Paul Waldman of the Washington Post was recently writing about the raid on the office of Donald Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, which is likely to uncover lots of shady dealings. Waldman wrote “He [Trump] may well be the single most corrupt major business figure in the United States of America.”
That sounds like a challenge! Can we find a US business figure even more corrupt than Trump? There are a lot of unpopular businessmen that I could include here, like the Koch brothers and the Coors family, but they’re unpopular more because of their heinous politics rather than outright crimes. So here are some sleazier candidates, in alphabetical order:
Sheldon Adelson – casino magnate. He has been credibly accused of bribing Chinese officials to set up casinos in Macau, and of running prostitution rings out of them. He also bought a great deal of attention from the GOP (he was Trump’s largest single contributor), including the planned move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is a clear disaster for the US, getting it far more deeply into the hole that Israel is digging for itself. On the other hand, running hookers is not as bad as actually harassing women, as Trump has.
Richard DeVos – co-founder of Amway, the world’s largest multi-level marketing (MLM) company. The less polite name is pyramid scheme. They claim to have 3 million “independent business operators”. Hardly any of them make any money, but they pay commissions to their “upline” recruiters. They’re also encouraged to buy sales materials from their uplines, which can be a large part of their profit. DeVos himself is worth $8B. He got in on MLM right from its beginning by selling Nutrilite health supplements from the California Vitamin company in 1949. It had pioneered MLM in 1945, and he later bought it. The FDA shut that down as false advertising, but they branched out to a lot of other products, hardly any of which are distinctive. His daughter-in-law Betsy DeVos is now Secretary of Education, probably for her GOP contributions and efforts to undermine public schools in Michigan. Trump is likely to have followed DeVos’s lead when setting up Trump University, but he only ripped off a small fraction of the people that DeVos has.
Robert Durst – heir to a real-estate fortune, and now on trial for murder in California. He’s accused of killing a friend, Susan Berman, and is also suspected in the death of his wife, a neighbor, and three teenage girls. He was the subject of a six-part HBO documentary, The Jinx, and appears to have confessed on camera when he didn’t think the mike was on. This is way worse than anything Trump has done, but Durst does not appear to actually be a businessman – his brother Douglas runs the empire.
Bernard Madoff – runner of the largest Ponzi scheme in history with a peak claimed value of $64B in 2008, when he confessed. Investors chipped in about $20B, and about $11B has been returned by the liquidators, so the total real loss is about $10B. The assets of Madoff and his family were sold off long ago, and were nowhere near that amount, so someone still did very well out of all this. It’s probably overseas banks that will just seize the abandoned accounts. Still, victims who invested less than $1M with him got full restitution, so the main losses were with already rich people.
Angelo Mozilo – CEO of Countrywide Financial when it was a major contributor to the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe. At its peak in 2006 it issued 17% of all the mortgages in the country. Most of them had adjustable rates and no documentation. That meant they couldn’t be backed up by the US housing guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, so they were bundled together into mortgage securities and used as collateral on derivatives. When housing prices fell in 2007 and the rates were reset, massive numbers started defaulting, and the dominoes toppled. The company collapsed in late 2007 and was bought for nothing by Bank of America in 2008. While Mozilo was engineering all of this, he was cashing out his own stock for about $300M. The SEC later charged him with bank fraud, and he had to return about $50M. Boo hoo. At least he can never work in a public company again.
Compared to these people, Trump comes off as a piker. Sure, he’s ripped off a lot of contractors and investors, but that’s more in the several hundred million range rather than many billions. Sure, he’s made a fair amount of money in fees for managing things badly and in laundering oligarch money via real estate, but that’s also more in the several hundred million range. Yes, he has embarrassed and humiliated dozens of women, including his wives past and present, but hasn’t actually injured anyone, as far as we know.
No, Trump’s opportunity to do big damage is right now. He has already harmed Puerto Rico by botching the cleanup from Hurricane Maria, and has enabled the brutal Saudi war in Yemen, which has killed tens of thousands. As a businessman, he didn’t have the opportunity to harm as many people as those listed above, but as president, he can far exceed them. He’ll be the biggest yet!