Jeb Bush’s Big Lehman Brothers Problem

Why won’t the Republican hopeful come clean about his involvement with two of Wall Street’s biggest banks?

07.02.15 9:15 AM ET

Jeb Bush says he released 33 years of tax returns this week because he wants to be the most transparent candidate to run for president in 2016. But if that’s really the case, why is he continuing to obfuscate some of his most lucrative and potentially controversial business dealings he had before announcing his candidacy, like his work as an “adviser” for investment bank Lehman Brothers?

So, if Jeb won’t tell you what Jeb exactly did while working on Wall Street, in the interests of transparency and disclosure, I will try.

Not much is known about what Bush actually did for Lehman—the firm that went belly-up in 2008 and sparked the wider financial crisis, and Barclays, the bank that purchased Lehman out of bankruptcy and continues to work out of its midtown Manhattan headquarters. He began working for the former after his term as Florida governor ended in 2007, and continued working for the latter until the end of 2014, when he decided to run for president.

The two banks were his biggest sources of income in recent years: Bush earned more than $14 million working for Lehman and then Barclays, which based on my understanding of simple math accounted for nearly half of the $29 million he made after he left government. Yet in Tuesday’s disclosure, and even in many of his public comments, Bush has downplayed his work for the two banks.

“I also was hired as a senior advisor to Barclays where I advised their clients on a wide range of global economic issues with a mind towards navigating government policies,” he writes in an essay that accompanied the tax returns. It is the only sentence that refers to his time at Barclays. And he doesn’t mention Lehman at all.

In recent weeks I’ve interviewed numerous Wall Street executives about Jeb Bush, and his role at both firms. What emerges is a portrait of a bank “adviser” who operated more like a high-level investment banker.

A spokeswoman for Bush declined to provide specifics about his work for the banks other than point to various media accounts, including those by this reporter. But Bush, according to people with direct knowledge of his activities, helped the firm look for business from well-heeled clients, including everyone from hedge funds to billionaire investors like Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican business magnate widely regarded as the world’s richest man.

And, in at least one instance, he appears to have been Lehman’s go-to man for an emergency investment during the 2008 financial crisis.

In his seven years working for both banks, Bush was paid handsomely for this work, but he was also thrust into several awkward situations. A couple of years ago, he met with executives from the Minneapolis-based hedge fund Whitebox Advisors, a major Barclays client. Bush was supposed to be providing high-level insight into economic issues for the big hedge fund, which was one of a handful that correctly predicted the mortgage meltdown that eventually led to Lehman’s collapse.

But according to people who were present, the meeting soon turned uncomfortable when Whitebox’s chief executive, Andrew Redleaf, began to openly browbeat Bush on his brother’s record as president, including his handling of the Iraq War.

A spokeswoman for Redleaf declined to comment but would not deny the account; a spokeswoman for Bush had no comment.

One investment banker who has direct knowledge of Bush’s work for Lehman and Barclays says over the past seven years, the former governor has had “dozens and dozens and dozens” such meetings with clients and prospective clients of Lehman and Barclays. One of those clients included Slim, the Mexican billionaire, which looms as one of the most controversial aspects of Bush’s private business dealings. This is because, if accurate, it shows how closely Bush worked with Lehman officials during the firm’s final days.

According to former Lehman executives and various news reports, Bush met with Slim to ask him to make an investment in the firm in the summer of 2008. The investment never happened, and Lehman, famously, filed for bankruptcy in September of that year.

Bush campaign spokeswoman Kristy Campbell seems to deny at least some of this account. “Governor Bush met with Carlos Slim. It was regarding a specific telecom project,” she said in an email. “It was not regarding [a] general Carlos Slim infusion of cash to save Lehman Brothers.”

She would not deny, however, that this investment could in some way have helped prop up Lehman Brothers. In fact, Campbell also refused to outright deny past media reports, including this one in The New York Times, which cites emails explaining how Bush was involved something called “Project Verde,” a firm-wide effort to get an investment from Slim and potentially help save Lehman from collapse in 2008.

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Indeed, former Lehman executives say senior executives at the firm had discussed using Bush as a direct conduit to policymakers—including those reporting to his brother, who was president during the financial crisis—as Lehman was sinking further into insolvency and regulators balked at including the firm in their broader bailout packages.

Campbell says Bush never intervened with people reporting to his brother. “I do want to be very explicit on one point: Governor Bush was never asked to contact his brother’s administration regarding Lehman, and if he had been asked, would not have done it,” she said in an email.

Don’t expect to find any of what I’m reporting here when Bush releases a more detailed financial disclosure forms in a few weeks with federal election officials. Given Lehman’s role in the 2008 financial meltdown, it’s easy to see why the former governor would like people to focus on what he billed the other day as the “broken tax system that’s one of the most convoluted and anti-growth in the world” rather than the work he did that earned him millions and forced him to pay into that broken tax system.

It’s of course hard to argue that Bush shouldn’t earn a living from his contacts in business that he made in government (Bush stated he never lobbied on behalf of a company) or inherited through his family connections. This is especially true when you consider the hyper-sleaze of Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, who became a mega millionaire almost overnight by constructing possibly the most conflicted political-business-charity machines in modern political history.

But as an avowed small-government conservative, you would think Bush would know all about corrosive effects of crony capitalism, where executives at the big banks sit at its epicenter, ready to call in favors from politicians who in turn can help make those executives make a lot of money. For that reason, it’s time for Jeb to fess up about all the work he did for Lehman and Barclays. Only then can he brag that he’s acting “in the spirit of transparency.”