Jeb Bush

(Peti Kollanyi/Bloomberg)

By Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Tom Hamburger
June 28, 2015 at 7:06 PM

In early 1989, seven weeks after his father moved into the White House, Jeb Bush took a trip to Nigeria.

Nearly 100,000 Nigerians turned out to see him over four days as he accompanied the executives of a Florida company called Moving Water Industries, which had just retained Bush to market the firm’s pumps. Escorted by the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, Bush met with the nation’s political and religious leaders as part of an MWI effort to land a deal that would be worth $80 million.

“My father is the president of the United States, duly elected by people that have an interest in improving ties everywhere,” he told a group of dignitaries in a private meeting, according to a video documenting the visit. “The fact that you have done this today is something I will report back to him very quickly when I get back to the United States.”

Just days after Jeb Bush returned home, President George H.W. Bush sent a note to Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida, thanking him for hosting his son. “We are grateful to you,” President Bush wrote on White House stationery.

MWI eventually got the deals it was seeking. Former employees said Bush’s participation was crucial. “There’s no question about it: ‘Here is the son of the president of the United States.’ It was a big deal,” Cornelius Lang, MWI’s former controller, told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “He could open doors we couldn’t.”

Today, as he works toward his run at the White House, Bush touts his business experience as a strength that gives him the skills and savvy to serve as the nation’s chief executive. He has said he “worked my tail off” to succeed. As an announced candidate, Bush soon will be making financial disclosures that will reveal recent business successes and show a substantial increase in his wealth since he left office as Florida governor in 2007, individuals close to the candidate told The Post.

But records, lawsuits, interviews and newspaper accounts stretching back more than three decades present a picture of a man who, before he was elected Florida governor in 1998, often benefited from his family connections and repeatedly put himself in situations that raised questions about his judgment and exposed him to reputational risk.

Years after Bush’s visit to Nigeria, MWI was found to have made dozens of false claims to the U.S. government about its dealings in Nigeria, according to a civil jury verdict in a case brought by the Justice Department. MWI has denied the allegations and appealed the verdict. Bush was not a party to the lawsuit.

Five of his business associates have been convicted of crimes; one remains an international fugitive on fraud charges. In each case, Bush said he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing and said some of the people he met as a businessman in Florida took advantage of his naiveté.

Bush, now 62, has said that he has learned to be more careful about vetting his associates, telling the Miami Herald during his first, failed run for Florida governor in 1994 that getting “burned a couple of times” made him “better at deciphering people’s motives.”

He has been involved in myriad business ventures dating back to the early 1980s, taking time out to run for governor three times, winning the first of two terms in 1998. He has brokered real estate deals in Florida, arranged bank loans in Venezuela, marketed industrial pumps in Thailand, wholesaled shoes in Panama, promoted a building-materials company to Mexican interests and advised transnational financial services firms. He sat on more than a half dozen corporate boards. Since leaving office in 2007, Bush’s income has soared from speeches, service on corporate boards, consulting and managing investments for others.

“Jeb Bush had a successful career in commercial real estate and business before serving as Florida’s governor,” said Kristy Campbell, a Bush spokeswoman. “He has always operated with the highest level of integrity throughout his business career.”

Before he became governor in 1999, he was comfortable but not rich. He did not earn the kind of fortunes that his dad and brother George did as young men. In his late 20s, George H.W. Bush started a successful oil company in Texas. In his 40s, George W. Bush made an investment in the Texas Rangers baseball team that eventually earned him nearly $15 million.

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