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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

Wednesday, Apr 2 2003
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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 marriage."

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 until 1995.

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.

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Peter Byrne

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