Saturday, 10 July 2010
The True Face of the Tories
Image - the man that has bought the Tory Party. What an arrogant bastard.
Revealed: The dirty past of the former tax exile who's the new Tory Treasurer
By Andrew Pierce
Last updated at 1:41 AM on 10th July 2010
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Every spring, thousands of beautiful swans fly to the spectacular Coeur d'Alene River in Idaho in their annual migration.
In the wetlands of the lower river, they feast on its verdant plants. Their arrival in this sacred Native American homeland is one of the marvels of nature and draws ornithologists from all over the world.
But some of these birds never make it out of the marshes again because their feeding grounds have been poisoned by pollution from a huge lead smelting plant.
Controversial: David Rowland early in his career
Observers report the pitiful sight of poisoned birds gasping for breath and too weak to take flight.
At least 150 carcasses are found in the wetlands each year. And it is not only animals that are paying a heavy price for the fallout from the industry which has blighted this rural location.
Local children have also suffered acute respiratory health problems as a result of what is now regarded as one of the worst industrial pollution scandals in America.
Ask people who they blame for the problem, and you will be pointed to one man. David Rowland is not well-known, but he is the man David Cameron appointed this month as Tory Party Treasurer.
He takes up the post in October.
Though he was not involved with the company at the time the pollution occurred, residents in Idaho claim that after Rowland bought the firm which owned the smelting plant, he deprived the environmental clean-up operation in their area of vital funds, and thereby prolonged the suffering of their community.
Indeed, Rowland has been accused of 'looting' tens of millions of dollars that should have been destined for the clean-up operation by diverting funds into a property deal in New Zealand.
The pollution was caused by a smelting factory at Bunker Hill which for six decades spewed contaminated smoke into the air, poisoning surrounding communities, and causing serious damage to the health of hundreds of children.
Eventually the smelter was closed down, and it was eight years later that David Rowland acquired Gulf Resources (the firm which owned the plant) and subsequently became president and chief executive.
At that point, he became responsible for the massive clean-up operation ordered by the American authorities, and expected to cost $100 million.
Despite this, in the years that followed Rowland was accused of transferring the company's assets overseas and depriving former employees of their rightful pension and health insurance entitlements, of which more later.
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So what else do we know about this remarkably secretive man - who has rarely been photographed in public since the Seventies?
Now 65 and worth £730 million, Rowland is the son of a scrap metal merchant, and left the comprehensive Glastonbury School in Morden, South London, without even sitting a single O-level.
After started his working life as an office boy, he bought his first house when he was 18, sold it, bought another one, sold that and formed his own property company.
Increasingly flexing his commercial muscles, after a series of audacious takeovers of rival firms - a tactic which would become the hallmark of his business methods - he'd made his first million by the time he was 23.
He floated his company, Fordham, on the Stock Exchange a year later. The precocious entrepreneur was dubbed 'Spotty' - because of his relative youth and lingering acne - and the nickname has stuck.
The joke among his rivals is that as a result of his aggressive corporate raids, Mr Rowland single-handedly caused more City takeover rules to be tightened than any other figure in the 1970s and 1980s.
His UK interests were first controlled by companies in the Bahamas and Panama before they were transferred under the aegis of family trusts in the tax haven of Guernsey, where Rowland has a mansion. (Intriguingly, a more recent picture shows him and his wife laughing with a tuxedo-wearing Prince Andrew as they mark the private unveiling of a life-sized statue of Rowland on the island.)
Documents registered at Companies House state his business was controlled via a discretionary family trust, of which he was described as 'a discretionary object' - meaning he's a beneficiary of the money in the trust.
Having made his first fortune from the Seventies property boom, he became a virtual recluse. He left Britain for life as a tax exile in the Channel Islands early 1970s.
But his business activities would keep him in the headlines.
He was one of the first financiers to spot the potential money-making value of top soccer clubs, and was the secret figure behind the £800,000 takeover of Hibernian football club in Scotland in 1987 which later went into receivership.
Party: David Cameron has appointed Rowland as Tory treasury. He will take up the post in October
In addition, he used one of his trusts to buy the upmarket estate agents Chesterton, which later also went into receivership after 200 years of trading.
Other recent business interests have included the acquisition in 2008 by a small Rowland hedge fund, Blackfish Capital, of the Luxembourg operations of the collapsed Icelandic bank Kaupthing.
It has now been renamed Banque Havilland after his mansion in Guernsey.
But it was last year that Mr Rowland, a regular name in the financial pages of British newspapers, raised eyebrows at Westminster and in the City when he announced he was returning to live in Britain in order that he could begin donating money to the Tory Party (foreign donations are not allowed under Parlimentary rules).
Since he returned and took up residence in a house in Mayfair, Central London, he has given £2.7 million in just 12 months, making him the party's most generous benefactor.
Now, such munificence has been rewarded in spectacular fashion with his appointment as Tory party Treasurer.
So how will the party - and its other principal donors - not to mention the Opposition react?
Many fear that after the controversy over another Tory Treasurer, Lord Ashcroft, David Cameron has created a huge hostage to fortune.
Labour attack dogs are now rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of going after the new Tory Treasurer.
'David Rowland makes Lord Ashcroft seem like a nun,' said one senior Tory source last night. The question, of course, is how much Mr Rowland's friends and enemies know about his role in the environmental disaster at Coeur d'Alene.
In 1977 - well before Rowland became involved, it should be stressed - nine children successfully sued for $20 million for health problems due to lead poisoning.
Mr Rowland found himself embroiled in the dispute in February 1989 when his UK property company Inoco, which was controlled by a family trust, bought Gulf Resources which took over ownership of the smelter plant.
He immediately sparked huge political opposition when he attempted to move ownership of some of the company's assets to the tax haven of Bermuda - which would have prevented them being used to finance the environmental clean-up.
The move was blocked by the U.S. Justice Department.
Mr Rowland then, through Gulf, sunk $120 million in a property deal in New Zealand, thus putting those funds beyond the reach of the U.S. authorities.
Gulf also attempted a hostile takeover of an Australian mining company which would have taken even more money away from the clean-up.
At the time these considerable investments were being undertaken, tests had shown that children were still being contaminated by lead deposits that had leached into the soil in Idaho. Lead ingestion can cause nerve, brain and kidney damage and can impair foetal development in pregnant women.
In October 1990, Mr Rowland sent a letter to 5,000 residents in an area that stretched for 21 miles across the Coeur d'Alene Mountains.
The question is how much Mr Rowland’s friends and enemies know about his role in the environmental disaster at Coeur d’Alene.
'It is not now nor has it ever been the intent of Gulf to sidestep any responsibilities,' he wrote. 'We continue to pay our share while others have failed to pay their share.'
Not everyone agreed.
Cecil Andrus, the Idaho Governor, wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which was spearheading the clean-up: 'I have grave concerns over Gulf transferring its assets to avoid paying its share of the clean-up for this environmental degradation.'
Within a year of Mr Rowland's pledge about not shirking his financial responsibilities, he sold his interests in Gulf.
In the end, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency picked up the majority of the bill for the clean-up.
Ray Givens, the Idaho lawyer who successfully sued Gulf on behalf of those nine children in 1977, and later won a $20 million settlement for the Coeur d'Alene Indian tribe, told me last night: 'While running Gulf Resources, this man [Rowland], in a cold, calculated way, pocketed over $100 million.
'The money should have gone to the pensions of the workers who built the company with their sweat at a cost to their health, and to clean up the environmental wasteland the company had created with its mine wastes.
We have a saying: "The leopard changes colour with the seasons, but not his spots."
'It is sad that this man has been given a position of responsibility by the new British Government.'
Further allegations - described as unsubstantiated and false by Mr Rowland's spokesman - were made in the U.S. Court of Appeal in September 1997.
In an action launched by lawyers who cited a series of allegations by retired Gulf employees, Mr Rowland was accused of raiding company assets which should have been used for the clean-up operation.
Claim documents stated: 'In their complaint, the Trustees allege that the Rowland Directors and Inoco [his main company] after taking control of Gulf, engaged in a course of conduct designed to loot and waste the assets of the company.
'They allege that the defendants entered into a series of transactions by which they transferred Gulf's assets into their control.
'When creditors became concerned over Gulf's ability to meet its obligations, Rowland sent a letter to former employees of Bunker Hill in Idaho, assuring them Gulf would meet its obligations for employee benefits and environmental clean-up, assurances alleged to be false and fraudulent.
Concerns: Some fear that after the controversy over Lord Ashcroft, David Cameron has created a another hostage to fortune.
In 1991, the Rowland Directors sold Inoco and their shares in Gulf.' Dr Katherine Aiken, the Dean of the College of Letters, Arts & Social Sciences in Idaho, who has written a series of books on the pollution of the river and the ensuing health problems, says: 'Many of the pensioners who used to work for the smelter have serious long-term health problems.
'When Mr Rowland left Gulf Resources, the money was gone, which is why so many people went to court to try to get some back.
'People in local bars curse when David Rowland's name is mentioned. Gulf Resources was the villain here.'
So what does the next Tory Party Treasurer have to say in response to the quiet fury which still simmers in the area he promised to help?
Mr Rowland, who is married to Sheila who he met when he was 21, and has five children, declined to speak to the Mail.
But in a statement, he made clear that the 1997 claim was concluded without him having to pay any money.
A spokesman for Mr Rowland issued a statement which said: 'Unsubstantiated and false allegations were made in pleadings in a contingency lawsuit in the U.S. [in 1997]. There were multiple defendants in the case - we believe 23 in all - and it is customary in such American cases for extreme claims to be made.
'No evidence was submitted in support of these false claims. The case was settled with no payment being made by David Rowland nor by any company connected with him nor by any other associates of his.'
In a rare public comment last year, Mr Rowland explained why he was now giving money to the Tories for the first time: 'I made the donation as a result of my passionate concern for liberty and the economic future of Britain. We need fresh ideas, national renewal and above all a Government that sets the people free.'
A Conservative Party spokesman confirmed that Mr Rowland is now domiciled in the UK for tax and electoral purposes.
'He has moved back to Britain, he is on the electoral register, and is domiciled in the UK for tax.'
He has a company in Norwich and has made a £10,000 donation to the constituency party of the Tory MP there.'
And the man himself once ruefully commented: 'Money just complicates things. And the more you get, the more complicated your life becomes.'
When he becomes Treasurer of the Prime Minister's party, one suspects his life will become more complicated still.