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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
Retired state appeals court Judge William A. Newsom III likes to take his lunch at the Balboa Cafe, a pleasant Marina District eatery that happens to be owned by his son, Supervisor Gavin Newsom, the leading contender for next mayor of San Francisco. Judge Newsom is friendly, gracious, and self-assured; he seems very much at ease with the considerable political and financial influence he commands despite retiring from the bench eight years ago. As he eats, a federal judge stops by his linen-covered table to say hello, and a portly lawyer politely inquires if they can do some business after lunch. An aging widow of the billionaire Getty clan nods to him as she eases out the front door.

The 69-year-old judge is a familiar face to the Gettys. Loyal, unobtrusive, and smart, Newsom has been a major player in Getty family business for many years. Not only does he help oversee a wide array of Getty family trust investments, he directly manages the personal wealth of Gordon Getty -- one of the world's richest men, with a fortune estimated at more than $2 billion.

"I make my living working for Gordon Getty," Judge Newsom says. "He's not a day-to-day businessman. He's more interested in poetry, music. He's a hell of a guy; he's down here every day for a burger."

Newsom serves as Getty's financial consigliere, screening potential investments and recommending whether to sink millions into real estate, stocks, bonds, or other moneymaking vehicles. A longtime friend of state Senate leader John Burton and a leading figure in local Democratic circles, the judge also has employed his ample political skills to advance the Getty family fortunes. In 1985, for example, he helped persuade the state Legislature to make a legal change that dramatically boosted the annual income of Gordon Getty and other beneficiaries of the main Getty family trust.

But the judge is not the only Newsom who has benefited from his financial entwinement with the Gettys. William Newsom has cut in his son -- who often cites his successes as a "small businessman" as a political credential -- on at least one lucrative Getty-backed deal. In 2001, the judge brought Gavin Newsom into a Hawaii beachfront real estate investment in which his initial $125,000 stake soared to more than $1 million -- an eightfold increase -- in just six months, according to interviews and public records.

Gavin owes his political career to his father as well. The elder Newsom is a longtime crony of John Burton, whom he has known since high school and with whom he regularly plays racquetball. Burton convinced Mayor Willie Brown to appoint Gavin to the Board of Supervisors in 1997. "It was based on Burton's friendship with me," the judge says. "And he liked Gavin. Besides, they needed a straight white male on the board."

Savvy Irish-American operator that he is, the judge continues to answer a reporter's questions suavely and smoothly over lunch. His back goes up only when he discusses the San Francisco Chronicle's recent story detailing Getty loans to his 35-year-old son and Getty investments in Gavin's "PlumpJack" businesses, including five restaurants, a Napa winery, a Squaw Valley hotel, and two retail clothing stores. The newspaper concluded that of the self-described entrepreneur's 11 enterprises, Gordon Getty was the lead investor in 10. The article helped reinforce the view of some that the younger Newsom is a silver spooner who has grown wealthy not as a result of his own business moxie, but because of his connection to the ultrarich Gettys.

"The piece enraged me," the judge complains, a steely look coming into his eyes. "It's a delusion that the Gettys rain money on Gavin."

The judge is at least partly right. To some extent, it's him raining Getty money on his son. (Gavin Newsom did not return multiple calls for comment for this story.)

The bonds between the Newsom and Getty clans go back more than half a century.

William Newsom met Gordon Getty and his brother Paul in the late 1940s while attending St. Ignatius Catholic prep school in San Francisco. The Getty boys were offspring of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty and his third wife, Ann Rork. Known for decades as the richest man alive, Getty père was a notorious miser and womanizer who lived in a succession of cheap European hotels. He pretty much ignored his four sons and five successive wives. Gordon and Paul enjoyed comfortable but hardly rich lifestyles made possible by stipends from the Sarah C. Getty Trust, created by the oilman's mother because she doubted his willingness to provide for her grandchildren. When Sarah passed away, her Midas-fingered son poured billions of oil dollars into the trust, now his, to escape taxation. As his boys matured, their annual trust incomes increased, but their father refused to give them any real control over his fabulous fortune.

When the old man died in 1976, though, control of the $2 billion trust was transferred to Gordon, who used his income to support a life of leisure. He composed classical music, invented elaborate economic theories, and raised four sons with his wife, Ann, the doyenne of Nob Hill society. (In 1999, Gordon revealed that he had also fathered three daughters with a Los Angeles woman named Cynthia Beck.) In the mid-'80s, Gordon decided that Getty Oil's stock was undervalued and forced a sale of the company to Texaco Corp. for $10 billion, doubling the assets of the Getty trust. With a major assist from Judge Newsom, Gordon then broke the trust into four portions. One went to his brother Paul, a reclusive drug addict (now recovered). Another was assigned to the children of his elder brother George (who died of a drug overdose in 1973). The third chunk went to the children of Ronald Getty (a brother who had been disinherited by Daddy Getty in a fit of spite). Gordon kept the fourth piece for himself.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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