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The Burton Money Machine 

John Burton's 1040s reveal that politics doesn't pay

Wednesday, Mar 20 1996
In the noisy campaign for the San Francisco/Marin seat in the California Senate, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and political opponent Angela Alioto have painted John Burton has a veritable robber baron.

Or as Guardian writer Ron Curran put it in his Feb. 14 article, "Political Fortune," "Assemblymember John Burton personifies the potential conflicts among a politician's public service career, private business dealings, personal friendships, financial portfolio, and campaign contributions."

Key on the word "potential." Nowhere in the ensuing 1,000-plus-word piece does he produce any evidence that Burton has blurred the line between his legislative duties and his private investments, despite the following unsubstantiated charge from Alioto: "John Burton has abused his constituents' confidence in him to make a fortune," she told the Guardian. "Not only has he hustled a huge amount of campaign contributions, he's used his position in Sacramento to buy stock and make other business deals to personally benefit financially."

It's entirely possible that Burton is dirty. He's a machine pol, isn't he? But nobody -- not Alioto, not the Guardian, not the Republican Party -- has unearthed anything on the grand-pre terrible of liberal San Francisco.

A review of Burton's tax records (1990-1994) and statements of economic interest, made available by the candidate to SF Weekly, failed to uncover anything more damning than this: John Burton is a millionaire, perhaps a multimillionaire. And sometimes he makes money in his investments and sometimes he loses money.

Burton's best year came in 1994, when most everyone was taking a beating on the stock market. On that year's tax return, he posted a whopping $125,000 profit from securities investments. The profit came through a limited partnership that invests in securities called MDNH Partners, in which Burton made an initial investment in 1992. Still, this considerable profit was offset by an $80,000 loss from the same partnership in the same year, indicating that both bulls and bears run through his investment portfolio.

The graying lion of Democratic politics volunteered his returns, plopping hundreds of pages down on the table at a cheesy SOMA coffee shop in hopes of muting the overheated rhetoric of Alioto and the couched accusations of the Guardian.

"Here they are," Burton said. "Do whatever you want with them."
Burton's holdings include investments in securities, biotech, oil and gas and geothermal properties, computers, software, telecommunications, health-care companies, real estate, and bonds, both private and public.

His wealth is located in several places: his law corporation, the firm's pension fund, his private investment portfolio, his property holdings -- a house, a joint tenancy and a deed of trust in San Francisco, and a condominium in Sacramento -- and a modest Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

Using a conservative model, his 1994 tax return shows that Burton is worth $1.6 million. But he could be worth millions more -- this estimate is incomplete for several reasons. It is based in part on Burton's statements of economic interest, which all officeholders must file with the city and the state. But officials are only required to make the vaguest estimates of the worth of their holdings on the statements. For instance, they are only required to list ranges -- $1,000 to $10,000; $10,000 to $100,000; and more than $100,000 -- when calculating the value of their investments and holdings.

Also, his tax returns only show investments that are producing dividends or interest, and his statements of economic interest list many more investments that don't show up on his returns. Which most likely means: The stocks and bonds that aren't producing annual income for Burton are most likely plowing back profits into growth, the way that, say, Microsoft Inc. does.

Burton's losses are more visible on his tax returns. Between 1990 and 1994 he lost $282,000 on two types of holdings: the 712 Vermont St. home where his mother and several tenants live, and the 10 to 20 limited partnerships in which he maintains minor interests.

Additionally, Burton took a drubbing in his 1,000-share investment in a Las Vegas Tennis Club, which he paid $25,000 for in 1989 and sold in 1994 for a measly $5,000.

But don't feel bad for the cussy old coot: His checking account always balances far into the black thanks to his lucrative law corporation and his political salary from the state of California.

In 1994 -- Burton has not filed for 1995 yet -- he reported $65,000 in income from his law practice -- John L. Burton Law Corp. -- and $46,520 from his Assembly salary. After calculating losses and profits, Burton's total income was $106,000 in 1994.

Much of Burton's wealth is tied up in a pension fund he runs through his law corporation. Again, it's hard to estimate its total worth because Burton's statements of economic interest only provide vague estimates of the fund's investments. But a conservative estimate puts his pension fund share at $300,000. That estimate could be off by several hundred thousand, and his stake could be more than $1 million.

Likewise, the value of Burton's IRA is hard to determine. Using a similarly conservative model, Burton's IRA could be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000.

The biggest chunk of Burton's wealth, however, remains his investment partnerships, bonds, common stock, and personal loans he has made to individuals: $700,000 is locked up there.

He has 23 separate investments in all. And his tax returns indicate that he is a good liberal, sharing the wealth with at least five loans to associates over the years, on which (like a good conservative) he collects interest and holds deeds of trust as collateral.

Burton's stock dividends have steadily increased over the years. Starting at a paltry $180 in 1990, Burton reported $4,700 in dividends four years later. (The rise in dividends is partially due to his expanding investment portfolio. In 1990, he had only 14 separate personal investments.)

Assuming that his dividends average 3 percent, the normal rate of return on the New York Stock Exchange, his reported stock holdings in 1994 -- those that were producing dividends -- were worth $157,000.

Burton's interest income has decreased over the same period, from more than $40,000 in 1990 to slightly more than $26,000 in 1994. Assuming that he earns 6 percent in interest, Burton's holdings here are worth $536,000.

But the most notable expansion in Burton's pocketbook over the years has come from MDNH Partners, which is worthy of further scrutiny. Burton declined a second interview to explain the details of his portfolio.

In 1992, the first year MDNH Partners appears on Burton's tax returns or his statements of economic interest, he made a $185,000 profit. In 1993, he made a total profit of $112,000 off this single investment, a limited partnership in which he holds less than a 10 percent interest, according to his statements of economic interest.

What's noteworthy about Burton's MDNH profits is that many were made over the short term, in less than one year. From 1992 to 1994, MDNH produced $171,000 in short-term gains. Remember the big stink that followed disclosures that Hillary Clinton had made $100,000 in the commodities market in less than a year?

Regardless, Burton can thank MDNH for the steady increase in his capital gains column. In 1990 and 1991, before he invested in MDNH Partners, he was posting capital losses of between $1,900 and $3,000 per year.

After he acquired an interest in the limited partnership, he broke into the black, reporting a gain of $44,000 in 1992. In the following two years, MDNH bumped him further into the profit margin, and in 1994 he made a gain of close to six figures, according to his tax return.

If money made the Burton world go 'round, he should never have returned to politics in 1987. That year, he reported $500,000 in income. He hasn't come close to those numbers since.

About The Author

George Cothran


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