Grand Plan Haunts Pat Robertson

New York Times/February 3, 2002
By Greg Winter

His former lawyers are suing him over unpaid bills. The State of California is chasing close behind for broken contracts and tanks of illegally stored hazardous waste. Even some of his closest confidants feel snubbed by him, and now mention Pat Robertson's name only with a humph.

Over the years, Mr. Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, has orchestrated some wildly successful business deals. Starting an oil refinery for charitable ends has not turned out to be one of them.

After spending more than three years and $75 million from his personal trust to buy and restore a hulking old refinery outside Los Angeles, Mr. Robertson is calling it quits. A week ago, Cenco, the company he started in 1998 to break into the energy business and still owns, said the refinery would come down, its rusting pipes disassembled and sold, its 100-acre plot transformed into offices and stores - probably all for a loss.

"Mr. Robertson has made his bed and now he can sleep in it," said J. Nelson Happy, the former law school dean of Mr. Robertson's religious institution, Regent University, who first put forward the refinery idea.

Eager to turn California's devotion to gasoline into income for his work, Mr. Robertson chose Mr. Happy to run the refinery, only to replace him last November after a federal district court in Los Angeles issued what turned into a disabling decision.

Citing the possibility of "irreparable harm" to the environment, Judge A. Howard Matz halted all work at the refinery for violations of the Clean Air Act. Stripped of its permits and besieged by an environmental controversy, Cenco could not find a bank willing to lend it the $100 million or so it still needed to finish overhauling the refinery.

"Mr. Robertson really wanted to do this, but there comes a time when you say, `How much longer can you keep up this battle?' " said Lowell W. Morse, the former chairman of Regent University, whom Mr. Robertson picked to take Mr. Happy's place as Cenco's chief executive. "The battle was just too big."

Mr. Robertson has declined to comment on the situation for more than a week. His aides say he has been busy with a telethon.

One of the most unusual aspects of the refinery's demise is that the least powerful of Mr. Robertson's foes delivered the coup de grâce. For years, Cenco had successfully negotiated with politicians and regulators, and a skeptical Environmental Protection Agency. All ultimately allowed the old refinery, infamous in its day for having the worst environmental record in the region, to reopen with modern pollution controls.

Yet a small group of local environmentalists persuaded a judge to halt the refinery's operations, wielding uncommon influence in the courts and thwarting even the Bush administration's plans.

"A lot of people counted us out," said Scott Kuhn, a lawyer for Communities for a Better Environment, the group that won the injunction against Cenco. "You figure, if you become enough of a thorn in their side, maybe they'll just give up."

Though it meant abandoning an endeavor his advisers once expected to bring in $75 million a year, Mr. Robertson consented to a backup plan: a piecemeal sale of the refinery, followed by its eventual rebirth as a business park.

Neither Cenco nor the City of Santa Fe Springs, the site of the refinery, knows exactly how much of his $75 million investment Mr. Robertson will be able to recoup. The land, along with its labyrinth of pumps and pipes, was bought by Mr. Robertson's charitable trust in 1998 for about $15 million.

"It's unlikely that the site will ever generate $75 million," said Fred Latham, city manager for Santa Fe Springs.

Scrapping the refinery has not put an end to the miasma of lawsuits that have sprung up in its wake.

The contractors who drew up plans to update the refinery are suing for about $2 million in unpaid services. Cenco's former lawyers have brought a similar case for overdue legal fees. The state is suing the company to make it rid the site of hazardous waste, and has a case against Cenco accusing it of refusing to honor severance contracts with dozens of workers.

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