It's a Bechtel World

Think that a $680 million Iraq contract is a big deal? You don't know Bechtel.

Outside the realm of what might be considered business-related fraternizing, the Bechtels remain virtually off the social radar, certainly for folks worth a reported $3 billion. (Forbesmagazine ranks Riley Bechtel as the 104th wealthiest man in the world.) They are not among the usual suspects who grace the pages of the Nob Hill Gazette, Gentry magazine, or Town & Country at symphony fetes, art galas, and charity balls.

In fact, concerned about security, the family is so secretive that it successfully petitioned courts to seal the Bechtels' voter registration records some years ago, and their personal assets are held primarily in the name of a private corporation. Just the same, as owners of one of the largest private companies in the world, the Bechtels have a permanent place in the social order of high-level business.

Riley Bechtel, who is Stephen D. Bechtel Jr.'s son and the reigning chairman and CEO of his family's firm, is also a third-generation member of San Francisco's all-male Bohemian Club, best known for its Bohemian Grove encampment near the tiny town of Monte Rio in Sonoma County. Every year, the most powerful men in America gather at the Grove for what amounts to elite summer camp, where they produce skits and musical shows, listen to keynote speakers, eat, drink, and socialize. Officially, business discussions are taboo, but certainly camp kinship has evolved into many a serious deal.

Henry Kissinger is among the former secretaries of 
state who attend the Bohemian Grove encampment.
Henry Kissinger is among the former secretaries of state who attend the Bohemian Grove encampment.
Secretary of State Colin Powell shares a lodge with 
Stephen and Riley Bechtel at Bohemian Grove.
Secretary of State Colin Powell shares a lodge with Stephen and Riley Bechtel at Bohemian Grove.

A recent Bohemian roster shows that Riley Bechtel and his father are joined in membership by Riley's brother Gary, brother-in-law Alan Dachs (head of the family investment firm the Fremont Group), Shultz, and a few other Bechtel insiders. Of course, Bohemian Grove is long famous for the rest of its membership, which has included virtually every Republican president (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush remain members), numerous secretaries of state (Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and Colin Powell are listed on a recent roster in the same camp with Riley and Stephen Bechtel), and innumerable political leaders.

In his 1994 doctoral dissertation, A Relative Advantage: Sociology of the San Francisco Bohemian Club, Peter Phillips, a professor of sociology at Sonoma State University, noted more than 175 directors of major corporations on the membership roll of the Bohemian Club.

For decades, Bechtel has been closely aligned with Stanford University. Stephen Bechtel Jr. graduated from the university's MBA program, as did Riley, who also has a law degree from Stanford. A major donor, Bechtel has a conspicuous presence on campus with the Bechtel International Center and Bechtel Conference Center. Shultz, meanwhile, is a distinguished fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank with close ties to the Bush administration that also is the recipient of Bechtel family funding.

The social connections even extend to golf; Riley and Stephen are members of the Augusta National golf club in Georgia, home to the storied Masters tournament and recent subject of protest because of its refusal to admit women as members. Again, the membership roster here is filled with directors of major corporations and big political donors. Closer to home, Riley Bechtel is a regular at Pebble Beach and plays in the PGA's celebrity Pro-Am tournament there.

In addition to its revolving door leading to and from government and its social club connections, Bechtel gains influence over the governments that give it projects through the perfectly ordinary and legal process known as campaign contributions. Once again, however, Bechtel plays the political funding game at a higher level than even many multinational giants.

In one way, Bechtel's campaign funding is quite run-of-the-mill. Although many who criticize the company from the left stress its Republican connections, Bechtel's political contributions tend to relate more to its business interests than ideology. Between 1999 and 2002, Bechtel gave $1.3 million in individual, PAC, and soft money contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C. Bechtel has spread its contributions among both Republicans and Democrats, leaning slightly more to the Republicans. In 2002, for instance, 52 percent of Bechtel's soft money contributions went to Republicans. But in 1998, when Democrats controlled the White House, some 67 percent of Bechtel's contributions went to their party. The family's personal giving, however, is consistently Republican.

Bechtel contributed $685,125 to California politics during the past decade, $65,000 of which was directly related to the BART system, in which Bechtel is a contractor. Another $60,000 went toward defeating a proposition that would have required that state construction projects use Caltrans engineers exclusively, significantly cutting work to private contractors such as Bechtel.

And, if Republicanism taints Bechtel's money, that same tainted money has landed heavily in the coffers of San Francisco Democrats. During the past three years, Bechtel (the corporation and family members) has given $95,000 to Mayor Willie Brown, a longtime power in the California Democratic Party, and to Brown-supported candidates -- Sophie Maxwell, Mabel Teng, and Mark Leno to name a few -- and political action committees. Congressional Democrats have fared well, too: U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer has received $26,000 in contributions from Bechtel during the past decade, while U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi received $22,000 and Sen. Dianne Feinstein took $16,000.

The firm gave more than $20,000 to Hetch Hetchy ballot issues between 2000 and 2002, when the company was a contractor there.

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