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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 had used Clinton simply to make more billions. Burkle also complained that unflattering press coverage was a “rich person’s tax” and he liked to stay out of the headlines. “All of this political bullshit has increased my profile — that hasn’t been good for me,” he said. 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.
“When Hillary was the inevitable nominee,” says Felsenthal, before Clinton ended her campaign, “Bill was making all the right noises about separating himself from Yucaipa. But now you never hear from him talking about that.” 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,” Burkle 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 explains that their business relationship arose in part because of Clinton’s concern for his health, and the former president’s desire to build a sizable nest egg for his family in case something happened to him. “No men in his family have lived past the age of 60,” Burkle says.
The billionaire is also somewhat surprised that the media focus on his financial dealings with Clinton. “I’ve made more money with Gore than with Clinton,” says Burkle, who invested heavily in the startup of former vice president Al Gore’s cable channel, Current TV, which has seen profits steadily climb in the past seven years.
The billionaire and his spokesman, Quintero, also like to frame his generous political contributions to Democrats as something that’s done out of a deep concern for the issues of the day. With same-sex marriage making the news nearly every day in California, I ask if he will donate to the campaign working to defeat the anti-gay marriage ballot measure in November. Burkle declines to say yes or no but then points to a big check he wrote to defeat the successful Proposition 22 in 2000, which defined legal marriage as only between a man and a woman. “I thought it was horrible,” Burkle says.