Bill Richardson: In Big Oil's Pocket?

He's got the credentials, the background, and the Western bona fides to be VP material. He promises a "man-on-the-moon program" on energy. There's just that small matter of who he used to do business with.

| Thu Jul. 26, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Despite his populist appeal and a recent bump in the polls that saw him surpass John Edwards in New Hampshire, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, once considered a potential running mate for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, seems destined to find himself once again in the running for the number two job.

Assuming that Richardson's lackluster debate performances and campaign trail gaffes—during one stump speech he forgot that France was a member of the U.N. Security Council, even though he once served as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.—don't make him a non-starter, he could be prove a valuable asset to the Democratic nominee.

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For one, he's a border state governor of Hispanic background at a time when the immigration debate is coming to a head and the Latino vote is growing ever more important to the Dems (particularly after George W. Bush secured approximately 40 percent of this bloc in the last election). Richardson is also the only Democratic candidate who can claim close ties to the powerful National Rifle Association, which endorsed him during his last reelection bid. A gun owner himself, Richardson backed a concealed carry law in New Mexico and embraces the gun as a symbol of western heritage. Given his gun rights bonafides, he could give the Democratic nominee a boost in rural red states and in the West.

Without question, Richardson has the resume for the job (in fact, his experience makes the Democratic frontrunners look like political neophytes). He has significant foreign policy experience, which has included regular diplomatic dealing with North Korea, and his days as Clinton's energy secretary also make him an authority on energy policy, which is surely one of the most crucial domestic issues facing the country. Seasoned politician though he is, Richardson does not come without baggage, primarily owing to his dealings in the private sector.

At the close of the Clinton administration, Richardson signed on as a senior managing director with Kissinger McLarty Associates, the advisory firm formed by Henry Kissinger and former Clinton chief of staff Mack McLarty, and promptly joined the boards of three large oil companies: Houston-based Diamond Offshore Drilling, a company once run by George Herbert Walker Bush; Denver-based Venoco; and Valero, North America's largest independent refinery. Until recently, Richardson held Valero stock worth between $100,001 and $250,000 and options valued between $250,001 and $500,000, according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. He divested himself of his stake in Valero in May, saying his financial ties to the company had become a "distraction" to his presidential campaign.

Though on the campaign trail he has come off as a staunch advocate of green energy, even proposing "a man-on-the-moon program" to address global warming and curb the nation's dependence on oil, his close ties to the oil industry would seem no small contradiction. Currently, he is one of the leading recipients of campaign contributions from oil and gas companies among the presidential contenders.

Beyond his coziness with the oil industry, Richardson was also caught up on the fringes of the Peregrine Systems scandal, a financial scam in the Enron style. Between February 2001 and June 2002 he served as on outside director on the board of Peregrine, a San Diego-based software company whose CEO, Stephen Gardner, was the brother-in-law of Richardson’s wife. During this period of time the company's directors were engaged in various acts of financial impropriety, including masking the severity of Peregrine's losses with phony accounting. The company eventually went bankrupt and Gardner was later charged with obstruction of justice and securities fraud. When Richardson was asked about the Peregrine scandal during his gubernatorial campaign in 2002, he claimed to have had no involvement "because I was what was called an 'outside director" and "didn't have time" to read the company's corporate reports. But according to the San Diego Reader, "Records show that Richardson attended, in person or by phone, 15 board meetings. In those meetings, directors were hearing that the company might get caught cooking the books."

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