A Mysterious Mover of Money and Planes

  • The Harken Energy folks are not the only Texas-based colleagues of George W. Bush with fortuitous, if not extraordinary, Arab connections. Another is the mysterious Houston businessman James R. Bath, a deal broker whose alleged associations run from the CIA to a major shareholder and director of the Bank of Credit & Commerce International. The President's son has denied that he ever had business dealings with Bath, but early 1980s tax records reviewed by TIME show that Bath invested $50,000 in Bush's energy ventures and remained a stockholder until Bush sold his company to Harken in 1986.

    Bath's penchant for secrecy has been frustrated by a feud with a former business partner, Bill White, who claims that Bath was a front man for CIA business operations. White contends that Bath has used his connections to the Bush family and Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen to cloak the development of a lucrative array of offshore companies designed to move money and airplanes between the Middle East and Texas. White, an Annapolis graduate and former Navy fighter pilot, claims it was Bentsen's son Lan who suggested that White go into the real estate development business with Bath, a former Air Force fighter pilot. The partners prospered together at first, but since their falling out they have dueled in five lawsuits in which Bath has kept the upper hand, White claims, by privately asserting to the court that he had "national security" connections. White now claims in court that Bath wanted to borrow $550,000 from their real estate venture to cover funds that Bath had "misappropriated" from an aircraft company he controlled.

    Bath, 55, acknowledges a friendship with George W. Bush that stems from their service together in the Texas Air National Guard, and says he is "slightly" acquainted with the President. But Bath vehemently denies White's accusations. "I am not a member of the CIA or any other intelligence agency," he says, describing White's portrayal as a "fantasy." Even so, Bath, while insisting he is nothing more than a "small, obscure businessman," is associated with some of the most powerful figures in the U.S. and Middle East. Private records show, and associates confirm, that Bath is a "representative" for several immensely wealthy Saudi families, an unusual position for any small-time Texas businessman.

    Bath got his start in real estate in 1973 by forming a partnership with Lan Bentsen. One purpose, sources tell TIME, was to find investments for the Senator's blind trust. Bath and Bentsen have said they have not been partners for years, but secretaries at Bath's office still answer the phone with a cheery "Bath Bentsen Interests." Bath says he simply hasn't got around to changing the name of his company.

    Bath opened his own aircraft brokerage firm in 1976, but his Middle East connections first surfaced two years later, when he became a shareholder and director of Houston's Main Bank. His fellow investors were former U.S. Treasury Secretary John Connally; Saudi financier Ghaith Pharaon, an alleged B.C.C.I. front man; and Saudi banker Khaled bin Mahfouz, who subsequently became a major B.C.C.I. shareholder. Pharaon later sold his Main Bank holdings and bought the National Bank of Georgia, allegedly on behalf of B.C.C.I. Unusual transactions involving Main Bank in the late 1970s came to light last year when a researcher discovered that the small community bank, at a time when it held only $58 million in deposits, had been buying $10 million a month in new $100 bills. Purpose: unknown.

    Bath controlled a fleet of companies connected to his aircraft business, and he enjoyed unusual carte blanche to direct the U.S. investments of several wealthy Middle Easterners. Associates confirm that Bath has brokered more than $150 million in private plane deals in recent years, concentrated in sales and leases to Middle Eastern royalty and other influential figures. Pharaon is believed to have bought several expensive jets for his construction company. One Bath entity, Skyway Aircraft, leased a $10 million Gulfstream II to the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., which is controlled by Sheik Zayed bin Sultan an- Nahayan, the President of the United Arab Emirates and the current owner of B.C.C.I. Bath's partners in Skyway, one of four similarly named companies he controls, are artfully hidden. The firm that incorporated Bath's companies in the Cayman Islands is the same one that set up a money-collecting front company for Oliver North in the Iran-contra affair.

    Even if Bath is a clandestine public servant, the U.S. may not always get a bargain. The Houston Post reported last year that the U.S. had spent millions of dollars more than necessary by fueling military aircraft, including Air Force One, at privately owned Southwest Airport Services at Ellington Field rather than using a government fuel station there. Bath operates and holds a majority ownership stake in Southwest Airport Services, which the Post said was charging a markup of as much as 60% on the fuel. So far, the paper's charges have prompted no official investigations.