Bush's Big Score

Bank on it: The Rangers sale will haunt the governor's run for president in 2000

You saw it here first: Governor George W. Bush will run for president in two years, and he's going to win. Here's another tip: This month's purchase of the Texas Rangers by Dallas media mogul Thomas Hicks -- a deal in which Bush will make up to $14 million for his 2 percent share of the team -- will come back to haunt the governor.

Whether Bush's big score from the Rangers sale will become his very own Whitewater remains to be seen. And of course, November 2000 is still a long way off. But for the moment, Bush appears to have the easiest road to the White House of any of the contenders. He should easily beat Garry Mauro in November for a second term in the governor's mansion. Thanks to his high name recognition and positioning as a moderate in the GOP, Bush can easily raise tens of millions of dollars for a presidential run. Meanwhile, the Democrats -- thanks to their fundraising missteps and Bill Clinton's overactive libido -- are looking about as comfortable as a bunch of Buddhist monks at a bar mitzvah.

But Bush will face scrutiny because the Rangers deal reeks of the same kind of country-club capitalism as does the Whitewater deal. Bush was brought into the Rangers deal in 1989 by then-baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth because of whom he knew -- not what he knew. At least Clinton can claim that he lost money on the Whitewater deal. With the sale of the Rangers, Bush has made a fortune while ignoring several nagging ethical questions.

For instance:
1. Why haven't Bush and his partners repaid their debt to society?
The city of Arlington insists that the governor and the other owners of the Rangers owe them $7.5 million due to a court judgment against the Arlington Sports Facilities Development Authority (ASFDA), the entity set up by Arlington to condemn land for, and administer, the Ballpark at Arlington project. In May 1996, a Tarrant County jury found the ASFDA had not paid a fair price for 13 acres of land it condemned, and awarded the owners of the land, the Mathes family, more than six times what the city had agreed to pay. That's where the Rangers' obligation comes in.

When the Rangers and Arlington signed their deal in 1990, the Rangers agreed to pay any costs on the stadium project in excess of $135 million. Arlington says the $7.5 million judgment in the Mathes suit should come from Bush and his partners. Two days after Hicks's purchase of the Rangers was announced, Arlington city attorney Jay Doegey told this reporter, "We have a contract with them that says they will pay anything over $135 million. The costs in the condemntion case are over that amount."

2. What happened to Bush's position on property rights?
In October 1994, during a luncheon in Houston, Bush said, "I understand full well the value of private property, and its importance not only in our state but in capitalism in general, and I will do everything I can to defend the power of private property and private property rights when I am the governor of this state."

But evidence from the Mathes lawsuit suggests that Bush and his fellow owners were planning to take the Matheses' land six months before the ASFDA was even created. In an October 26, 1990 memo from Arlington real estate broker Mike Reilly to Rangers president Tom Schieffer, Reilly says of the Mathes property: "In this particular situation our first offer should be our final offer ... If this fails, we will probably have to initiate condemnation proceedings after the bond election passes."

Bush has insisted that he "wasn't aware of the details" of the land condemnations. But on October 27, 1990, Bush was quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about the development plans for the acreage around the stadium. "The idea of making a land play, absolutely, to plunk the field down in the middle of a big piece of land, that's kind of always been the strategy," Bush said. In other words, while Bush didn't know the details regarding the condemnation of the Matheses' property, he did plan to exploit their property for his personal benefit.

The land around the stadium is one of the main reasons why Hicks paid $250 million -- or about triple what Bush and his partners paid in 1989 -- for the Rangers. Whoever owns the Rangers controls 300 acres of prime development land next to the stadium and the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park. Hicks also gains control of the gigantic cash register known as the Ballpark at Arlington, which was named the most profitable venue in baseball last year by Financial World magazine.

And Bush likes to take credit for building the stadium. In 1993, while squiring a Houston Chronicle reporter around the ballpark, Bush declared: "When all those people in Austin say, 'He ain't never done anything,' well, this is it." So Bush takes credit for a project that would not have occurred without taking land from one group of landowners and giving it to a different, wealthier, better-connected group of landowners. But he's still in favor of property rights?

3. How can Bush keep a straight face while making this kind of money?
"When it is all said and done, I will have made more money than I ever dreamed I would make," Bush told reporters the day after the sale to Hicks was announced.

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