Morain: A Texas billionaire and pension reform

  • ATTENTION EDITORS: THIS PHOTO IS EMBARGOED: No electronic distribution, Web posting or street sales before 12:01 a.m. ET, Wednesday, March 25, 2009. No exceptions for any reasons. *FILE PHOTO*(NYT) HOUSTON -- March 24, 2009 -- HEDGE-FUND-PAY-2 -- John D. Arnold, a hedge fund manager for Centaurus Energy Trading in Houston in 2005. An annual ranking of hedge fund managers pay shows some surprisingly strong results. (Michael Stravato/The New York Times)

John Arnold is a Texas billionaire who worked for Enron when electricity trading pirates were chortling about stealing "Grandma Millie" blind. That makes him a rich target, or so organized labor hopes.

Arnold has incurred labor's wrath by donating millions nationally to roll back the cost of public employee pensions, including $200,000 to help San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed shape a pension initiative for the 2014 or 2016 ballot.

Arnold has been vilified as a right-winger and caricatured as a junior version of the Koch brothers, the secretive oil billionaires who pour tens of millions into conservative and anti-union causes.

Ron Cottingham, of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a labor group, denounced Reed, a Democrat, for taking money from "the Texas billionaire" who "made his fortune trading in natural gas."

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi described Arnold as "a lipless, eager little jerk with the jug-eared face of a Division III women's basketball coach, exactly what you'd expect a former Enron commodities trader to look like."

On a flier, I employed that old journalistic trick of actually talking to the guy. We spoke by phone so I cannot vouch for the status of his lips. He readily confessed that he lives in Houston, worked at Enron when he was in his 20s, and is a billionaire. But he's hardly a right-winger. The attacks against him are cheap.

Arnold, 39, the son of a lawyer father and accountant mother, started working for Enron in 1995 when he was roughly 22. He made "lots of money" for the company, but wasn't involved in the branch of Enron that bilked California and led to blackouts during the energy crisis.

"I cooperated in every one of those investigations," he said.

After Enron's collapse in 2002, he started a hedge fund and became so fabulously wealthy — worth $2.8 billion, according to Forbes — that he retired last year. Now, he spends his time giving his money away, focusing on such issues as education, crime prevention and public finance, which is how he learned of Reed's effort to overhaul pensions first in San Jose and now statewide.

Arnold and his wife, Laura, signed the Warren Buffett-Bill Gates giving pledge, promising at least half their wealth to charity. The Arnolds made news in October by donating up to $10 million to keep Head Start preschool programs operating during the Republican-led government shutdown.

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