Five '1-Percenters' That Have Milked The Stimulus


NO. 4: BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY CHAIRMAN AND CEO WARREN BUFFETT

 

Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett

When legendary investor Buffett acquired the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. (BNSF) in November 2009, the largest acquisition in the history of Berkshire Hathaway, he called the $34 billion deal a "huge bet" on the company, the CEO, the team, and the railroad industry. But it was bigger than that, said Buffett at the time in a press release.

"Most important of all, however, it's an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States," Buffett said. "I love these bets."

That big bet has been backed up by the federal government in the form of six awards valued at a total of $67.73 million in funding from ARRA, according to the Recovery.gov website. That ARRA funding included a $17.3 million award in August 2011 to construct new remotely controlled high-speed crossovers to provide Amtrak passenger rail trains the "operating flexibility to move around the BNSF freight trains."

With the economic crisis in full swing, Berkshire Hathaway's lobbying expenditures soared from $1.25 million in 2008 to $10.38 million in 2009 during the height of the crisis, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2010, Berkshire Hathaway's lobbying dropped slightly to $9.91 million and then dropped once more in 2011 to $9.58 million. BNSF's own lobbying expenditures amounted to $6.4 million in 2009, $5.41 million in 2010 and a peak of $6.78 million in 2011.

Berkshire Hathaway did not respond to requests for an interview with Buffett. But a BNSF spokesperson said in an email reply to CRN that a "simple review of the facts of all the projects listed on the website you reference clearly demonstrates that public agencies applied for the funds for public benefit, not for the benefit of the railroad involved. The language you reference on recipient status as 'prime, sub or vendor' from the project list validates that."

"The only project for which BNSF was listed as a prime recipient was the Burlington Bridge replacement over the Mississippi River," wrote the BNSF spokesperson. "The Coast Guard had ordered the railroad bridge to be replaced several years before the Great Recession of 2008/2009 and before ARRA ever existed, from a swing span to a lift span in order to widen the channel under the bridge for barge traffic in the Mississippi River. The only reason we were the prime recipient on that project is that we had to build the new bridge and then swap it out with the old one. More importantly, nearly half of the funds needed to replace that bridge were secured by the Southeast Iowa Congressional offices in the years prior to the ARRA and to Berkshire Hathaway's involvement with BNSF. In fact, construction was publicly announced and began a full month (9/21/2009) before Berkshire Hathaway had even approached BNSF (10/22/2009) about acquiring the railroad."

"On virtually every other project, BNSF was listed as a sub recipient or vendor confirming the secondary and cooperating role BNSF played to public agencies pursing public projects for public benefit," the BNSF spokesperson wrote. "None of them were done for the benefit of a private freight railroad and the applications, project descriptions and defined purposes all confirm that." NEXT: Warren Buffett Continued

In an interview with CRN, Jeff Matthews, a veteran investment manager and author of the best-selling e-book "Secrets In Plain Sight: Business & Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett," said there is simply no reason that a Buffett-backed venture should receive ARRA funds. "You have to ask yourself why a business associated with the most successful financial enterprise of our time needed help," asked Matthews. "Why they needed pork? The answer is they didn't. That's the whole problem."

Matthews, who has sat on both sides of the fence investing in companies as a professional money manager and as a former government official on the Finance Committee in Fairfield, Conn., called ARRA a classic case of the government "spending money fast and pissing it away."

"The sad part is that legitimate big companies, even Warren Buffett with Burlington Northern, got in on the act and got money," said Matthews. "The projects were something Burlington Northern probably would have done anyway and done it more efficiently if it was their own money instead of the government’s."

Buffett, who is listed on the White House visitor's log four times, also has prospered from his investments in big ARRA award winners General Electric and IBM, both of which were named by CRN as top beneficiaries of ARRA in the first part of this investigative report.

Buffett's $10.7 billion investment for 64 million shares in IBM came to light in November 2011. Buffett has since increased that IBM stake to 66.6 million shares valued at more than $13 billion.

Buffett's $3 billion investment in General Electric was in the form of perpetual preferred stock with a 10 percent dividend. That GE investment came to light on Oct. 1, 2008, with Congress debating the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to bail out troubled banks.

Buffett, who supported Obama in the 2008 campaign, is certainly not sitting on the sidelines in the 2012 campaign. In fact, the Berkshire Hathaway CEO has hosted a number of Obama fundraisers and is listed as providing "joint fundraising contributions" to the Obama Victory Fund 2012 of $65,800, according to a search of the Federal Election Commission database. Buffett is also listed as providing "joint fundraising contributions" of $30,000 to the Democratic National Committee in January 2012, according to the Federal Election Commission records.

President Obama awarded Buffett the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Feb. 15, 2011. Singling out the second richest man in the world, the president remarked: "When you look at the men and women who are here today, it says something about who we are as a people."

"When we award it to a Warren Buffett, it says we'd all like to be so humble and wise -- and maybe make a little money along the way," said President Obama.

Buffett is listed as No. 2 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans with a net worth estimated at $46 billion behind Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates with a net worth of $66 billion.

NEXT: John Doerr