Fred Who?

The number one political contributor is a secretive billionaire from Cleveland, Ohio, who built a small pipe-fitting company into a billion-dollar enterprise. A conservative Republican, he “encourages” his distributors across the country to give to his favorite political candidates. His name is Fred Lennon.

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Fred Lennon: 90, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Donated $524,450 since 1993. Party: R. He gave the Republican Party $370,000 in soft money, and $119,000 in direct party donations. He also contributed $22,450 to 25 candidates, including Bob Dole and Phil Gramm.

View Lennon’s itemized contributions according to the MoJo 400 searchable database.

The pantheon of American billionaires is filled with legendary names–John D. Rockefeller and J. Paul Getty, Armand Hammer and Howard Hughes, Bill Gates and Fred Lennon. Fred who? If you haven’t heard his name–and most of the country hasn’t–that’s fine with Fred Lennon. At 90, he is the nation’s most secretive billionaire.

Lennon’s success is rooted in a humble Cleveland pipe-fitting business, Crawford Fitting, that he and a former partner founded nearly half a century ago. Today that company, and countless related businesses, comprise a worldwide empire with 140 exclusive distributorships and representatives in 39 foreign countries.

Lennon’s motto is: “Secrecy is success, success is secrecy.” He refuses to grant interviews or return reporters’ calls. A devout Catholic, Lennon avoids attention by skipping public Sunday Masses to attend a private Saturday Mass in the chapel of a nearby prep school. So rare are his public appearances that in the early ’90s, Forbes magazine, in its annual list of America’s 400 wealthiest individuals, had to settle for a 1957 photo of Lennon.

Lennon’s low profile is even more extraordinary given the level of his involvement in politics. In recent years, he has bestowed more money on the Republican Party and its far-right candidates than any other individual in the nation. In fact, he towers above every other contributor, Republican or Democrat.

A computer analysis of Federal Election Commission records, undertaken by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics on behalf of Mother Jones, shows that over the past two and a half years Lennon gave a staggering $524,450 to the Republican Party and those GOP candidates who share his conser-vative creed. In the past, he is said to have raised large sums for Ronald Reagan, as well as thousands for Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms, and is now putting his formidable largesse behind his presidential candidate of choice, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. In a single afternoon last August, a Lennon-sponsored fundraiser netted Gramm a hefty $200,000.

But even these numbers are not a true measure of Lennon’s clout. In addition to giving generously himself, Lennon politely pressures his many distributors to contribute to the candidates he champions. Federal campaign records reveal an unmistakable pattern. In near-perfect lockstep, dozens of Lennon’s distributors and their spouses give as Lennon bids. Through them he accomplishes what he cannot do alone: give far more than the $1,000 federal limit on direct contributions to individual candidates.

In one 14-week period just prior to the 1994 congressional elections, for example, Lennon choreographed an elaborate fundraising operation, directing distributors and their spouses to contribute more than $234,000. Coming from distributors scattered across dozens of states, all of this money went to just four Republicans, each hand-picked by Lennon. Three of these four candidates were running to represent Ohio–Lennon’s corporate headquarters and factory base.

An understanding of just who Fred Lennon is and why he gives provides a rare glimpse into the stratosphere of campaign finances and, ultimately, helps explain why many Americans today believe “representative government” is an oxymoron.

Fred Lennon founded Crawford Fitting in 1947 with then-partner Cullen Crawford. Crawford, an engineer, had developed a revolutionary pipe fitting called the “Swagelok” but lacked sales expertise and financial backing. Lennon offered both, and the two became equal partners in the enterprise. Less than a year later, Lennon bought Crawford out for a pittance and assumed full control of the company, which he has built into a billion-dollar concern.

For decades Lennon has imposed a strict companywide dress code on distributors. That means white shirts, conservative ties, and cordovan wing-tip shoes, buffed to a high polish. No facial hair of any kind is tolerated. Lennon’s factories are spotlessly clean, with workers dreading his inspections. “He’s probably more fanatic about cleanliness than Howard Hughes,” says one former employee.

Above all else, Fred Lennon is a man accustomed to getting his own way. “Fred is very much about control,” says Larry Dietz, a former Lennon distributor. “He surrounded himself with yes-people.” Some within the company refer to him as “the Great White Father.”

Lennon once offered rich bonuses to workers in his factory who maintained perfect attendance records, but they forfeited those bonuses if they missed days–even on account of family death, divorce, or medical emergency. “Fred is a benevolent dictator, with more emphasis on dictator than benevolent,” Dietz says.

Lennon’s distributors, although nominally independent, are strictly controlled from above. According to former distributors, those who deviate from Lennon’s list of suggested retail prices for his pipe fittings or who break his explicit rule against selling products made by other manufacturers are putting their distributorships at risk.

“He presents an image of a very benevolent old gentleman who sits very near the presidency or near God and has everybody’s best interest at heart,” says Steve Pendleton, a former distributor now working for a Lennon competitor. “But he is extremely shrewd and ruthless and has pushed aside a great many people to get where he is.” Pendleton likens Lennon’s distributors to “puppets on a string.”

Strict guidelines on how to do business are not all that Lennon passes down to his distributors. He also drafts them into his right-wing political crusades. Distributors who want to stay in Lennon’s good graces are expected to make the proper political contributions. “You got a phone call from him and you would donate whatever he deemed the figure was, and it was not only how much but who to,” Dietz says. “Politically, it wasn’t very smart to turn Fred down.”

Another former distributor, James S. Kone, remembers Lennon’s calls for contributions. An ardent Democrat, Kone found himself in an awkward position. “I found out how much it was customary to give and that’s what I gave, even though it was to the Republican Party,” he admits. “That was just good business. It didn’t reflect my true thinking.”

Sometimes Lennon puts his requests in writing. A May 14, 1982 letter Lennon sent to Maryland distributor Ray McGarvey reads: “Dear Ray, I need your help. As you know, John Ashbrook recently passed away and I had counted on him to defeat Liberal Senator Metzenbaum…. Senator Helms has asked me to help Bill [Ress] beat Metzenbaum. I will be so grateful if you see your way clear to send me a check for $1,000 made out to Bill Ress for U.S. Senate.”

“I didn’t know who the hell Ress was,” says McGarvey, who sent Lennon a check nonetheless. (Solicited contributions customarily go directly to Lennon, who forwards them to the candidates. It’s his way of making sure his distributors honor their pledges.)

Federal election laws limit individual contributions to $1,000 per candidate in the general election, and a maximum total of $25,000 to all candidates. But Lennon’s use of his distributors renders those limits meaningless. A detailed analysis of 74 distributors in Lennon’s nationwide network reveals that of them at least 52–more than two-thirds–made political contributions in a 14-week period just prior to the 1994 congressional election. Between them, they generated 154 checks, totaling $146,000, made out to just four Republican candidates: Sen. Michael DeWine, Rep. Steven LaTourette, and failed House candidate Gregory White (all three from Ohio), as well as Michigan’s Ronna Romney, who lost a Senate bid in the primaries.

Nor is it only the distributors who heed Lennon’s solicitations. At least 34 distributors’ spouses (all of them listing their occupation as “homemaker” or “housewife”) wrote out checks totaling at least $88,000 to the four candidates selected by Lennon. Reached by phone, Rebecca Boner of Birmingham, Alabama, said she had never heard of DeWine, LaTourette, or White. When told that federal records indicate that little more than a year ago she wrote $1,000 checks to each of their campaigns, her memory was refreshed. “This is something I did for my husband,” she admitted. She said her husband, Steve Boner, had also contributed–at Fred Lennon’s request.

Mrs. Robert Fouke of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, gave a combined $2,500 to the campaigns of DeWine, LaTourette, and White. Contacted at home, Fouke also did not recognize the names. “Oh, yeah, OK, OK,” she stammered when told they were political candidates from Ohio. “We know that Mr. Lennon was sponsoring–er, not sponsoring, but backing–some of these candidates. It was not a mandatory thing,” she said. “You need to talk to my husband.”

Says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, “We see this pattern all the time, where you have 20 executives of a firm giving money.” She adds that such giving “violates every intent of the laws designed to limit who can contribute and how much,” but it is probably not technically illegal, provided no explicit coercion was involved.

Even those distributors who admire Lennon acknowledge that he is difficult to refuse. Mel Martin, a distributor who retired in 1994, says, “Fred Lennon is tough, very tough. I mean that in a positive way. He has steel blue eyes and, believe me, you can feel them coming out of the back of your head sometimes.”

Martin still remembers the day more than three decades ago when he had the unenviable task of informing Lennon that his son, John, who then worked for Martin, had quit Lennon’s company. He dreaded breaking the news. “Here was a father who had hoped his son would inherit the business,” says Martin. “You know what he said to me? ‘How are your interviews going?’ In other words: What are you doing to replace him?” He was, says Martin, not cold, but “stoic.”

Although John Lennon later became a distributor of his father’s products, the friction between them remains. In 1994, John Lennon did the unthinkable: He contributed $1,000 to failed Senate candidate Mary Boyle, an Ohio Democrat.

Why does Fred Lennon make such astronomical contributions? Few know and those who do aren’t talking. “He doesn’t share his motivations with me,” says son John. “I don’t know what motivates him.”

Lennon’s contributions do not appear to be part of an effort to win federal contracts. Although over the years Lennon’s distributors have benefited from a multitude of government contracts with such entities as the Joliet Arsenal, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the labs of Lawrence Livermore and Sandia, the U.S. Navy, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, most of his revenue comes from private industry, not government.

Only once has Lennon publicly expressed himself on why he gives. In a 1992 letter to the editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, responding to an article that suggested his $11,000 contribution to a candidate for Ohio’s Supreme Court was motivated by self-interest, Lennon wrote: “I and many others who contribute to campaigns do so because we believe in the candidates and their philosophy, not because we are seeking any special treatment. I believe in him and the judicial philosophy he represents…. I would never try to influence him on a pending case.”

Still, it doesn’t hurt Lennon’s bottom line if his contributions help stack the Ohio Supreme Court with Republican justices inclined to reduce corporate liability and damage awards in lawsuits. Chief Justice Tom Moyer estimates that Lennon contributed between $25,000 and $30,000 over the course of his two campaigns, making Lennon one of Moyer’s largest–if not the largest–contributor. Lennon is also a major donor to Ohio’s Republican governor, George Voinovich.

Lennon is a true believer in the conservative movement. Devoutly anti-union, he is also committed to beefing up the military’s budget, slashing business regulation, and reducing government. He is eager to cut estate taxes and prides himself on paying as little income tax as possible–one former distributor says Lennon named one of his companies OBIT, an acronym for Ohio Beat Income Taxes.

But however strongly felt, Lennon’s politics are also what are best for his business. Those he has helped elect are at work on an agenda that would do any billionaire proud, and those he has helped defeat over the years could have cost him plenty in higher taxes and additional regulatory compliance. A case in point: Rep. Steven LaTourette, whose Ohio district includes both Lennon’s home and his corporate headquarters. LaTourette estimates that, in the last election cycle, Lennon (who served as his finance committee co-chair) raised between $70,000 and $80,000. Since then, LaTourette has co-sponsored legislation that would amend the Internal Revenue Code to exclude much of the value of family-owned businesses from estate taxes. Another LaTourette-sponsored measure would shift the burden of proof in all tax matters to the Treasury Department, making it more difficult for the government to prevail in audits and other tax challenges.

Nowhere is Lennon’s personal interest in LaTourette’s legislative agenda more clearly spelled out than in his July 31, 1995 letter to LaTourette: “Before you break for the August recess, I believe you will be voting on the Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations Bill. This is a very important vote. I hope you will vote to pass it just as the Appropriations Committee sends it to the floor…. My information indicates that the bill cuts more than eight billion dollars out of these three agencies. It cuts 176 federal programs…. And along with many other reforms, [it] would defund the Clinton Executive Order on striker replacements. The measure would also scale back the [National Labor Relations Board]. This agency has grown to be perhaps the biggest enemy of American business. I hope you vote to pass this bill in its current form.”

LaTourette voted for the appropriations bill, which passed last August by a vote of 219 to 208.

Lennon’s correspondence with Ronald Reagan further confirms his status as a political player. (Lennon’s fundraising efforts on Reagan’s behalf did not go unappreciated–he was invited to the White House on January 21, 1981, the day after Reagan’s inauguration.)

Archived at the Ronald Reagan Library, their correspondence suggests that Reagan may have opened doors overseas for Lennon or paved the way for a quasiofficial trip. In a September 1981 thank-you note, Lennon wrote Reagan, “Alice [Lennon’s late wife] and I have returned from our trip to China and I want you to know how much we appreciate the opportunity to make this trip.”

In another letter, dated May 26, 1987, Lennon thanked Reagan for an extraordinary video the president made to honor Lennon, a chairman emeritus and primary financial contributor to the Ashbrook Center (located at Ohio’s Ashland University). A conservative public affairs center named after the late Republican Congressman John Ashbrook, the center has honored conservative leaders such as Pat Buchanan, Ed Meese, and Jesse Helms. In 1987, it was Lennon’s turn.

In his May 26 letter, Lennon wrote Reagan, “At the annual dinner of the Ashbrook Center I was sitting next to Howard Baker enjoying a very interesting conversation, when I heard Cliff White announce that the Fifth Anniversary dinner was dedicated to me…. [T]he lights were lowered and you appeared on a television screen that had to be the largest screen I have ever seen. I was still in the dark as to what was going on until I heard your nice talk.”

Lennon concluded, “It is difficult to tell you how grateful I am to you for this kind expression, and I only wish that I could do more to help stave off the vicious attack that goes on against you. If you know of anything I can do to help, I hope you will let me know. Warmest Wishes, Fred.” (The “vicious attack” was apparently the Iran-Contra scandal, then unfolding.)

Other Lennon letters in the Reagan Library, not yet processed for public release, deal with the economy and political contributions. There are also notes with anniversary wishes and a get-well card from Reagan to Lennon.

As well-known as Lennon may be within far-right political circles, however, the secretive billionaire remains a political mystery man even within his own state. For example, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who retired voluntarily in 1994, has never met Lennon even though Lennon specifically targeted him for defeat by generously supporting his opponents. “I knew him by reputation only,” says Metzenbaum of his fellow Clevelander. “I don’t think I’d recognize him if he walked in the door.”

Similarly, Eric Fingerhut, the first-term Democratic representative beaten by the Lennon-sponsored LaTourette in 1994, doesn’t know what Lennon looks like. “I’ve just seen his name on lots of lists,” says Fingerhut. Ironically, during his short tenure in the House, Fingerhut was the leading proponent of campaign reforms that would have limited the influence of large donors. “I thought the system was outrageous,” he says, adding, “There’s no question the amount of money my opponent [LaTourette] raised was indicative of the problem.”

Even at 90, Lennon, who is ill, shows no signs of reducing his political generosity–or his quest for privacy. His son-in-law, Ed Lozick, who works closely with Lennon on fundraising, told Mother Jones, “We don’t want our names in neon lights in any of this stuff. Obviously we help some causes and some people. We’re happy to do it and will continue to do so.”

Ted Gup is writer-at-large for Gentleman’s Quarterly. He has also written for the Washington Post, Time, National Georgraphic, and other publications.

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