The man accused of stripping millions of dollars from health insurance funds for retirees of the Bunker Hill Mine and Smelter in the early 1990s has resurfaced as the treasurer of Britain’s Conservative Party.
David John Rowland and another executive allegedly transferred nearly $200 million worth of Bunker Hill assets overseas when Rowland was chief executive officer of Gulf Resources and Chemical Co. Instead of paying for pensioners’ health insurance and environmental cleanup in Idaho’s Silver Valley, the money went into New Zealand real estate, a British retail chain, a Scottish castle and sunken treasure in the Arabian Sea, according to a later lawsuit.
Gulf sued Rowland and other officers for reckless investing and fraud. The company was forced into bankruptcy in 1993, leaving taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in Superfund cleanup costs.
For years afterwards, Rowland stayed out of the public spotlight. But now he’s emerged as a prominent figure in British politics.
Rowland recently moved back to his birthplace of England so he could help bankroll Tory politics, according to London newspapers. He was named the Conservative Party treasurer after helping finance the May election that resulted in David Cameron’s rise to prime minister.
Rowland, a 65-year-old real estate magnate, ranks among Great Britain’s wealthiest men. British tabloids say he and his son, Jonathan, have a net worth of 730 million British pounds, or about $1.1 billion.
The Daily Mail recently featured Rowland’s role in Gulf’s collapse in a profile about his political ascent. The article called Rowland a “tax exile,” noting that he’s spent most of his adult life in Guernsey, a tax haven in the Channel Islands between England and France.
“It’s interesting that his name pops up in British politics - the man who was once incredibly reviled here in the region,” said John Osborn, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia Group. “Assets that should have gone to remedy some of the horrendous public health and environmental problems ended up in the pockets of people such as David Rowland.”
In the 1970s, the Bunker Hill Smelter spewed tons of lead over Kellogg and neighboring communities, resulting in some of the nation’s highest blood lead levels in children. The company’s environmental liabilities were well documented by the time Rowland, a British financier, acquired controlling interest in Gulf Resources in 1989. The Bunker Hill complex was closed, but Gulf still had $170 million in the bank.
“Gulf Resources was a cash-rich company,” said Ted Yackulic, an attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “If you think back to 1989, that was a significant amount of liquid assets.”
Rowland played the role of international takeover artist. The son of a scrap metal merchant, Rowland is a “rags to riches story,” according to the British press. He became a millionaire in his early 20s, building a fortune in real estate and developing a reputation as a speculator.
After he took control of Gulf Resources, Rowland tried to move the company to Bermuda. The federal government blocked the move, requiring Gulf to keep a certain amount of its assets in the United States, Yackulic said.
Instead, the company made a series of risky overseas investments. Gulf bought into money-losing retail and real estate ventures owned by Rowland and his children, according to a lawsuit Gulf eventually filed against Rowland and other directors. Rowland also billed the company for his lavish lifestyle, including a yacht in Monaco, according to the suit, which accused him of “looting and exploiting” the company.
Five years after Rowland acquired Gulf Resources, the company was broke. Money pledged for cleaning up the smelter complex was gone.
The federal government filed a $1 billion claim against Gulf Resources, eventually recovering about $18 million through the bankruptcy settlement.
Bunker Hill pensioners - who were promised lifetime medical coverage - took steep cuts in their coverage.
Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus and others blamed the federal government for allowing Gulf to transfer assets out of the country.
Gulf’s story influenced how the government deals with polluters, said Yackulic. Last year, Asarco paid $1.8 billion to settle the federal government’s mining pollution claims in 19 states as part of a bankruptcy settlement. Nearly $600 million will be spent in the Coeur d’Alene basin.
“It’s made us a little more diligent in the way that we look at companies that have environmental responsibilities to us,” Yackulic said. “We make sure that they’re financially capable of honoring the commitment.”
Information from The Spokesman-Review archives was included in this report.