Billionaire Clinton Friend, Union Accused of Racketeering

Ron Burkle is a very wealthy man, with a net worth listed last year in Forbes magazine at $2.5 billion.  He’s also a close friend of former President Bill Clinton.  That relationship is now coming under greater scrutiny given the backdrop of Burkle’s now-successful attempt to buy out a major long-distance car-hauling company, with an able assist from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.  On April 23, investors of Hawk Opportunity Fund sued Burkle’s private-equity company, Yucaipa Companies, in Atlanta federal court, charging Yucaipa and IBT leaders with racketeering in Yucaipa’s takeover of Allied Holdings, Inc., North America’s largest hauler.  The plaintiff is demanding $200 million in damages, a figure that could triple under RICO statutes. Yucaipa thinks the case is groundless.  “We think that this suit is totally without merit,” said company lawyer Robert Klyman.  A Teamsters spokesperson likewise dismissed the suit as having no basis.  But the surrounding facts notwithstanding provide a window to the ways in which Hillary Clinton will fund her bid to become the next U.S. President. 


Car haulers are those behemoth trucks rolling down our highways ferrying automobiles to local dealerships around the country.  Running a full-scale fleet of such vehicles can be expensive, especially in a time of high debt, rising fuel prices, high labor costs, and a soft domestic-car market.  That combination was enough to put the Decatur, Ga.-based Allied Holdings, Inc. in the red, and eventually in federal bankruptcy court in July 2005.  Ron Burkle, who’d made his original fortune in the supermarket business, recently had gained control of another bankrupt car hauler, Performance Transportation Services, Inc.  By acquiring Allied, Burkle would have control over at least half of the entire industry.  Last year he made his move.  Two Yucaipa funds bought a combined $100 million in Allied debt, making Burkle the firm’s largest unsecured creditor.  In return, he wanted to restructure the company, subject to approval by U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Atlanta.  On Monday, May 14, the court, after a challenge from several parties, granted approval.  Burkle’s plan to lift Allied out of Chapter 11 and restructure the company’s management and operations is set to go into effect by June 1, provided all closing conditions have been met. 


To bring the deal off, Burkle needed help from two key sources.  One was the Teamsters, which represents about 3,300 of Allied’s 5,500 workers.  This past February, Teamster local leaders representing car haulers approved the plan, which would protect existing member benefits.  The other source was former President Bill Clinton.  Since 2002, Clinton has served as a senior adviser to Yucaipa for three of its funds.  His function, in the firm’s words, is to “provide counsel” and “participate in events related to the funds and provide advice in the development of potential investments.”  Clinton was attracted to Yucaipa because of its reputation for bringing jobs and investment into economically depressed regions of the U.S.  More importantly, Burkle long has been a generous donor to the Democratic Party – and one of its most effective fundraisers.  Recently, he raised about $2.5 million at his Beverly Hills mansion for the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton’s wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.    


What kind of compensation has Bill Clinton been getting for all this?  Mrs. Clinton’s Senate financial-disclosure form, which includes spousal income, reveals her husband in 2005 received “guaranteed” partnership payments from Yucaipa Global Opportunities Fund I LLC of “over $1,000.”  That statistic doesn’t reveal a whole lot.  But a spokesman for the ex-president indicated that Mr. Clinton owns one-third of fund assets.  The two other funds – the Yucaipa American Fund and the Yucaipa Corporate Initiative Fund – aren’t listed on Mrs. Clinton’s disclosure form because Mr. Clinton hasn’t received actual monies from them.  Observers say he could make millions from his Yucaipa connection, and thus provide key financing for Hillary.         


The Allied deal required special intervention by the former president.  Mr. Clinton reportedly brought Burkle and Hoffa together to remove labor-related obstacles.  Clinton convinced Hoffa to work with Yucaipa as a union-friendly employer – something Burkle says he could not have pulled off on his own.  Clinton, said his spokesman, believes in doing business “in a labor-friendly way.”  Burkle took things over from there.  Originally, negotiations involved the car-hauler as well as Yucaipa and the Teamsters.  But somewhere along the line, Allied fell by the wayside.  After Yucaipa bought $100 million of the troubled car hauler’s debt, Allied allowed Yucaipa to stay on in contract concessions with the Teamsters.  Talks went on for months, but without progress.  “We were getting conflicting proposals from Yucaipa and the company,” says Fred Zuckerman, director of the union’s car-hauling division.  “We didn’t know who we were negotiating with.” 


In early January of this year, Allied requested that Yucaipa management leave the negotiations.  In February, Allied asked the federal bankruptcy court to void its Teamsters’ contract, which would have paved the way for deep wage cuts and a possible strike.  That’s when Burkle, waiting in the wings, began negotiating with the Teamsters on his own.  This time there was a breakthrough.  The resulting reorganization plan contains several key features.  First, Allied’s debt, including the portion held by Yucaipa, will be converted into common stock, with shares of the old stock to be cancelled.  Current shareholders will not receive any distributions, but will have the option to buy, at a discount, up to 4 percent of the reorganized company’s stock.  Second, several key Allied executives, including CEO Hugh Sawyer, will be dismissed.  Third, Yucaipa wants to put its own people on the board of directors.  In addition to a new CEO, there will be three other replacements, plus a fifth appointed by Allied’s creditor committee.  The Teamsters, having observer status, will send a representative to board meetings.  Finally, though the union may have grimaced while accepting, the deal calls for an across-the-board 15 percent wage cut over three years in an amount not to exceed $35 million a year.


Financial observers projected Burkle’s takeover will generate $20.3 million in profits this year, a figure that will rise to $42.2 million in 2008.  Allied plans to pay back unsecured creditors, owed $196.9 million, with its new stock.  But not everyone was happy with the proposed regime.  Among them were two investor groups, Virtus Capital and the aforementioned Hawk Opportunity Fund, who held a combined 8.3 percent of Allied stock.  Additionally opposed were three of Allied’s 10 board members, members of the company’s founding Rutland family (which owns about 30 percent of Allied stock), and several dissenting Teamsters.  They filed a motion with the bankruptcy court to block the takeover-restructuring deal, a suit that became moot when the court approved the proposal.  But the RICO suit, which is entirely separate, remains intact.  Hawk Opportunity Fund is accusing Yucaipa of manipulating the deal.  The fund says that Yucaipa extended the negotiation period until after Teamster President Hoffa’s re-election victory last November against perennial challenger Tom Leedham, misrepresented Allied’s position as insolvent as a pretext for excluding the company from negotiations, and had a conflict of interest, given that it now was owner of a major competitor in Performance Transportation Services.   


Yucaipa believes none of these charges will stand up.  The company said that it acted properly to break an “impasse” that could have led to the shutdown of Allied’s operations.  Union leadership likewise defends the plan, despite the wage concessions.  “The Yucaipa plan is not perfect, but it is the best way to make sure that our members’ futures remain secure,” said the Teamsters’ Zuckerman.  The 15 percent wage reduction actually is somewhat smaller than the cut Allied management earlier had proposed.  The RICO plaintiff, Hawk, might well accept cash and/or equity from Yucaipa in return for dropping its suit.  But one way or another, it’s clear Teamster leaders were party to an unusual business deal.  Being a “friend of Bill” has its rewards.  (Financial Week, 3/19/07; Los Angeles Times, 4/28/07; Wall Street Journal 5/2/07; Associated Press, 5/14/07; other sources).