The essence of the mostly unreported story is simple enough. When Mitt Romney was having difficulty raising money to start Bain Capital in 1984, he ended up raising a major share of his company’s initial $37 million investment from Salvadoran millionaires with indirect links to death squads in El Salvador. But how credible is the accusation?
The story appeared in muted form in the Los Angeles Times on July 19 this year, with the rest of the mainstream media appearing to ignore it.
In their report, focused on how Bain Capital got started with the help of offshore investors, the Times devoted only three sentences to the El Salvador connection:
About $9 million came from rich Latin Americans, including powerful Salvadoran families living in Miami during their country’s brutal civil war… At the time, U.S. officials were publicly accusing some exiles in Miami of funding right-wing death squads in El Salvador. Some family members of the first Bain Capital investors were later linked to groups responsible for killings, though no evidence indicates those relatives invested in Bain or benefited from it.
At The Nation, Jon Weiner summarized the Times story on his blog the day it came out and links to an earlier report by Justin Elliott, “The Roots of Bain Capital in El Salvador’s Civil War,” published Jan. 20, 2012 on Salon.com.
Pebbles in a Pond That Doesn’t Ripple
The Salon story made even less of a splash than the L.A. Times article. It focused on the difficulty reporters have penetrating Bain Capital’s secrecy, starting with the continuing anonymity, 28 years later, of some of the original investors in 1984. The Salvadoran civil war (1979-1992) prompted about a million Salvadorans to come to the United States. Among them was a small community of avowedly right wing oligarchs who settled in Miami.
Often discussed in Cold War terms, El Salvador was never in much danger of a communist takeover. In October 1979, a mixed junta of colonels and civilians initiated land reform and nationalized some aspects of Salvadoran business, including the coffee trade. They overthrew El Salvador’s traditional military dictatorship. These changes were fought bitterly by the Salvadoran right who went to war against their government.
By 1984 the horrors of El Salvador, including the 1980 the right-wing assassination of Archbishop Romero while celebrating mass, were well-known to the people at Bain. They were leery of getting too close to what could be considered blood money. As Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994, he was careful about investors, checking names with the Reagan administration and “we investigated the individuals’ integrity and looked for any obvious signs of illegal activity and problems in their background, and found none. We did not investigate in-laws and relatives.” Bain Capital has yet to reveal all the names of its original investors.
Some Stories Drown Out Others
In January 2012, the El Salvador connection to Bain Capital got no traction in the midst of the furor provoked by a 28-minute attack ad running in South Carolina, a quasi-documentary called “When Mitt Romney Came to Town.” The ad described how Bain Capital took over four different companies and wreaked havoc on the lives of their workers. The catchphrase of the ad: “for tens of thousands of Americans, the suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town.
Produced by Winning Our Future, a Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich, the ad met with widespread criticism for inaccuracy and misrepresentation. Under pressure, Newt Gingrich called for the PAC to correct the ad or withdraw it. It was withdrawn.
Romney’s links to Salvadoran death squads surfaced again on August 8, in a Huffington Post piece by Ryan Grim titled, “Mitt Romney Started Bain Capital With Money From Families Tied To Death Squads.” The story’s essence is unchanged, the basic assertion remains both true and tenuous – money from Salvadoran coffee barons funded both death squads and Bain Capital, but the details remain secret almost 30 years later.
One of the Questions Is: Who’s Credible?
Appearing on Democracy Now two days later, reporter Ryan Grim said that when he asked the Romney campaign for comment, their only response was to send him a paragraph from the Salt Lake Tribune in 1999: “As was Bain’s policy with any big investor, they had the families checked out as diligently as possible. They uncovered no unsavory links to drugs or other criminal activity.”
Now, that’s simply impossible to believe. These families were certainly connected to death squads. That’s simply unbelievable. There’s no possible way that anybody in 1984 could check out these families — which is the term they use, these families — and come away convinced that this money was clean.”
Although the story still has not been widely covered in mainstream media, it has appeared in recent weeks on a variety of other online news and opinion sites including Daily Kos, AlterNet, Buzzflash, Truthout, Crooks and Liars, and others.
The Story Stands Unshaken, Ambiguity Intact
Pushback on the story has been limited to non-existent. Rush Limbaugh did a next-day mockery takedown and Jim Hoft blogged similarly two days later, wondering when the story would make it into an Obama campaign ad. Limbaugh commented:
The ‘Huffing-and-puffing-ton Post’ reported today that Bain Capital was seeded from money with Hispanic families, by the way, with ties to right-wing death squads in El Salvador and other Latin American counties. No, no, no, no, not talking about the Kennedys. They don’t talk about that aspect of the Kennedys, no, no. Don’t you find it interesting — yesterday, Romney essentially killed a guy’s wife, and today Bain Capital was seeded with money from death squads? This is stuff we do parodies over…. It is depressing to know this stuff works. “
Then Limbaugh raised the ante: “Lemme ask you a question… What’s the difference in that and the Democrats being underwritten by Planned Parenthood and NAARL? If they’re not death squads, I don’t know what is.”
Human Events on August 21 has the closest thing to a rebuttal so far. Although David Harsanyi misrepresents some peripheral details to make his point, he does not disturb the essential story. His main point is to make a kind of equivalency between Romney’s fundraising for Bain Capital in 1984 and Obama administration officials meeting with some of the same Salvadorans in 2012. He writes, “If we concede the [Romney] story has legs, it is also fair to ask: Why would the Obama Administration meet with leaders of right-wing hit squads?”
Is There Any Serious Policy Issue Here?
It is hard to imagine the Obama campaign trying to make an issue of a story as unfinished as Romney’s link to Salvadoran death squads and that is not just because Obama’s people met with the same rich people who are connected to Bain Capital.
Another reason for the Obama campaign to avoid the death squad story is Obama’s own vulnerability on the issue. That vulnerability is not Planned Parenthood, despite Rush Limbaugh’s black humor. Obama’s vulnerability is his administration’s use of drones and his own personal control of the “kill list.” An Obama attack on Salvadoran death squad money might seem hypocritical coming from a president using high-tech, remote-controlled death squad equivalents. Then there is Honduras, where the Obama administration continues to support the military dictatorship that overthrew the elected government in 2009 and where death squad activities are on the increase.
Mitt Romney started Bain Capital with an initial investment of $37 million from an unknown number of investors, an unknown number of whom remain anonymous. Today Bain Capital is worth about $60 billion, a decent return on investment. What do we know now about the original investors?
- · $1 million from Jack Hanley, former head of Monsanto Co.
- · $2 million came from Robert Maxwell, a British publisher who later fraudulently took hundreds of millions of dollars from his company’s pension funds.
- · $1.25 million, the first Bain investment in June 1984, was in the name of Jean Overseas Ltd., a Panama shell corporation. Jean Overseas later added another $1.25 million. The backer of this corporation was apparently Sir Jack Lyons, who was later convicted in an unrelated stock fraud.
- · $4.8 million came from the Crocker Family Trust in California.
- · About $9 million came from Latin Americans from El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala.
- · About half the money came from people at Bain, whoever they were.
At the Miami-Dade Lincoln Day Dinner on March 9, 2007, Romney spoke of his early experience with Bain Capital:
I owe a great deal to Americans of Latin American descent. When I was starting my business, I came to Miami to find partners that would believe in me, and that would finance my enterprise. My partners were Ricardo Poma, Miguel Duenas, Pancho Soler, Frank Kardonski, and Diego Ribandinarea.
These friends didn’t just help me, they taught me. Ricardo’s brother had been tortured and murdered by rebel terrorists in El Salvador. Miguel himself had been chained to a floor in Guatemala for weeks, and tortured. And their torturers were financed by Fidel Castro. I learned from these friends about the human cost when Castro has money.
People on all sides in El Salvador suffered terribly from more than a decade of violence, but most of it was perpetrated by the right wing, according to the postwar Truth Commission.
Those in Miami with money to invest probably preferred to invest it with people sympathetic to their interests, but there’s still no no evidence that Bain investors also gave directly to death squads.
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Also, if someone was a coffee baron and made millions legitimately that way and also supported the death squads, is the money then dirty?
I'm not excusing anything, only saying these are very murky waters indeed.
What matters most is that the story is not disproven.
It is not disproven because most of the relevant evidence is still secret.
The circumstantial case is credible and strong, if not conclusive.
Means, motive, and opportunity all line up for Bain and its investors,
and there no evidence yet that undermines the obvious inference.
Awesome investigative piece! I can definitely see the El Salvadorian "death squad" story backfiring on Obama if he were to make it a campaign point. Rush Limbaugh's abortion point probably wouldn't gain traction with anyone except a conservative base, but the drone attacks might be more effective. However, I don't think either side Dem or Rep would let the drone program go unfunded. But either way, it seems that both sides would want to avoid this story. Media outlets probably didn't want to exacerbate the story either, since the investor connection is a bit loose. If MSNBC blew this up, I'm sure they'd catch a ton of heat for it.
Deep. Philosophically, the question is what makes money dirty?
The way it was made? How it's conveyed?
Who's the conveyor? And what are his goals?
One paradigm might be John D. Rockefeller handing out dimes?
The Scottish legal definition of the term is relevant here, I think.
"The result is the modern perception that the "not proven" verdict is an acquittal used when the judge or jury does not have enough evidence to convict but is not sufficiently convinced of the defendant's innocence to bring in a "not guilty" verdict." - Wikipedia
Then there's the hidden assumption that a Salvadoran coffee baron can actually make millions legitimately. That would assume no labor exploitation, and no land exploitation, and honest acquisition, and other stuff I'm not thinking of?
Waiter! Who put murk in my murk?