GreenTech fits pattern of investment that has made big profits for Terry McAuliffe
By Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten,
The pitches to potential investors in a new electric-car company have been unabashed about its promise: It will enjoy “billions” in government subsidies and tax credits, will rise to a dominant position in the U.S. electric-car industry and, perhaps most critically, has a politically connected founder with the savvy to make it all happen.
That founder, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D), is listed in a recent confidential memorandum to prospective investors as GreenTech Automotive’s “chairman emeritus.” The 70-page document includes photographs and references to McAuliffe’s close ties to former president Bill Clinton. It recounts his political pedigree in detail, from serving as finance director for Jimmy Carter’s 1980 presidential reelection campaign to breaking fundraising records for the Democratic Party and chairing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
A section dedicated to GreenTech’s public relations efforts cites only one specific initiative: McAuliffe’s past promotion of electric vehicles on “national television news programs.”
Dated March 12, the previously undisclosed prospectus, provided to The Washington Post by the nonprofit watchdog group Cause of Action, notes that McAuliffe is “currently the largest individual shareholder” of GreenTech.
The prospectus, along with other documents reviewed by The Post, shows how GreenTech fits into a pattern of investments in which McAuliffe has used government programs, political connections and access to wealthy investors of both parties in pursuit of big profits for himself.
That formula has made McAuliffe a millionaire many times over, paving the way for a long list of business ventures, including his law firm, from which he resigned in the 1990s after profiting — along with his partners — from fees paid by domestic and foreign clients seeking results from the federal government.
A review of McAuliffe’s business history shows him often coming out ahead personally, even if some investments fail or become embroiled in controversy.
One high-profile example involved Global Crossing, a telecommunications firm whose demise in the 1990s cost investors billions of dollars. McAuliffe was working as a consultant to Global Crossing founder Gary Winnick, a prolific political donor, and became an investor in the company. McAuliffe sold some of his Global Crossing shares before the stock price plummeted and made an estimated $8 million before the company went sour.
Few of McAuliffe’s investments have been as ambitious as GreenTech, which the Democrat pointed to when he launched his candidacy as evidence of his entrepreneurial skill.
But in April, McAuliffe sought to distance himself from GreenTech. He issued a surprise statement saying that he had resigned as chairman that previous December — an announcement that came amid growing questions about GreenTech’s ambitious promises and its conduct in soliciting investors through a special visa program.
Nevertheless, the company’s confidential March memo implies to investors that he would remain involved. Were McAuliffe to win his race for governor, the memo says, he would “resign all positions with [GreenTech] and appoint a representative to vote his shares.”
McAuliffe’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview. Spokesman Josh Schwerin said in an e-mail that the memo “appears to have been written long after Terry resigned and he never saw or approved of this document. Terry left the company in early December and since then has had no official role and no responsibilities. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply not correct.”
GreenTech, in an e-mailed statement, said that McAuliffe was “no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the company” and that his emeritus title “recognizes his previous contributions to the board’s efforts.” The firm declined to comment on the 70-page “Private Placement Memorandum,”saying that securities counsel advised that it “may not comment directly” on the memo “as these are communications with prospective investors that contain confidential nonpublic information about the company.”
Since the time McAuliffe says he resigned as chairman, GreenTech has become the focus of scrutiny in Washington.
The Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation this year looking in part at the firm’s claims to potential investors interested in using the visa program, known as EB-5. The SEC has subpoenaed documents from GreenTech and a sister company, Gulf Coast Funds Management, which is led by Anthony Rodham, brother of Hillary Clinton. Both firms have said they are cooperating.
It is not known precisely what the SEC is investigating. But agency investigators have examined possible fraud among other participants in the visa program, in which foreign investors pay at least $500,000 to companies to gain access to permanent U.S. residency for themselves and their families.
The program requires that the investments create jobs. But critics say the program is loosely regulated, allowing U.S. companies to profit from foreign payments and fees sometimes with little job creation to show for it. In the meantime, these critics say, investors gain entry to the United States, even if they have little direct involvement in the fate of the companies they have ostensibly invested in.
GreenTech has also become a focal point in an increasingly vitriolic dispute within the Department of Homeland Security, where several career employees have raised concerns about favoritism shown to the firm and about whether there has been sufficient scrutiny of foreign nationals whose investments in GreenTech have entitled them to special immigrant visas.
The courtship of Chinese investors by McAuliffe and his partners has already proved fruitful — dozens of investors have contributed tens of millions of dollars to the effort. The March prospectus says that the company has received about $46 million from EB-5 investors, with a goal of $60 million.
The investments have led to little in the way of making cars. In Tunica County, Miss., where a mostly vacant lot sits where GreenTech plans to build a plant, local officials remain hopeful but a bit nervous.
“At this point, it sounds like they’re selling visas,” said state Rep. Gene Alday (R), whose district includes Tunica County.
Special treatment alleged
In Washington, GreenTech’s aggressive pursuit of the special investor visas has prompted complaints by career immigration service staffers who say top managers have given the firm and other politically connected applicants special treatment.
The complaints about Department of Homeland Security managers, now under investigation by the department’s inspector general, have stalled the nomination of the immigration agency’s top official for the No. 2 post at DHS.
Department officials and GreenTech have denied that the company received any favorable treatment. McAuliffe and his partners have complained of repeated delays by the government in approving visa applications, which they said put the project at risk of losing much-needed capital.
But eight career employees of the division have requested “protected status” as whistleblowers so they can make their “preferential treatment” case to members of Congress. Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) have reviewed the employee complaints and say they are concerned. Many of the whistleblowers cite alleged favors provided to McAuliffe’s company — among others — to support their claim.
“It’s not often that so many whistleblowers come forward on the same subject, with similar concerns,” Grassley said Friday. “It shows that this isn’t just one person who has a gripe with their boss, but rather fundamental concerns by several career civil servants about political favors and national security.”
Some whistleblowers claimed that top managers ignored or waved off warnings that some GreenTech investors from China merited extra scrutiny before being granted immigrant visas.
Whistleblowers who talked with Senate staff in the past two weeks said their concerns about GreenTech visas were heightened late last year when they learned that some company officials had previously been affiliated with a Chinese firm that had been the subject of a classified government inquiry about national security risks. Ties with the previous firm were severed before McAuliffe joined the newly formed company as a co-founder.
A DHS official familiar with the matter rejected the employee claims, saying staff concerns were heeded. Holds were placed on several GreenTech applicants and were removed “only after further checks were made in coordination with other law enforcement agencies,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
McAuliffe, 56, has long described himself as an entrepreneur, pegging his start to a driveway-sealing business he launched as a precocious 14-year-old in Syracuse, N.Y.
In the 1980s, McAuliffe was the chairman of a small financial institution, the Federal City Bank of Washington, which made loans to several top Democratic Party leaders. It was cited by regulators in the early 1990s for unsound banking practices and then merged with another bank.
After Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, federal investigators examined a $375,000 fee paid to McAuliffe in case his services were needed to help secure a lease of office space from the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. Ultimately, the payment was deemed improper. McAuliffe was not accused of any wrongdoing, but the leasing company — Prudential Insurance — was required to pay a fine.
In the 1990s, McAuliffe launched what might be his most lucrative and substantive business, American Heritage Homes, with Carl H. Lindner Jr., who headed Chiquita Brands International. During this period, the Clinton administration initiated a favorable policy on a complex banana tariff issue, and Lindner, a longtime GOP donor, stepped up his donations to Democrats, staying overnight as Clinton’s guest in the Lincoln Bedroom.
In 1999, the Labor Department reviewed a real estate venture involving McAuliffe that used money from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ pension fund. The department sued the union, saying the deal was a bad investment for its members. Union officials said the deal ultimately provided profits to the labor group. McAuliffe, who had invested only $100,made millions.
McAuliffe has not disclosed his net worth. His campaign referred to the Virginia financial disclosure form that he was required to submit as a candidate, but the form is vague. He lists, for instance, 25 assets worth a minimum of $250,000 each.
Predictions of jobs
McAuliffe joined GreenTech soon after his failed 2009 bid for Virginia governor.
At the start, company documents predicted the firm would have 25,000 employees in the United States capable of producing 1 million electric cars in 2015-17.
In speeches in Virginia and elsewhere, McAuliffe has offered varying predictions of the jobs that would be created by his company. Several times in 2012, he told reporters that 900 U.S. jobs would be created by the year’s end by GreenTech, which is based in McLean. The firm has produced few, if any, cars, and a statement from the company says it employs “more than 80 full time employees.”
The documents obtained by The Post show that GreenTech’s success depends on government help.
A 2009 prospectus said that billions of dollars in subsidies could potentially be granted by Mississippi to support the plant. The current prospectus estimates the combined value of its local and state government aid in Mississippi to be $25 million. So far, the numbers are much smaller. The state lent GreenTech $3 million under the condition that the firm create 350 jobs by December 2014, according to Mississippi Development Authority spokesman Jeff Rent. Tunica County, using a separate $2 million loan from the state, purchased the land where the company has said it will build the factory.
In an e-mailed statement to The Post, the company said that “market and financial conditions and other current events have led GTA to reexamine our original target market and, therefore, our initial projected capacity needs.”
GreenTech’s struggles have become fodder for Republicans and their allies, who have spent months scouring McAuliffe’s business record. Cause of Action, which provided the confidential investor memo to The Post, received more than $900,000 two years ago from the libertarian-leaning Franklin Center, whose Watchdog.org Web site has been sued by GreenTech for defamation.
McAuliffe put his bipartisan political muscle on display during a star-studded event at the GreenTech site in Mississippi last year with former governor Haley Barbour and Bill Clinton. The event showcased models of the “MyCar,” the golf-cart-like 40-mph vehicles that would be the signature product of GreenTech.
Barbour, in an interview, said he had no regrets. “We felt that if they invested $60 million of hard cash, we’d be willing to take a couple-million-dollar risk,” he said.
Barbour, a McAuliffe friend who left office in 2012 after two terms, said McAuliffe’s role was not a factor in the state’s decision to provide help. “It doesn’t disqualify you to know the governor, but you’ve still got to meet the same standards” as any firm appealing for state development aid, he said.
The confidential 2013 memo to potential investors explained in some detail how McAuliffe’s run for governor would affect his role in the firm.
“Until the election, Mr. McAuliffe will dedicate his full time to the election campaign but will remain as a shareholder of GTA’s Parent,” it says. “If Mr. McAuliffe becomes Governor of Virginia, federal and state law requires that he resign all positions with GTA and appoint a representative to vote his shares of GTA’s Parent.
“On January 7, 2013, the board of directors of GTA assigned to Mr. McAuliffe as Chairman of the Company the duties and responsibilities appropriate for a Chairman Emeritus during the course of his gubernatorial campaign,” the memo added. Describing that job, it says: “The Chairman Emeritus of the Company will have such duties and responsibilities as designated by the Board of Directors from time to time.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.