|Bush and the Texas Land Grab
July 16, 2002
By Nicholas D. Kristof Editorial Op-Ed To submit a Letter to the Editor: email@example.com
Democrats and media hounds are baying under the wrong tree.
The point in President Bush's business career where he took outrageous shortcuts was not at Harken Energy, but rather when he was grabbing land for a new baseball stadium in Arlington for his Texas Rangers baseball team.
Mr. Bush broke no laws. Neither do the overwhelming majority of corporate executives. The cloud over the business world comes not so much from lawbreaking as from avaricious bruising of the public interest.
The challenge is not catching criminals but injecting public scrutiny into a culture of cronyism in which executives, accountants, regulators and "independent" board members all ooze empathy for each other.
When Asia had its economic crisis in 1997-98, Americans properly trashed its "crony capitalism." But we suffer from the same affliction ourselves, and President Bush will not address the issue seriously because cronyism has been his way of life -- the Bushes call it loyalty.
I have a stack of court documents from Arlington that portray the "sordid and shocking tale" of the Rangers stadium, as one lawsuit puts it. Essentially, Mr. Bush and the owners' group he led bullied and misled the city into raising taxes to build a $200 million stadium that in effect would be handed over to the Rangers. As part of the deal, the city would even confiscate land from private owners so that the Rangers owners could engage in real estate speculation.
"It was a $200 million transfer to Bush and Rangers owners," complains Jim Runzheimer, an anti-tax campaigner in Arlington.
William Eastland, a leading Republican in Arlington, is also outraged, and puts it this way: "You're using public money for a private purpose." Mr. Eastland was a Bush delegate to the Republican National Convention in 2000 but still believes that the Bush group behaved shadily and against the public interest.
Local voters overwhelmingly approved the deal, so maybe we shouldn't get so exercised by star-struck local officials giving $200 million to rich baseball owners. But the most unseemly part of the deal was that Mr. Bush and the Rangers' owners conspired with city officials to seize private property that would be handed over to the Bush group.
"A group of wealthy and influential people threatened and traded their way into an unprecedented takeover of government power and private property in an awesome display of greed and avarice," charges a lawsuit by the landowners, in what strikes me as a fair recitation of events. Another suit charges that the deal "can only be described as astounding, unprecedented and blatantly illegal."
A copy of the secret agreement among Mr. Bush and the other Rangers owners shows that they intended to make money not just by running a baseball club but also by land speculation.
For example, one owner found a nice chunk of land and sent a memo suggesting that it "sounds like another condemnation candidate if you want to work the site into your master plan," according to the court documents. Another of the owners' internal memos casts a proprietary gaze on a property and declares: "We plan to condemn this land."
For a group of financiers to go around town admiring properties and deciding which to seize through the government power of condemnation so that they can acquire free land and speculate on it is appalling. Even Kazakhstan would blush at such practices.
Horace Kelton, for example, owned land that the Rangers wanted. The owners got Arlington to seize it, with the city paying less than $1.50 per square foot even though it had previously paid $10 a square foot for other land nearby.
"It was an extremely low price, and that's why we had a court case that lasted seven years," Mr. Kelton recalled.
Eventually, his family got $11 a square foot.
In fairness, Mr. Bush was simply being a hard-nosed businessman. He did a great job leading the owners' group, and it's hard to take seriously the caricature of him as unintelligent when he led the Rangers so lucratively.
Indeed, his $14 million profit on the Rangers financed his entry into politics.
But it's also a sordid tale of cronyism, of misuse of power, of cozy backroom money-grubbing -- a more pressing threat to American business than outright criminality.
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