Al Gore Accused of Abusing His Spot on Apple’s Board for Personal Gain

The former vice president is accused of influencing Apple’s board to enhance his own green investments.

Carlos Duran, EPA / Corbis

It’s nice work if you can get it.

Nine years ago, Al Gore, unemployed after eight years as vice president and after nearly becoming president, took a position on the board of directors of Apple. The gig pays $50,000 annually (more than the average American earns in a year) for maybe a couple of weeks' worth of work. But it’s the stock-option grants each director receives that make the arrangement so lucrative.

In the last few years alone, Gore has cashed out more than $2 million in Apple stock options he's been awarded for serving as a company director since 2003. And he's sitting on tens of millions of dollars more in Apple stock, all for attending a few meetings a year.

By contrast, Foxconn, the infamous Apple supplier, announced in mid-February that it was boosting worker salaries at its Chinese factories by 16 to 25 percent—so now the average worker would earn just under $5,000 a year.

Gore promises to be a topic of debate when shareholders gather in Cupertino on Thursday for Apple’s annual meeting. The issue, however, won’t be his compensation as an Apple board member or the atrocious, shameful treatment of those assembling Apple products on the former vice president’s watch.

Instead, Apple shareholders are being asked to consider a resolution sponsored by a conservative, D.C.-based think tank that is accusing the company of letting Gore manipulate its policies for his own personal gain. The initiative is being championed by Tom Borelli, who wears the title of Free Enterprise Project Director at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

Gore’s supposed crime? Near the end of 2009, Apple resigned from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the chamber’s high-profile opposition to “cap and trade” legislation then being debated in Congress—legislation that would have used economic incentives to cap carbon emissions. The chamber also fought the EPA’s efforts to (finally) limit greenhouse gases and ran a series of ads questioning the science behind global warming.

One might extol Apple for acting in the fashion of a responsible corporate citizen with its decision. It wasn’t about profits but principles. But Apple’s lack of a clear economic motive is precisely what drives Borelli to see darker motives in Apple’s decision to quit the chamber. Gore has personally invested in a range of clean technologies. He’s a partner in the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where he is part of a team in search of green investments that will earn him and his partners riches that dwarf his compensation as an Apple director.

And cap-and-trade, while irrelevant to Apple’s bottom line, would help Gore’s. “The question is why Apple is applying pressure on an issue that it has no business interest in,” Borelli says. The answer: “Apple doesn’t have a financial interest in climate-change regulations, but Al Gore does.”

Borelli’s resolution, one of four on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting, asks shareholders to request that the company generate a “conflict of interest report” over a policy “developed to personally benefit a board member.”

“Shareholders have a right to know if Apple’s involvement in greenhouse gas regulations is being driven by Gore’s personal interests,” Borelli argues in the “supporting statement” that accompanies his proposal.

In its response to Borelli, Apple notes that it “resigned its membership because the Chamber’s position on climate change differed so sharply with the company’s.” It might also have noted that Nike resigned from the chamber’s board of directors over its global-warming policies, and that General Electric, Alcoa, Johnson & Johnson, Dow, and Microsoft were among the businesses criticizing the chamber over its stance. Presumably, Gore’s influence does not reach into the executive suites of those companies. Apple also notes that the decision hasn’t exactly hurt its bottom line, either—an understatement for a company that earned $26 billion in profits in 2011, compared with $8 billion in 2009, the year it cut its ties with the chamber.

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“This is really about transparency and accountability,” Borelli said on Wednesday, a few hours before boarding a plane west to watch the vote over his initiative. There’s no doubt that Apple (like many publicly traded companies) can do a much better job on that front. But, a financial blog known for reading the fine print of arcane documents, notes the irony of that argument being raised by Borelli’s group.

The people at the National Center for Public Policy Research are hardly ones for talking about transparency and accountability. “Charity Navigator gives it low marks on that front,” Footnoted blogger Theo Francis writes, “criticizing it in part for not posting the names of its board members or its audited financial statements on its website.”