George Kaiser guilt trip?

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In today's Wall Street Journal's William McGurn explores Tulsa billionaire George Kaiser's motivations in his involvement in Solyndra. Some excerpts:

The George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa, Okla., was the company's largest shareholder. The family foundation has attracted attention because it is set up as a "supporting organization" for the Tulsa Community Foundation. Supporting organizations provide donors with generous tax deductions while they are not required to give away the 5% of assets that, say, a private foundation must....

No doubt Mr. Kaiser's charitable giving has done some wonderful things for Tulsa. Unfortunately, when it came to a politically fashionable cause, Mr. Kaiser's concern for the taxpayer simply vanished. In its place was a much less appealing ethos, which he alluded to in the same Rotary speech where he spoke about "guilt."...

...As Mr. Kaiser appreciates, an oil man who denounces fossil fuels will be lionized even as he continues to make millions off them, in the same way that a billionaire such as Warren Buffet earns praise for calling for higher taxes. But if you are a businessman such as David and Charles Koch, and you use your wealth to try to preserve the economic freedom you believe will help others move up the ladder, you will soon find yourself branded as an enemy of the people.

"We're all familiar with the greedy businessman who pushes taxpayer subsidies to enrich himself," says Scott Walter, a former domestic policy adviser in the Bush administration who now writes for PhilanthropyDaily.com. "Solyndra tells us we might want to start paying more attention to the businessman who's already rich--but seeks to salve a guilty conscience by putting taxpayers on the hook for his pet causes."

(If you're not a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal, you can read McGurn's entire piece for free by entering the site via a Google search for the title, "Solyndra and a Billionaire's Guilt Trip.")

McGurn's last paragraph quotes Scott Walter's article on Philanthropy Daily, "The Other Solyndra Scandal," which is worth your attention. Walter goes deeper into the special nature of GKFF and the tax advantages of this arrangement vs. direct charitable giving or setting up a traditional foundation. Effectively, you can set aside money for charitable purposes and take the tax deduction now, but wait until much later to decide how to spend it, maintaining control over the money in the meantime. (Idle thought: If you needed the money at some future time, could you take it out? What would be the tax consequences? Penalties, or just taxable at the time you withdrew it?)

A couple of excerpts from Walker:

Kaiser explains that "there's never been more money shoved out of the government's door in world history and probably never will be again than in the last few months and the next 18 months, and our selfish, parochial goal is to get as much of it for Tulsa and Oklahoma as we possibly can."

Is this zealous grab for other people's money greed? The dollars at issue weren't voluntarily donated by generous fellow citizens, nor were they knowingly risked by venture capitalists gambling with their own money. No, the dollars Mr. Kaiser sought to get his "selfish" hands on were tax dollars that his fellow citizens were compelled to provide, supposedly for the common good....

Why isn't it greedy and improper when a billionaire with enormous charitable resources - $4 billion in the George Kaiser Family Foundation as of 2009 - manipulates tax dollars into a dubious hobbyhorse project of his? Especially when that hobbyhorse is a for-profit company in which the billionaire's foundation is the largest stockholder? And when the billionaire's foundation ends up, at bankruptcy time, ahead of the taxpayers in the line to recoup something from the cratered company's assets, even though federal law appears to make it illegal to put private investors ahead of taxpayers in such circumstances?

I am still trying to get my mind around the motivations and actions surrounding George Kaiser, GKFF, and TCF. Solyndra is just the latest episode in a long-running drama that includes -- on the negative side of the ledger -- Great Plains Airlines (and the taxpayers' ultimate payback of money we didn't owe to Kaiser's Bank of Oklahoma), the downtown baseball stadium (and the heavy-handed approach to its surrounding development), the mediocre candidates Kaiser has backed for public office in Tulsa, the county river tax, and -- on the positive side -- RiverParks trails improvements, supplemental funds for beautification for new public construction, financial support for the comprehensive plan process and the city government efficiency study, purchase and preservation of the Blair Mansion and grounds, support for the Tulsa Fab Lab, and financial support for countless worthy projects and programs.

It's a complex picture. I don't buy the idea that Kaiser is all about building his own wealth. I don't buy his explanation of his success as "dumb luck," and I don't think he does either. Some describe Kaiser as very hands-off when it comes to spending his money, and that he lets himself be driven by what the community wants, but that doesn't entirely square with the facts either. (And who has the standing to define what the community wants for him?) Even if his motivation is purely altruistic, his vision of the good may be entirely at odds with that of his intended beneficiaries. Potentially, he could be a kind of cultural imperialist, with Oklahoma as his mission field.

Leverage and control are two recurring themes. It's a commonplace in Tulsa that money from GKFF comes not with strings attached, but with chains.

Because of his connection to Solyndra, who George Kaiser is and what he wants is a matter of curiosity for the rest of the world. Because of his economic power and his focus on Tulsa, who George Kaiser is and what he wants is a matter of critical concern for Tulsans.

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2 Comments

Bob said:

Michael, as always, you provide a fascinating and useful insight into the local goings-on of the rich, powerful and arrogant.

You left out in your long litany of King Kaiser power grabs the 10 North Yale group home cram-down on the White City residents by King Kaiser's sister, her royal highness Princess Ruth Kaiser Nelson. Her unbridled arrogance on TGOV was one for the local TGOV memory book Hall of Fame.

What has always exasperated me regarding King Kaiser was his strong propensity to want to control the local government of a 3rd Tier American city.

Why does a busy oil & gas production billionaire, who has a residence in the San Francisco Bay Area, bother with such an apparently minor nuisance like Tulsa politics?

I've often asked myself, was it his vanity, his altruism, or the effusive public praise for his occasional good works?

I finally came to the conclusion that it was about one of human nature's oldest motivators:

Unbridled greed.

In the early 1990's, King Kaiser "bought" the majority interest in the Bank of Oklahoma from the FDIC, which had provided $100,000,000's in Open-Bank Assistance to a technically broke bank.

King Kaiser's Bank of Kaiser has a decades long sole-sourced, non-competitive bid relationship with ALL of the City of Tulsa banking business, and also all the investment banking/bond underwriting/transfer & paying agent business with the self-same city. What is that monopoly relationship worth to King Kaiser?

I also believe that Bank of Kaiser has essentially the same relationship with Tulsa County, and that for instance the 2003 Vision 2025 Sales Tax Bond Financing was managed by County Bond advisor John Piercey, who just coincidentally had worked for Oppenheimer & Co., a Bank of Kaiser investment banking subsidiary.

Knowing his political king-making ability, I doubt any of our feckless, pimping, pandering Mayors could stand up to King Kaiser or his banker henchman Stanley Lybarger.

Not for one second.

It appears if you make any reformer noises while on the City Council, you get a well-funded, well-managed Karl Ahlgren Zombie Candidate in your next election.

Campaign funding for your opponent will be provided by King Kaiser himself, various Bank of Kaiser executives, various connected cronies, and/or the Metro Tulsa Chamber of Commerce (which receives approximately $2 million in Tulsa taxpayer dollars annually).

Plus, perpetual print harassment by the Lorton's World, with their virtually patented goofy photograph accompanying their slam piece on their intended target.

Councilor Jim Mautino has described being individually summoned to Lybarger's office to hear why it was a great deal for the city to pay his bank $7.1 million on Great Plain Airlines debt, a debt that the City of Tulsa was not an obligated party, until later bound by Bank of Kaiser's former employee, Mayor Kathy Taylor.

It's great to have friends in high places, huh? Besides our $7.1 million payment, Mayor Taylor also provided her former employer with the ONEOK Stadium 30-year financing, and the OTC-City Hall 30-year bond financing. And, she and former Tulsa County Commissioner Randi Miller tried their utmost to foist a new Arkansas River Sales Tax on Tulsa taxpayers.

You can guess which bank would receive the bond financing on that bad deal, had voters been gullible enough to approve it.

Just wait until the River Tax II reappears in 2012, when King Kaiser has a new, pliable city council as his disposal to affix their enthusiastic endorsement.

I also continuously wonder, as just one example, why the city is spending money from a 2005 bond issue on a project started only this summer, six years after the bond was approved by voters.

Was the money just sitting in a non-interest bearing bank account at King Kaiser's bank, providing his bank with the free use of $millions in Tulsa taxpayer funds for years and years?

What do you think?

Anyone care to prove me wrong?

Scott W. said:

Michael, thanks for your plug and for the fascinating local info. on George Kaiser's world.

Re your "idle thought": If Kaiser tried to take out the money he's given to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there'd be no penalties or taxes due -- just a jail sentence. The "foundation" is legally a type of public charity, and it can't give him his money back, period.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 4, 2011 12:38 PM.

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