The Complete Ron Burkle

Billionaire Ron Burkle went from bagboy to Bill Clinton’s only business partner. On the way, he’s tried to keep under the radar—even if he does purchase Radar—but with a messy divorce, litigation in California, and a sting set-up of Page Sixer Jared Paul Stern, it’s hard to keep his name out of the papers. And so the Observer‘s Jason Horowitz has reported out the details on the jet-set and lawyer-friendly Ronald Burkle.

Ronald Burkle went from bagging groceries in a store his dad ran in Claremont, California to presiding over a multi-billion dollar California supermarket empire that planted him in of one of the world’s most rich and powerful circles.

At 21, Mr. Burkle married 19-year-old Janet Steeper, a descendent of the Wright brothers. Over the next decades, he would make his own foray into aviation, owning a Sikorsky helicopter and a Boeing 757 jet used so often by his friend and business partner Bill Clinton that the former President jokingly referred to it as “Air Force Two.” Eventually the marriage to Ms. Steeper would fall apart, and, in doing so, become the center of a constitutional battle in California. The plane would appear in a blind item in the New York Post; in it, a “grocery billionaire” and “close Clinton pal” was known for flying models around on his private jet.

That item infuriated Mr. Burkle, 53, who felt that as Mr. Clinton’s only business partner, he was the keeper of Mr. Clinton’s trust, and in no way wanted to embarrass the former president, said a source with knowledge of Mr. Burkle’s feelings on the matter.

And the item was one of the reasons Mr. Burkle helped set up a sting operation, first with his lawyers, then with the US Attorney’s office and FBI, which he believed would catch New York Post freelancer Jared Paul Stern in the act of committing a crime.

Since the New York Daily News reported on the tapes recorded in Mr. Burkle’s TriBeCa kitchen, which some say show Mr. Stern shaking Mr. Burkle down in exchange for “protection” from Page Six—Mr. Stern, one of a small circle who knows the contents of the tapes, claims otherwise—the source said Mr. Burkle has been frustrated by Mr. Stern’s attempt to “twist the tables” and has grown anxious waiting for the US Attorney’s office to act.

The source said that Mr. Burkle feels that he is in a “twilight zone here, waiting for the US Attorney to do what they are supposed to do.”

But before Mr. Burkle’s name ever appeared in Page Six, before he ever met Mr. Clinton, he was a dental school drop-out getting rich on supermarkets.

In 1986, he co-founded The Yucaipa Companies, a private investment firm. Thanks in part to Michael Milken’s junk bonds, he was able to start buying supermarket chains such as Food 4 Less, Fred Meyer and Ralph’s. He converted Ralph’s into one of the most popular grocery stores in Southern California. In 1998, he sold his holdings to the Kroger Company, making billions in the deal. In 2000, according to The New York Times, he attempted to repay Mr. Milken for his early help by lobbying President Clinton to grant Mr. Milken a pardon. His efforts were unsuccessful.

In the mid-1990’s, around the same time Mr. Stern began organizing his gossipy soirees at 21 and the Cafe Loup on 13th street, Mr. Burkle began hosting his own high-powered salons.

Guests included UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton. They spoke to an audience of business leaders and friends at his Beverly Hills “Green Acres” estate, once owned by silent-screen star Harold Lloyd.

“Let me say a special word of thanks to Ron and to Jan Burkle for opening their home to us,” said Mr. Clinton in September 1996. “We’ve made a lot of jokes about it tonight, but this place is a national treasure.”

Or at least a treasury to the Clintons, who often used the mansion for fundraisers. At a November 2004 fundraiser, Democrat couples paid $100,000 to attend.

In 2002, the Sunday Times of London quoted a discussion between Mr. Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair. “You tell Mr. Spielberg that you may be drinking tea with him,” Mr. Clinton told Mr. Blair,” but I am here on the beach in Santa Monica having coffee with Ron Burkle, which shows California has more influence than either the British or the US government.”

In October, 2005, Yucaipa, working with the Dubai Investment Group—owned by the Dubai government—made a $828 million bid for Refco, the firm that caused Ms. Clinton a headache when she was accused of having a conflict of interest when she invested in cattle-futures in 1979. Mr. Clinton was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the firm was fined.

Mr. Burkle has also wielded his influence at home. He acted as finance chair of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s reelection campaign, and has become a favorite moneyman for Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton.

“Mr. Burkle is a well known Democratic fundraiser and we appreciate his strong support of Senator Clinton,” said Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Senator Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Burkle hired Mr. Clinton in April 2002 as “senior adviser” to two Yucaipa investment funds which specialize in developing low-income-area businesses.

“He’s invaluable,” Mr. Burkle told Vanity Fair in 2004. “I was the largest supplier to McDonald’s in the United States, and yet when we had some ideas of what we wanted to do, some projects with McDonald’s, President Clinton is probably a better phone call than I am.”

Mr. Burkle also used his influence for his friends.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Mr. Burkle’s investment company hired Karin Stanford, who had given birth to the child of Rev. Jesse Jackson, a friend of Mr. Burkle who was married to another woman at the time.

In 1996 at one of his Green Acre get-togethers for which Rev. Jesse Jackson was the guest speaker, Mr. Burkle helped introduce Mr. Jackson’s son, Yusef, to August Busch IV, who he has described as his best friend. Mr. Burkle later recommended that Mr. Busch hire Mr. Jackson’s son, which he did.

Mr. Burkle defended the Anheuser-Busch deal to the Chicago Tribune, saying he had told Mr. Jackson “I would look out for them.”

“People do business with people they know,” he said.

Mr. Burkle’s spokesman dismissed allegations that he used his influence to get Mr. Jackson his job.

“Mr. Burkle would be proud if that were the case,” Michael Sitrick, the spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. “Mr. Jackson is a good friend and has a great track record. Mr. Jackson met Mr. Busch at Mr. Burkle’s house. A year later, Mr. Jackson purchased a distributorship in Chicago. He bought one of the worst performing distributorships and turned it around. Mr. Burkle would be proud to invest with Mr. Jackson but has never had the opportunity to do so.”

In recent years, Mr. Burkle has teamed up with Yusef Jackson in bids to buy both the Washington Nationals baseball team and according to Crain’s Chicago Business, the Chicago Sun-Times. Reports say the two were also interested in purchasing Radar Magazine. Mr. Burkle has also bid In March for 12 Knight Ridder Inc. newspapers.

Indeed, since selling his supermarkets in the late 1990s, Mr. Burkle seems to have developed an appetite for media outlets. Last year, he frantically sought copies of the Los Angeles Business Journal, but for a different reason.

Since June 2003, Mr. Burkle has been involved in a vicious divorce that has spilled out into the legislature of California. In December 2004, Mr. Burkle, citing a new law passed by the California State Legislature as urgency legislation, asked for his divorce records to be sealed.

Critics called the law unconstitutional, as it prevented judicial discretion in sealing documents, and attributed its speedy passage to the more than $1 million in contributions Mr. Burkle made to Democratic lawmakers.

So Mr. Burkle may be no stranger to the pay-to-play culture, the same culture he is now attacking with Mr. Stern as its embodiment.

“Those accusations are beyond untrue, they are preposterous,” said Mr. Sitrick. “He feels it is somewhat comical in that the bill was passed unanimously by both houses.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed the legislation, received more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from Mr. Burkle.

But before the law favoring Mr. Burkle’s argument for privacy could take effect, details of the divorce were printed in the Los Angeles Business Journal, which combed over the records before the records were sealed. In response, Mr. Burkle ordered his employees to buy up copies of the report.

The source with knowledge of Mr. Burkle’s feelings said that Mr. Burkle hates publicity and hates having his name in the paper.

In the January, 2005, Los Angeles Business Journal article, Janet Burkle claimed that Mr. Burkle hid millions of dollars in assets in their first settlement agreement. She argueed that they were not officially separated until 2002; he said they split about a decade earlier. While Mr. Burkle claimed she put the lives of one their three children in danger by sleeping with a personal trainer with a criminal record, Ms. Burkle countered that Mr. Burkle conducted intrusive surveillance of her and her boyfriend at the time.

“My husband cannot tolerate losing—anything!” Janet Burkle said in a court declaration filed in the divorce.

In the court documents, Mr. Burkle argued that the record should be sealed to keep his wife from publicizing his business affairs to the media, and to guarantee his “constitutional right of privacy.”
“My husband is extremely wealthy and powerful,” Janet Burkle claimed in court papers. “He is used to exerting control over all the people that he comes into contact with.”

According to the Los Angeles Business Journal story, Mr. Burkle’s marriage began to fall apart in the 1990’s. Janet Burkle sought a domestic violence order against Mr. Burkle, accusing him of having private investigators follow her around for more than a year. Mr. Burkle accused her of abducting their own children.

But the parties litigating for the documents are more interested in access than substance.

“It’s very unusual,” said Susan Seager, the lawyer who represented The Los Angeles Times, the California Newspaper Association and Associated Press in an effort to unseal the documents. She argued that litigants could use the statute to avoid public scrutiny.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the private judge who presided over the divorce, retired Superior Court Judge Stephen Lachs, collected $73,000 in just over a year on the Burkle case. Mr. Lachs also was hired to arbitrate Michael Jackson’s divorce, which was also criticized for a lack of independent investigation.

“A lot of the records aren’t filed,” said Ms. Seager. “Exhibits, trial transcripts, all the legal briefs, the stuff that tells you what’s going on, was under seal for over a year. That’s unusual for a routine divorce.”

According to a press officer for the the Los Angeles Superior Court, of the dozen or so volumes of Burkle divorce records kept in room 112 in the North Hill Street office, at least three remain sealed, even though California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal called the law unconstitutional on Jan. 20, 2006.

Mr. Burkle is still appealing that decision to the State Supreme Court, and a ruling could come any day. In the meantime, another bill designed to restrict public access to court records was approved by the California Assembly Judiciary Committee.

The First Amendment litigants insist that this bill, presented by Sen. Kevin Murray, is just a favor to Mr. Burkle. Mr. Murray did not return calls for comment.
—Jason Horowitz