Exclusive: Why Doesn't Jeb Want to Talk About Lehman Bros?

Jeb Bush apparently doesn’t want people to know that he worked at Lehman Brothers, the now-defunct investment bank whose collapse led to the broader financial meltdown in 2008.

That’s the only conclusion I can come to after receiving a series of occasionally bizarre emails from his press people to what I thought was a fairly simple question about Bush’s work before he became a Republican presidential candidate.

For about seven years, Bush earned more than $14 million as an adviser to Lehman and, after its 2008 bankruptcy, Barclays, which took over Lehman. As such, he helped pitch business to clients or as he recently put it “I advised their clients on a wide range of global economic issues with a mind towards navigating government policies.”

Dig a little deeper and you will find that Bush may be downplaying his role at the firm, particularly when it mattered the most: Those turbulent months in 2008 just before Lehman filed for the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Here’s what we know: In 2008, as Lehman was falling into insolvency because of its bad bet on real estate—among the first of many banks that would do so that year—Bush took part in a firm effort to save the company. Inside Lehman, the process of raising new capital and trying to dispose of all those bad assets on its balance sheet was known as “Project Green.”

Bush’s piece of this firm-wide effort was termed “Project Verde” (Spanish for Green), and it involved convincing the world’s richest man, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, to make a potentially life-saving investment into Lehman.

How do I know this? Not from the Bush people or even from all those tax returns he released last week, but from countless anonymous sources on Wall Street and once source who isn’t: Anton Valukas, a Reagan appointed former U.S. Attorney who went on to become the examiner for the Lehman bankruptcy.

As part of his work looking at what caused the largest bankruptcy is the nation’s history, Valukas produced a report that runs nearly 500 pages.

But you don’t have the read the whole thing to see the information involving Jeb Bush and Carlos Slim (just search either name). And it’s there you will find out that in “early July 2008, Lehman requested that Jeb Bush, who was a Lehman adviser, discuss Project Verde with Slim.” The reason, according to Valukas: to enter into a “strategic partnership” with Slim, meaning the Mexican billionaire would provide some assistance to their firm by buying stock or some other arrangement, Valukas said.

Project Verde was ultimately unsuccessful, or as Valukas points out: “On July 5, 2008, Bush reported that the meeting had been unsuccessful because Slim ‘did not express interest in jv (joint venture) or stock purchase.’”

As exhibits to the report, you will find a series of emails from various Lehman executives, including one from Jeb himself describing his efforts.

How detailed were Bush’s discussions with Slim? Slim declined to comment other than to say, through a spokesman, that the two have been “friends for 20 years, but they have never done business together.” Former Lehman chief Richard Fuld described the discussions to the bankruptcy examiner as an informal “‘conversation in the hallway,’” the report said.

But the Valukas reports suggest that the talks were serious enough that they were included in a portion of his bankruptcy report describing “the potential strategic partners” Lehman executives sought out to save the firm during the financial crisis, including  the giant insurer American International Group (NYSE:AIG), investment bank Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) and other foreign and domestic financial institutions.

How does Bush and his people describe the governor’s Lehman work? Well, judge for yourself. When I asked the Bush campaign to comment on the governor’s efforts to raise money from Slim to save Lehman, this was their initial email response: “Lehman didn’t ask Governor Bush to engage and he wouldn’t have. And no, he didn’t ask Carlos Slim to infuse money into Lehman."

When I asked her to clarify this statement, since some details of the Slim discussions had leaked into the media, another Bush spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said: “Governor Bush met with Carlos Slim. It was regarding a specific telecom project. It was not regarding (a) general Carlos Slim infusion of cash to save Lehman Brothers.”

Over the weekend, I pressed the Bush people about Slim yet again. It just was hard for me to fathom that Lehman would be wasting either Jeb Bush’s or Carlos Slim’s time on a random telecom investment in the summer of 2008 when the firm was about to go toes up.

That’s when Tim Miller, Jeb 2016’s communications director, got back to me with the following email: “Don’t understand what it is that makes no sense to you/you find so odd. I will say that I found it odd you wrote a piece about how we ‘wouldn’t come clean’ the same day Gov. Bush held a briefing with reporters to talk about his business career and answered questions about the very topic you were writing on.”

Which again didn’t answer my question.

So once again I asked to speak to someone rather than be forced to parse through these email responses. Miller responded that Campbell “is far better informed on this” issue than he is and said she would be contacting me shortly.

Here’s what Campbell said, again via email: “Charlie, as I mentioned, the meeting (with Slim) in Mexico was regarding a specific telecom deal. If you would like to report that he discussed investing in Lehman with Carlos Slim at some point, that’s fine. We haven’t denied that…There is nothing in conflict with what I said in either e-mail.”

Oh really?

Now half of me feels it’s great that Jeb Bush earned his millions at Lehman for something more than an “unsuccessful” bid to raise money for a dying firm since Bush people concede that he pitched business to Slim at least twice.

The other half feels that the Bush people are clearly hiding something given all the back and forth. Keep in mind that the paperwork that accompanied his tax returns—the same tax returns the Bush campaign went to great lengths to show how he paid the maximum tax rate—barely mentioned his work for Barclays as an adviser, and made no mention of his time at Lehman. We still don’t know, exactly, what he did at either firm.

Jeb Bush earned more money from Wall Street than any single source—nearly half of the $29 million he earned between the time he left the Florida governor’s mansion in 2007 and when he decided to run for Republican presidential nomination in December 2014.

And guess what: it would be nice to know exactly how the guy who wants to run the country made his millions in an industry as complex and controversial as banking. Wall Street isn’t a charity—it’s a big business that has warped laws, weakened regulations and has donated to countless politicians from both parties.

As someone who has covered Wall Street for 25 years, take it from me: We want to know what Jeb did for the financial industry now, not if and when he makes it to the White House.