[Hpn] Bringing Up Baby Gavin
Mon, 07 Apr 2003 14:03:16 -0700
Originally published by SF Weekly Apr 02, 2003
©2003 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
Bringing Up Baby Gavin
How William Newsom's pipeline into the Getty fortune has put money -- lots
of it -- in his politically ambitious son's pocket
BY PETER BYRNE
Judge William Newsom (above) has played a key role in advancing the
political and financial careers of his son Gavin (inset).
AP Wideworld Photos
Miserly J. Paul Getty was sued by his son Gordon for more access to the
AP Wideworld Photos
Gordon Getty helps his wife, Ann, into her coat at the San Francisco
Symphony in 1999.
Retired state appeals court Judge William A. Newsom III likes to take his
lunch at the Balboa Cafe, a pleasant Marina District eatery that happens to
be owned by his son, Supervisor Gavin Newsom, the leading contender for next
mayor of San Francisco. Judge Newsom is friendly, gracious, and
self-assured; he seems very much at ease with the considerable political and
financial influence he commands despite retiring from the bench eight years
ago. As he eats, a federal judge stops by his linen-covered table to say
hello, and a portly lawyer politely inquires if they can do some business
after lunch. An aging widow of the billionaire Getty clan nods to him as she
eases out the front door.
The 69-year-old judge is a familiar face to the Gettys. Loyal, unobtrusive,
and smart, Newsom has been a major player in Getty family business for many
years. Not only does he help oversee a wide array of Getty family trust
investments, he directly manages the personal wealth of Gordon Getty -- one
of the world's richest men, with a fortune estimated at more than $2
"I make my living working for Gordon Getty," Judge Newsom says. "He's not a
day-to-day businessman. He's more interested in poetry, music. He's a hell
of a guy; he's down here every day for a burger."
Newsom serves as Getty's financial consigliere, screening potential
investments and recommending whether to sink millions into real estate,
stocks, bonds, or other moneymaking vehicles. A longtime friend of state
Senate leader John Burton and a leading figure in local Democratic circles,
the judge also has employed his ample political skills to advance the Getty
family fortunes. In 1985, for example, he helped persuade the state
Legislature to make a legal change that dramatically boosted the annual
income of Gordon Getty and other beneficiaries of the main Getty family
But the judge is not the only Newsom who has benefited from his financial
entwinement with the Gettys. William Newsom has cut in his son -- who often
cites his successes as a "small businessman" as a political credential -- on
at least one lucrative Getty-backed deal. In 2001, the judge brought Gavin
Newsom into a Hawaii beachfront real estate investment in which his initial
$125,000 stake soared to more than $1 million -- an eightfold increase -- in
just six months, according to interviews and public records.
Gavin owes his political career to his father as well. The elder Newsom is a
longtime crony of John Burton, whom he has known since high school and with
whom he regularly plays racquetball. Burton convinced Mayor Willie Brown to
appoint Gavin to the Board of Supervisors in 1997. "It was based on Burton's
friendship with me," the judge says. "And he liked Gavin. Besides, they
needed a straight white male on the board."
Savvy Irish-American operator that he is, the judge continues to answer a
reporter's questions suavely and smoothly over lunch. His back goes up only
when he discusses the San Francisco Chronicle's recent story detailing Getty
loans to his 35-year-old son and Getty investments in Gavin's "PlumpJack"
businesses, including five restaurants, a Napa winery, a Squaw Valley hotel,
and two retail clothing stores. The newspaper concluded that of the
self-described entrepreneur's 11 enterprises, Gordon Getty was the lead
investor in 10. The article helped reinforce the view of some that the
younger Newsom is a silver spooner who has grown wealthy not as a result of
his own business moxie, but because of his connection to the ultrarich
"The piece enraged me," the judge complains, a steely look coming into his
eyes. "It's a delusion that the Gettys rain money on Gavin."
The judge is at least partly right. To some extent, it's him raining Getty
money on his son. (Gavin Newsom did not return multiple calls for comment
for this story.)
The bonds between the Newsom and Getty clans go back more than half a
William Newsom met Gordon Getty and his brother Paul in the late 1940s while
attending St. Ignatius Catholic prep school in San Francisco. The Getty boys
were offspring of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty and his third wife, Ann Rork.
Known for decades as the richest man alive, Getty père was a notorious miser
and womanizer who lived in a succession of cheap European hotels. He pretty
much ignored his four sons and five successive wives. Gordon and Paul
enjoyed comfortable but hardly rich lifestyles made possible by stipends
from the Sarah C. Getty Trust, created by the oilman's mother because she
doubted his willingness to provide for her grandchildren. When Sarah passed
away, her Midas-fingered son poured billions of oil dollars into the trust,
now his, to escape taxation. As his boys matured, their annual trust incomes
increased, but their father refused to give them any real control over his
When the old man died in 1976, though, control of the $2 billion trust was
transferred to Gordon, who used his income to support a life of leisure. He
composed classical music, invented elaborate economic theories, and raised
four sons with his wife, Ann, the doyenne of Nob Hill society. (In 1999,
Gordon revealed that he had also fathered three daughters with a Los Angeles
woman named Cynthia Beck.) In the mid-'80s, Gordon decided that Getty Oil's
stock was undervalued and forced a sale of the company to Texaco Corp. for
$10 billion, doubling the assets of the Getty trust. With a major assist
from Judge Newsom, Gordon then broke the trust into four portions. One went
to his brother Paul, a reclusive drug addict (now recovered). Another was
assigned to the children of his elder brother George (who died of a drug
overdose in 1973). The third chunk went to the children of Ronald Getty (a
brother who had been disinherited by Daddy Getty in a fit of spite). Gordon
kept the fourth piece for himself.
Getty has the bulk of his $2 billion estate sequestered in the Gordon P.
Getty Family Trust, managed by Newsom. The judge says the trust earns about
2 percent a year, which translates into roughly $40 million in annual income
for Gordon. Despite his and his wife's profligate lifestyle -- flying to and
from vacation spots around the world on their personal Boeing 727 -- it must
be difficult to spend it all.
Far from being the potty, absent-minded professor type, as the media often
depicts him, Gordon Getty, 69, is one of the nation's leading venture
capitalists. He also is a well-known philanthropist. Last year, he donated
$3 million to the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, a charitable trust.
Though a Republican, he is a major fund-raiser for local and national
Democratic Party candidates. House Whip Nancy Pelosi and many other powerful
politicians, including Willie Brown and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a
leading presidential contender, benefit from his patronage.
But it is William Newsom -- his boyhood friend -- whom Getty relies on most,
to protect and enhance his fortune.
Newsom's grandfather immigrated to America from Ireland in 1865. His father,
a building contractor, was an associate of San Francisco Democratic Party
boss William Malone, who was overthrown in the 1960s by Congressman Phil
Burton and his brother John. Pat Brown, who rose from San Francisco district
attorney to become governor of California (and father of a future governor),
was close to Judge Newsom's father, also named William.
After graduating from the University of San Francisco, Newsom attended
Stanford law school and was admitted to the California Bar in 1962. He did a
stint as legal adviser to the Italian division of Getty Oil and worked as a
tax attorney for the Gettys. At 32, the handsome lawyer was smitten by Tessa
Menzies, then still in her teens. Married in 1967, the couple produced Gavin
and a daughter, Hilary, before splitting after five years. "It was an Irish
divorce," says the judge. "We remained friends, neither remarried." (Tessa
died last year.)
Newsom blames the breakup of his marriage on politics. In 1968, he says, the
Burton brothers and Willie Brown talked him into running against state Sen.
Milton Marks, a popular Republican. Newsom lost.
"Tessa did not share my passion for politics," he says. "I wish I'd dropped
out of the race. I watch Gavin -- I hope politics doesn't affect his
In 1975, Gov. Jerry Brown, son of Pat, appointed William Newsom to the
Superior Court bench in rural Placer County. Three years later, Brown
elevated him to the state Court of Appeal in San Francisco, where he served
According to Painfully Rich, a biography of the Getty family by British
author John Pearson, Newsom has been, above all else, a pillar of probity
upon whom Getty family members have leaned in times both sweet and sour.
("Pearson's book is reputable," the judge says.) He officiates at Getty
marriage ceremonies. He creates trust funds for angry wives divorced by
philandering Getty men. He remembers family members' birthdays. He mourns at
their funerals. He chaperones their drug addicts and alcoholics in and out
of treatment programs. He even helps them cope with criminal tormentors.
In 1973, kidnappers snatched 18-year-old Jean Paul Getty III in Rome. They
demanded that the boy's grandfather ransom him for $17 million. The old
miser refused to give them a lira. Months went by. The kidnappers sliced off
the boy's ear and mailed it to an Italian newspaper. (Due to a postal
strike, the appendage did not arrive for three weeks.) In the face of public
disgust at the depth of his stinginess, Getty coughed up $3 million to save
his grandchild's life. In order to put the kidnappers more at ease, the
Gettys asked Newsom to help deliver the money. The boy was released and
Newsom's stock with the Getty family soared.
During the 1970s and '80s, the judge strategized with Gordon about ways to
pull more cash out of the Sarah C. Getty Trust, which was basically a
padlocked treasure chest. J. Paul Getty had administered the trust as a
perpetual growth fund that allowed only a thin trickle of riches -- measured
in thousands rather than millions of dollars annually -- to flow into the
bank accounts of his children and grandchildren. Newsom convinced Gordon to
sue his father for more access to the family gold. The lawsuit failed, but
the older Getty was reportedly impressed by his son's mettle, and in his
will entrusted Gordon with administering the vast family trust.
In 1985, Newsom, then a sitting state appellate judge, made use of his
extensive political contacts in an effort to help his old friend. He lobbied
Democratic state Sen. Bill Lockyer of Hayward -- now California's attorney
general -- to push a bill that would permit the "partitioning" of trusts,
thereby allowing the Gettys to divide the Sarah C. Getty Trust into four
parts and giving them easier access to its riches.
"I think it's going to be a great thing for the Getty family," Newsom told
the Los Angeles Times. He also claimed, unconvincingly, that he had not
discussed the bill with Getty family members.
The Legislature subsequently enacted the bill, adding enormously to the
wealth of Gordon and his relatives.
In a recent interview, Judge Newsom said he did not receive so much as a cup
of coffee for talking to Lockyer. But years later, Newsom wound up
overseeing large parts of the gargantuan Getty fortune -- a circumstance
that has helped enrich both him and his son. Last year, for instance, the
judge earned about $250,000 for his work for the Gettys, he says.
The U.S. tax code allows wealthy people to create trusts to reduce their tax
load. A trust may own a variety of investment instruments, and some profits
are distributed to its beneficiaries.
The Gordon P. Getty Family Trust is governed by a board of trustees composed
of Gordon and his four sons, Andrew, Peter, John, and Billy. For the past
eight years, William Newsom has been the trust's administrator, deploying
hundreds of millions of dollars in blue-chip stocks, bonds, real estate
ventures, and the occasional start-up company.
Since 1989, Newsom also has served as a trustee of the Ronald Family Trust
A, another piece of the original Sarah C. Getty Trust, which benefits
offspring of Gordon's brother Ronald. And the judge is a partner with Gordon
Getty in a real estate investment firm, Donwilong LLC, created to provide
for Gordon's half sister, Donna Long.
The judge further serves as co-trustee of the Ann and Gordon Getty
Foundation, which gives millions of Getty dollars to nonprofit
organizations. Most of these tax-deductible donations support classical
music and opera companies. In 2001, the foundation gave $750,000 to the San
Francisco Symphony, $585,000 to the San Francisco Opera, and, in a more
modest act of charity, $1,000 to Meals on Wheels.
But Newsom also is deeply involved in helping Gordon Getty invest his
personal trust income.
Newsom acts as co-trustee of Gordon's San Francisco Revocable Trust, which
buys and sells Bay Area real estate. Among its holdings is 704 Sansome, a
small office building that Getty purchased for $2.1 million in 1997 from
political consultant Clint Reilly. For a while, Getty's sons used it as
headquarters for several businesses.
In 1989, Newsom incorporated a Nevada-based firm, Newsom Investments Ltd.,
to manage Getty's investments in real estate and other ventures. Newsom
Investments is managing partner of Loma Rica Ranch LLC, a corporation that
plans to build a large housing development in rural open space near the city
of Grass Valley in the Sierra foothills of California. The developers are
lobbying city officials to annex the Ranch property, which would greatly
increase its value.
"Loma Rica will be smart growth," the judge says. "Eighty percent open space
-- two bedrooms, one bathroom [homes] for $140,000 to $180,000."
Indeed, the judge has incorporated a dozen or more Getty-financed investment
vehicles in low-income-tax Nevada, including one that earns royalties from
oil wells and another that owns property in South Africa.
Newsom and Gordon Getty have other interests in the Third World as well.
The judge serves on the board of directors of the Getty-funded Conservation
Corporation Africa, which owns 25 safari lodges in wild areas of South
Africa, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. The luxuriously appointed lodges cater to
well-heeled eco-tourists who can afford to pay $350 a night.
"We lease the land and restore it to pristine condition," says Newsom.
"There is light impact with 15 rooms [in each lodge] on 10,000 acres. We
employ 3,500 people and provide medical clinics and schools. I am very proud
of steering the [Getty] family to it."
An ardent environmentalist, Newsom sits on the boards of a number of green
groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Audubon Society, and
the Sierra Club Foundation, financial parent of the Sierra Club. Last
December, the Sierra Club began selling shares in a Gordon Getty-owned
mutual fund to its 700,000 members and to the public. The Forward Fund
eschews investments in oil, timber, or automotive firms. According to
Newsom, Getty believes inflation can be ended by replacing national
currencies with interest-bearing mutual funds. His theory, called "fertile
money," has yet to find much acceptance with economists, but being a
billionaire means, among other things, that you get to experiment with the
monetary system by setting up your own mutual fund.
Like father, like son. William Newsom's closeness to the Gettys opened the
door for Gavin to piggyback on what quickly turned into a highly profitable
real estate investment in Maui.
In January 2001, the Ronald Family Trust A, of which the judge is a trustee,
purchased 4,500 acres of beachfront property, called Hana Ranch, on the
island for $24 million.
A few months later, the judge secured a conservation easement from the Maui
Coastal Land Trust to permanently protect 2.5 miles of beachfront from
development. Newsom says a Getty-financed group, Hana Ranch Partners LLC,
plans to run cattle on the property and allow up to 10 buyers to build nice
homes overlooking the permanently conserved beaches. As point man for the
project, Newsom says he will set aside 100 acres for affordable housing for
locals. "The residents of the area are poor and mostly on welfare," he
Newsom says he and his son each invested $125,000 in Hana Ranch in July
2001. Gavin reported on his economic disclosure statement that by December
of that year, his share had zoomed in worth to more than $1 million.
The land value rose "a lot more" when Oprah Winfrey later purchased a piece
of the ranch, Judge Newsom says. Winfrey read about the conservation
easement and called the judge on his cell phone. Last April, she and her
personal trainer, Bob Greene, bought several hundred acres of the beautiful
The Newsoms also each have owned stock in Getty Images, a $1.6 billion
conglomerate that owns an archive of 70 million photographs and
illustrations. The Seattle-based firm rents these images to advertising
agencies and media of all sorts. William and Gavin have served on the board
of Getty Investments LLC, which sank $32 million into Getty Images in 1999.
The supervisor was later allowed to buy $10,000 worth of Getty Images stock
when the company was restructured. A few months after that, his stake was
worth more than $60,000, according to the Chronicle.
(In a small but wonderful irony, an information-industry trade magazine
called CIO recently ran a glowing article on Supervisor Newsom's "Care Not
Cash" initiative to kill cash benefits for the homeless in San Francisco.
The mag ran a picture of a shivering homeless man that it bought from ...
Gavin Newsom also has a partnership stake in his father's firm, Newsom
Associates, located in an office across the street from the upscale Marina
Safeway store in the supervisor's district. On his financial disclosure
statement, the younger Newsom valued his share in Newsom Associates at "over
$1 million." Judge Newsom says that reflects his son's interest in the Hana
"I fronted Gavin the money and he paid me back," the judge says. "I have the
canceled checks to prove it."
Judge Newsom says that one of his favorite books is Imperial San Francisco,
Gray Brechin's historical account of the predatory political and financial
practices of the city's monied families.
"The Gettys are not absolutely evil like some of the old families," Brechin
said in an interview. "Ann and Gordon have minds. He is serious about music,
she had a book-publishing business. But Gordon has the gravitational field
of Jupiter. We are dust particles to him.
"Democracy requires the presence of level playing fields in order to work.
In the end, the size of the Getty fortune is not compatible with democracy."
>From the PlumpJack businesses -- which grossed $25 million last year -- to
the Maui beach deal, the Gettys have embraced and rewarded Gavin Newsom as
they embraced and rewarded his father. The only question that remains to be
answered is whether Gavin, as mayor, would reward his patrons in return --
and how that might affect us dust motes and our local democracy.
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