When you think of Mitt Romney, illicit sex doesn’t exactly leap to mind. Whatever his flaws and foibles, his image is squeaky clean when it comes to his family life with wife Ann and his five khaki-wearing, procreating sons.
Which is why Larry Flynt, who has made a specialty of digging up sexual dirt, is hunting elsewhere for intimate details about Romney—of the financial variety.
The Hustler publisher bought full-page ads in The Washington Post and USA Today, promising “$1 Million” for information about Mitt Romney’s unreleased tax returns and/or details of his offshore assets, bank accounts, and business partnerships.” The ads also ran in papers in Zurich, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands, home to some of the world’s most infamous tax shelters. The unanswered question, in Flynt’s mind: What is Romney hiding?
“The only reason to not release the returns is to avoid taxes or hide assets. He’s hiding assets,” Flynt tells me. “The guy’s a multibillionaire.”
To hear Flynt tell it, Romney isn’t just worth $250 million, as the former Bain Capital boss would have us believe. Flynt insists, without evidence, that Romney is hiding much of his money because he may lose the presidency if it turns out the guy is really, really loaded, not just superrich. “No working stiff who goes to a ballot box can relate to a billionaire.”
Flynt, who has said he is worth $400 million, knows the power of cash—especially when it comes to getting sources to spill the beans.
He’s betting that the tried-and-true tabloid method of paying for information will sink the Republican nominee, who, says Flynt, “scares me to death” and doesn’t have the best interests of the country at heart.
And who exactly would have access to Romney’s deepest, darkest financial secrets?
“I don’t expect his attorneys or his accountants or his cronies to give him up,” Flynt says, “but some clerk will.”
It is, to be sure, a stunt that has the added benefit of drawing the spotlight to Flynt, who revels in the attention. But sometimes his stunts work.
The unabashed pornographer has been offering cash-for-trash for a decade and a half. During the Clinton impeachment battle of 1998, Flynt was determined to get even with what he saw as hypocritical Republicans hounding the president over Monica Lewinsky. A Washington investigator working for Flynt learned that Bob Livingston, a GOP congressman from Louisiana who was on the verge of succeeding Newt Gingrich as speaker, had engaged in extramarital affairs. Livingston quickly resigned, and Flynt withheld the details. The investigator, Dan Moldea, says he also learned that Gingrich was having an affair with a House staffer named Calista Bisek, but by then the ex-speaker had already left Congress.
Then, too, Flynt was offering a million-dollar bounty for sexual dirt on members of Congress with a full-page ad in The Washington Post. He said information came flooding in but never revealed other alleged indiscretions.
He was back with the same offer in 2007, and again his investigator struck pay dirt. The Flynt operation found that Louisiana Sen. David Vitter’s number had been found in the phone records of an escort service run by the alleged D.C. Madam, the late Deborah Jean Palfrey. Vitter apologized but hung onto his seat.
Romney supporters decry his methods, telling me that the 69-year-old Flynt is a washed up, no-good pot-stirrer who thrives on the limelight. And that’s the clean version. Some of Flynt’s conservative detractors even go so far as to say he deserved the bullets fired in 1978 by a sniper, paralyzing him and confining him to a wheelchair for life.
Not to be outdone in the flame-throwing department, the master of bringing misfortune to members of Congress is not above ridiculing Romney’s prowess in the bedroom. “He’s like an over-the-hill Calvin Klein model who hasn’t had it up in 10 years,” says Flynt with a chuckle. “If it wasn’t for those five kids, you’d say Romney could pass for a eunuch.”
Which brings Flynt to speculate about which candidate is most likely to read his X-rated monthly.
“I don’t know if Michelle would allow it,” he says of the president. As for Romney, “I think Ann might let him read it to charge his battery.”
Part of Flynt’s ire toward Romney may stem from past statements by the candidate about stepping up pornography prosecutions, which fell out of favor during the Clinton administration. But cracking down on what some see as morally repulsive images could prove to be unpopular. “He can have all the fantasies he wants,” Flynt says of Romney. “People who sit on juries don’t want to tell people what they can do in their own living rooms.”
Meanwhile, the FBI and Secret Service are investigating an extortion attempt by someone claiming to have gotten Romney’s tax returns by burglarizing a PriceWaterhouseCoopers warehouse in Tennessee. The letter-writer is demanding $1 million not to release the returns, but the plot has the earmarks of a hoax.
Romney has released just one year of tax returns so far. What is it about his taxes that are so tantalizing that a man who makes his living peddling pictures of naked women is dying to expose the documents?
We are a nation of voyeurs who like to know how much someone is worth. In Romney’s case, such information would allow people to make value judgments, to disparage his ability to speak for average Joes, to speculate about ill-gotten gains, to discredit hard work because his father was wealthy. But mostly, if the records came to light, the media would spend every day from now until Election Day picking through—page by page—each high-level transaction stemming from his involvement in the complicated world of venture capital. And that means, if Flynt succeeds, Romney's messages about how he would revive the country’s economy as president would be lost as the campaign played defense.
In talking with Flynt, I found him funnier and more politically opinionated than I expected. But his sexual innuendo and mean-spirited attitude toward Romney is a sad attempt to drag Romney into his dirt-filled gutter.
Flynt’s reward could wind up being a mere campaign footnote, but he remains optimistic. “I think it’s likely we’ll stir up something,” he says.