BILL MINOR: Barbour’s ‘opaque’ annoucement shrouded details

JACKSON – Big surprise: Haley Barbour is a no-go in the 2012 GOP presidential derby. Ironically, he dropped out the same day Newsweek hit the newsstands plugging his chances.
Does that mean he’ll now stay home and practice more political gamesmanship or go back to the Beltway where he made a fortune peddling influence up on Capitol Hill for Big Oil, Big Tobacco and other corporate clients?
Speaking of the fortune he socked away from his powerhouse lobby firm: What about the “Haley R. Barbour Blind Trust” he created when he became Mississippi’s governor in January 2004 and from which it is now evident he drew thousands of dollars the past seven years?
The blind trust – supposedly to seal off income from his assets apart from his pay as governor – is a subject of some controversy, starting from the fact that Mississippi had no law on what asset information such an instrument should contain or what income would be reported.
Yazoo City banker S. Griffin Norquist, Jr. was listed as trustee for assets his millionaire client had placed into the trust agreement. Copies of the agreement filed with the state Ethics Commission fell into the hands of several news media outlets (I have one). It served to open questions of whether or not he really severed ties to BG&R, the lobby outfit he co-founded in 1991. On becoming governor, he claimed to have cut all ties with BG&R in a statement to The Associated Press.
Initially listed in Barbour assets were nearly 50,000 shares of Interpublic Group which became BG&R’s parent company in 1999. But since Barbour became governor, his former partners – Lanny Griffith and Ed Rogers – bought back the firm from Interpublic.
Several markers seem to shed light on Barbour having more than just a casual interest in BG&R. In January, his oldest son, Reeves, became vice-president for government relations for BG&R. A New York Times story following Barbour’s April 25 announcement on the GOP race said Barbour was seen frequently visiting the firm’s office.
One eye-opener in Barbour’s blind trust agreement calls for him to be paid $25,000 a month from his assets – that’s a cool $300,000 per year, a lot more than his $101,800 salary as governor. Under the trust document, he can also request additional withdrawals (which he has done on at least five occasions, including $100,000 on April 14.)
Norquist’s quarterly reports on the aggregate market value of Barbour’s assets in the trust for 2008 and 2010 provide a pretty good picture of the wealth he had acquired. A Dec. 31, 2008 report showed his interest in the trust was $3,317,801, on March 31, 2010 and on Sept. 30, 2010, it was $3,014,546.
Unlike his three predecessors in the governor’s office – Ray Mabus, Kirk Fordice and Ronnie Musgrove – Barbour has declined to make public his federal income tax return. Possibly that was a factor in his decision not to seek the presidency and undergo the kind of scrutiny he would certainly encounter, because of his history as a big money Beltway lobbyist.
Somehow, the lame statement he issued about lacking “fire in the belly” when he suddenly dropped out of the GOP race after months of hitting the campaign trail in a half dozen states just doesn’t have a valid ring to it. Once again, it seems to be Haley Barbour at his opaque best.
But this is doubtless a time when Barbour is thinking seriously about the legacy he wants to leave. My hunch: to wipe out the remnants of Mississippi’s one-party Democratic state and leave a Republican majority in both houses of the Legislature. As to a GOPer to succeed him, Barbour seems to have a quandary. Not if he will be a Republican, but which one.

Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor