Donald V. Watkins may be the first stealth billionaire.
The Alabama civil rights attorney turned banker and energy industry investor may also some day, possibly this year, be the first black owner of a major league baseball team, the Anaheim Angels, which he is trying to buy.
By various accounts, Watkins may be worth $1.5 billion, which would make him the richest black American, wealthier than Black Entertainment Television's Robert L. Johnson by a hundred million dollars or so and easily topping such household names as talk show host Oprah Winfrey, Washington Wizards star Michael Jordan and comedian Bill Cosby.
But look for Watkins's name on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, where he would be about 145th, or a similar compilation of the richest African Americans by Black Fortune magazine and Watkins's name won't be found. Such is the mystery surrounding Watkins, 53, that some in his home town of Birmingham voice doubt he's worth anywhere near a billion, yet they're not quite sure, either.
For his part, Watkins, with vast private holdings in the Alamerica Bank he started two years ago in Birmingham, a garbage-to-ethanol fuel venture that is at least a couple years from opening, oil production, commercial real estate and timberland assets and sales, has chosen to remain mum about the exact extent of his assets and openly shuns providing information to the richest-this-and-richest-that list-makers.
"The question everyone wants to ask is, 'Can I do this deal?' The answer is yes," Watkins said in his characteristic blunt rebuff of those who doubt his wherewithal. "The people who need to know this [in the baseball hierarchy] already have this information, a detailed financial disclosure.
"I haven't felt any need to be on the Forbes list or anyone else's," he said recently. "The only list I want to be on is the list of 30" major league baseball owners.
Whatever his bottom line, he has made a preliminary $250 million offer to buy the Angels from the Disney Co., and UBS PaineWebber Inc. recently agreed to a $150 million "credit arrangement" with him to find investors to finance 60 percent of the purchase price. One Angels source said the club showed its books to Watkins, among others, but that any sale of the club is unlikely until the owners and the players' union reach an agreement on a new labor pact.
The Angels are the third team Watkins has sought to buy, after the Tampa Bay Devil Rays turned him away and his $125 million to $150 million offer this year to buy the Minnesota Twins stalled after the club claimed he didn't have the necessary financing. Watkins has denied that claim.
Baseball, which has never had a black owner, seems receptive to Watkins's pursuit of the Angels. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams recently named Watkins as one of four possible owners for a team in the Washington area, but Watkins said, "That is not something I am focused on at this time."
When asked last month about Watkins's finances, Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig told a group of sports editors: "Look, I'm rooting for the guy. I really am."
Robert DuPuy, president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball, said: "Donald Watkins continues to show interest in owning a major league baseball team. He has made inquiries into several teams that are for sale, most recently Anaheim.
"We would welcome the opportunity if he were submitted by a club as a proposed purchaser. That hasn't happened up to this point. He has met with our general counsel. He's met with at least four owners but we have received no application papers at the office of the commissioner on his behalf."
As for his wealth, one MLB source said: "I think his net worth is in these joint ventures, and an investment banker will come in and say we'll back it. Most of this worth is in ethanol joint ventures. You can't pay in ethanol joint ventures for his team. You have to pay in cash and there's no reason to think he can't."
For Watkins, pursuit of a baseball team is not so much a chase borne of a middle-aged attempt at recreating a sporting youth, but rather as a business venture, something to pass on to his five children.
"The moment of black ownership is not lost on me," he said, "but it's not what motivates me. I want to experience the thrill of winning the World Series, and not just once. I do business as a sport, except that the trophy is real money. I enjoy the competition. I view myself as the underdog, the unknown guy from Alabama no one's heard of. I'm not coming as the black guy. I'm coming to acquire you because it makes business sense. To approach it otherwise tends to diminish your credibility."
Under a confidentiality agreement, he declined to discuss any specific terms of his offers for the Twins and Angels.
The doubts about Watkins stem from the fact that some find it inconceivable that a son of the segregated South, even more than two decades after Watkins was one of the first five blacks to enroll at the University of Alabama law school, could be so wealthy. But it is the kind of wealth, says former Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington, Watkins's longtime mentor, friend and legal client, that allowed Watkins to pick up the tab to take a dozen friends on a flight to the 1997 Las Vegas fight where Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear or hop a plane, again with more friends, to a Super Bowl or two.
Still, says Jesse Lewis, founder of the black-oriented Birmingham Times: "If you've got $1.5 billion, it's on the record how you got the money. Donald doesn't tell you that. You have to understand if he were worth $1.5 billion, he would be the richest black man in America, and the richest white, black, purple or green man in Alabama."
One longtime Birmingham business executive, voicing doubts about Watkins's wealth but unwilling to be identified, said cautiously: "It's as surprising to us as anyone else. We hope it's true. Birmingham needs a billionaire."
A political adversary of Watkins, Jimmy Blake, is engaged in a long-running lawsuit against Watkins over health care contracting for Birmingham city workers that stems from the days when Blake was a Birmingham city councilman and Watkins was the city's chief lawyer and adviser to then-mayor Richard Arrington. Blake caustically calls Watkins "a charming flimflam man."
"He's riding around the country saying he's a billionaire," Blake said. "No one knows how he got it. I don't believe anyone thinks he's got it. I hope he does because then I'll get some of it."
So far, however, Blake concedes that Watkins is winning the court battle, and that he, Blake, is left to appeal a lower-court decision. Perhaps that is not surprising since Donald Watkins has seemingly won at most anything he has tried, including 37 of 38 lawsuits he handled representing the city of Birmingham during the 1980s and 1990s.
There are Watkins believers, too, from those who watched him grow up as the fifth of sixth children of the late Levi Watkins Sr., longtime president of Alabama State University, and his wife, Lillian, a school teacher and homemaker, to those who have cut business deals with him.
"He's a great man," says the Rev. Michael Thurman, now pastor at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the Montgomery church where Watkins worshiped as a youth and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once presided. "Donald is a very innovative thinker, a trendsetter, an American success story."
Milton C. Davis, a former assistant Alabama attorney general in the 1970s, recalled his collaboration with Watkins, then a young lawyer, in convincing governor George C. Wallace to pardon Clarence Norris, the last of the black Scottsboro Boys framed in the purported 1931 rape of two white women. Watkins said that reading a book about the Scottsboro Boys while a freshman at Southern Illinois University motivated him to become a lawyer.
"I wanted to fight cases like that," said Watkins, who had gone to college thinking he would become an architect.
Said Davis: "Watkins was Clarence Norris's attorney. He was key in finding the evidence."
Davis now dismisses those who say Watkins cannot pull off a deal to own a major league team.
"I think Donald Watkins is an outstanding individual who is prepared to do this venture," Davis said. "People who doubt it are the ones who have no interest in that [financial] information, no relevant information."
Shortly after winning the Norris pardon, Watkins was elected to one term on the Montgomery City Council and while there frequently clashed with the city's conservative Republican mayor, Emory Folmar, now 71, who recalled that when Watkins left the council in 1983 he told him "that it was one of the greatest blessings since the Yankee troops went home in 1870. We clashed repeatedly over political philosophy."
But Folmar later hired him to represent the city.
"I have tremendous respect for him as a lawyer and businessman," Folmar said. "He always told the truth, which is a great commodity in my book."
Daryl E. Harms, born and raised on a farm in Illinois, met Watkins at Southern Illinois and became friends, but they lost track of each other after their college days until Harms wound up in Birmingham running a cable television, cell phone and home security business.
"He was in the news frequently, but we never really connected until five or six years ago," Harms said of Watkins.
Now they are business partners, with Watkins buying Pencor Orange Corp. in 1997, which in turn has a share of Harms's Masada OxyNol venture. The joint venture, Harms said, is building a $300 million refinery in Middletown, N.Y., that by late 2004 or early 2005 will seek to transform garbage and sewage sludge into about 9 1/2 million gallons of ethanol annually. It is a gasoline additive that most frequently has been produced from corn.
While the garbage-to-ethanol process has been tested successfully on a relatively small scale, the Middletown plant would be the first such commercial venture in the United States. It is one of Watkins's major investments.
"I know it's viable. I wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't," said Harms, whose two children, 10 and 13, are investors in Watkins's Alamerica Bank, while Harms's wife, Clarissa, is an investor and sits on the bank's board.
Harms's assessment of Watkins is pointed: "I think Donald Watkins can do whatever he wants to. Donald Watkins has the tenacity, perseverance and mental capacity, and the financial wherewithal to do whatever he wants to. He's a smart guy, a savvy guy, with a lot of moxie."
Watkins said "goal setting was emphasized very early on in our family. We learned how to reach goals by completing tasks. Going to college was assumed. The only real question was what profession you were going to go into, whether it be a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher."
He also learned business skills at a young age, working several summers as an apprentice to his grandfather, Adam Watkins, who ran a plumbing business in Clarksville, Tenn., at the height of segregated life in the South.
"That's where I learned that quality services transcend racial barriers," said Watkins, recalling that his grandfather made house calls to white homeowners during hours when white plumbers had closed for the day.
"If you serve a niche market," Watkins recalled, "you can charge premium rates on nights, weekends and holidays and no one questions it."
But Watkins was glad to leave the South when it came time for college. "I wanted an escape from that hostility" and said he found it at Southern Illinois.
"It was a place where race was not an issue," Watkins said. After graduating from SIU, he came to Washington to enroll in the Howard University law school in 1970, but left quickly when the NAACP offered him a scholarship to Alabama, part of the civil rights group's effort to further integrate the overwhelmingly white professional schools in the South. He and one other black student were part of the second integrated law school class at Alabama, although they rarely saw each other.
"Those three years in law school were the longest and loneliest of my life," he said.
But his pioneering days at the Alabama law school also toughened his resolve for later challenges and shaped an independent spirit that today is hard to categorize.
Once a reliable Democrat, Watkins today calls himself a "fiscal conservative and a social moderate" and he operates a Web site for independent voters.
In 1995, during Arrington's last successful campaign for mayor, during the height of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Watkins paid for a radio ad attacking two black mayoral candidates because he thought they were "sympathetic to the ultra-conservative political agenda."
The ad chastised the "Mark Fuhrmans of Birmingham who have put two handkerchief-head, weak-kneed Uncle Toms in the race."
Yet, two years ago, he paid $43,000 to place an ad in The Washington Post supporting the confirmation of conservative John Ashcroft as attorney general when he felt liberals in Congress were engaged in a "political crucifixion" in trying to derail his nomination.
Watkins said he had never met or talked to Ashcroft, and still hasn't. "It was the right thing to do," he said of the ad.
"In politics, I can be a street fighter," he concluded. "In the business world, I know my way around the top investment banks in the world. I know how to find money, how to structure deals."
Staff writer Mark Asher contributed to this report.