a great thing because it inspires everybody, gets them motivation to look up to the one percent and say, ‘I want to become one of those people, I’m going to fight hard to get up to the top.’ This is fantastic news and of course I applaud it,” he said. “What can be wrong with this? I celebrate capitalism.”

O’Leary dislikes politicians like Notley for a very simple reason: He can’t turn a profit as easily when she enacts policies like raising corporate tax rates, prioritizing climate change policy, and refuses to cut social spending. And despite the fact that Alberta is suffering from a deep recession, she has remained fairly popular among her constituents. Polls give her a 50 percent approval rate, even with the continued collapse of both the provincial oil industry, Alberta’s primary export; a $5.9 billion deficit she inherited from the previous government; and the specter of 2016 shaping up to be yet another year of economic recession for the province.

There is little to suggest O’Leary isn’t contemplating a Trump-like path to national notoriety. His sales pitch to the Albertan public — the investment of $1 million in a stricken oil industry, in return for removing their elected premier — is little more than an attempt at grabbing attention. The Albertan oil economy had $27.2 billion worth of investments in 2012, so $1 million is barely even a drop in the bucket for the industry, even in these troubled times.

Andrew Leach, a business professor at University of Alberta, came to a similar conclusion, saying in a tweet, “If Kevin O’Leary gets a five or ten of his closest friends to join him in that investment, they might be able to drill and complete a well.”

To further illustrate the absurdity of O’Leary’s offer, which sounds very similar to an offer made by a similarly obtuse Dr. Evil, Leach tweeted, “Tomorrow, Kevin O’Leary will tackle high property values in Toronto by selling a 2 bedroom condo, but only if Wynne AND Trudeau resign.” He was referring to Ontario’s Liberal premier, Kathleen Wynne and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Indicating that he may be taking a cue from The Donald’s success, O’Leary is now considering a run for the leadership of the Conservative Party. The Conservatives led the country for nearly a decade under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper before Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party swept last October’s elections. “I don’t know if he’s maybe inspired by the successes in the short term that Donald Trump has had in the United States. But he’s a person with some strong opinions who if he wants to offer them in public life, I think he’ll find it a very different environment,” said James Moore, a former Conservative cabinet minister. “But I think people will be interested to hear what he has to say.”

Alberta’s premier, however, isn’t backing away from the businessman’s apparent disregard for democracy, trying to buy her out of elected office. She tapped into the resentment Albertans sometimes display when given orders from Canada’s Toronto elite, of which O’Leary is a member. “The last time a group of wealthy businessmen tried to tell Alberta voters how to vote, I ended up becoming premier,” she said.

O’Leary is an odd figure in a progressive nation. He made his name as a voice of the Canadian right wing, once telling Chris Hedges that Occupy Wall Street protesters “can’t even name the names of the firms they’re protesting against.” His never-back-down posture on Dragon’s Den, the show that introduced him to the public, earned him a date with a stranger in the Toronto airport once, who called him a “total asshole” to his face. It’s reportedly a favorite anecdote of his, one that let him know he “made it.”

Notley, on the other hand, comes from a social justice background. Her father was the leader of Alberta’s New Democratic Party (NDP), the left-wing Democratic party, for nearly 20 years, at a time when the NDP was barely hanging on to life in the province. She spent years in Vancouver working on labor law and social justice reform before returning to Alberta to enter politics. And Notley has not been in denial about the state of Alberta’s economy, nor has she ignored the flagging oil industry, (a charge her critics have lobbed at her). It’s hard to ignore the loss of 40,000 jobs in a province of 4 million people. But at a time of low oil prices, there is very little the premier can do given that the economy has been so reliant on oil for so long. However, the solution is not to promote the overthrow of democratically elected leaders.