By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Several days before the Vanity Fair story hit the Internet, Burkle called me from New York City. I had already met with his spokesman, Frank Quintero, at the Yucaipa offices on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, where we discussed things “off the record” for an hour and a half. Days later, the phone rang and Burkle kindly introduced himself and said he heard the Weekly was writing an “unflattering article” about him. We then chatted amiably for an hour, just before Burkle flew in his private plane to Pittsburgh to watch the Penguins win a Stanley Cup game.
When the conversation was over, I contacted Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg, to ask if Burkle’s ready availability was odd in some way. In an e-mail, Steinberg responded: “Ron Burkle is a hands-on guy. That said, it’s unusual that he would call a journalist directly and speak at length. ... He must feel he is a good communicator. In fairness, one cannot dismiss the possibility he feels he’s in the clear and has a story to tell. In the past, he had political counsel who would handle this situation. Either his political advisers are gone, or [they] advised him to confront the story head on. More likely, he decided the benefits of confrontation outweighed the risks of dealing with unpredictable questions.”
Throughout our conversation, Burkle was very sensitive about the nature of his relationship with Bill Clinton. He rebuffed any notion, for example, that his political connections with the Democrats or the former president have helped Yucaipa. “What I got out of it,” he insists, “is a great friend.” Burkle then talks about traveling with Clinton to Africa and how he’s been able to see more of his friend since he left the White House.
The billionaire seemed sincere in his fondness for Clinton, and although he didn’t say it outright, Burkle seemed offended by the idea that he used Clinton simply to make more billions. Burkle, though, apparently forgot statements he made to Forbes. In a December 11, 2006, piece titled “The Rise of Ron Burkle,” the billionaire described Clinton’s post-presidency work for Yucaipa as “invaluable,” noting, “My best call in corporate America isn’t one-hundredth of what President Clinton is just picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this idea, want to come talk about it?’”
Burkle also said Clinton “brands us to people who matter. He got us in with the Teamsters, and that’s important for deal flow going forward.”
In return for those lucrative rainmaker services, Clinton reportedly was paid $15 million by Yucaipa Companies between 2000 and 2007. Although a January 22, 2008, Wall Street Journalarticle reported Clinton was “negotiating to end his relationship” with the firm in order to appear fully independent during Hillary’s race, the former president never got around to it. He still has not severed financial ties with Yucaipa, and, Barack Obama having won the Democratic nomination, might not have to. “As we sell things,” he said during the Weekly interview, “[Clinton] gets a certain amount of money.” Those “things” tend to be major companies, with the former president receiving a slice of the profits.
BURKLE’S RELATIONSHIP with Clinton wasn’t always a hot item in the national media, but things drastically changed in 2006 when Burkle claimed that Jared Paul Stern, a reporter for the New York Post, attempted to shake him down. Stern wrote for the Post’s notorious gossip column, Page Six, which had been calling Clinton “President Horndog” and often cited Burkle as a partner in crime. “It was their way to get to Clinton,” says Burkle about the Post, “and I just happened to be there.”
Burkle insists that Page Six had it all wrong. He says he always took extra precautions in his private life whenever he was around Clinton and even told his girlfriends to sleep at a hotel when the former president was a guest at Green Acres so nothing would seem untoward.
He met with Stern to discuss toning down the “horrible shit” that was written about him and Clinton, he says. But, Burkle claims, the reporter repeatedly asked for money to fund his clothing line, Skull & Bones. The billionaire then contacted law-enforcement authorities, and the FBI investigated the blackmail charges. Stern, though, was never arrested for any crime. Burkle explains that away during our interview by saying reporters are held to a different standard under the law.
When asked about Burkle’s version of events, Stern writes in an e-mail to the Weekly: “[Burkle] arranged the first meeting in July ’05 using the clothing company as a lure, and that’s well documented. So it’s a little disingenuous of him to claim otherwise now — but then telling the truth was never his strong suit. Reporters obviously do not have different standards for what is considered a crime — criminal activity is very rigidly defined by the law and no one is above it, though people like Burkle seem to think they are. He’s simply trying to mask the fact that he knowingly made false accusations. As for the rest of his ridiculous comments, as the saying goes, he can tell it to the judge. I look forward to the day when this clown has to explain himself in court and risk committing perjury if he continues to lie.”