Richard Mellon Scaife, billionaire who once owned Sacramento Union, dies

07/04/2014 2:55 PM

07/05/2014 10:25 AM

Richard Mellon Scaife, the conservative billionaire activist who once owned the former Sacramento Union newspaper and championed it as a voice for conservative viewpoints, died Friday. He was 82.

Scaife’s death at his home in Pittsburgh was announced by a newspaper he owned for decades, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Scaife, an heir to the Mellon banking and oil fortune, announced in a first-person, front-page story in the Tribune-Review two months ago that he had an untreatable form of cancer.

“Some who dislike me may rejoice at the news,” he wrote. “Naturally, I can’t share their enthusiasm.”

Scaife owned the now-defunct Union from 1977 to 1989 but was rarely seen in Sacramento. Although he’d been a supporter of conservative causes since the 1960s, he became a national figure in the conservative movement in the 1990s, after then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said her husband was being attacked by a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

White House aides and other Clinton supporters said Scaife was a ringleader in the effort to discredit President Bill Clinton.

Among other things, foundations controlled by Scaife contributed $1.7 million to the conservative American Spectator magazine to ferret out information about the Clinton family’s role in the Whitewater real estate scandal. He was also a supporter of influential conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation.

In an interview with George magazine in 1998, he called Bill Clinton “an embarrassment” and suggested that the Clintons might be linked to the deaths of two administration figures, White House Deputy Counsel Vince Foster and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Foster’s death was ruled a suicide, while Brown died in a plane crash.

In the mid-1980s, while he was owner of the Union, Scaife reportedly contributed $2 million to pay the legal fees of retired Gen. William Westmoreland, who was suing CBS for libel over a report about Westmoreland’s leadership in the Vietnam War.

Scaife was known to be combative. A onetime Union editor, the late James Whelan, was quoted by The Washington Post as having described Scaife this way: “If you’re not my friend, you’re my enemy. He lives by that kind of code.”

Former employees in Sacramento said Scaife invested in the Union to give himself a conservative foothold in the state capital. The Union’s editorial pages closely adhered to Scaife’s conservative leanings.

Nevertheless, former Union employees said Scaife and the conservative editors he hired to run the paper, such as Whelan, didn’t put a conservative stamp on the news side of the operation.

“The paper was pretty straight in terms of news,” said former Union political reporter Dan Walters, now a columnist at The Sacramento Bee.

Added Kris Banvard, a former Union reporter and copy editor: “I never felt, nor did anybody ever tell me, there was pressure to slant the news.”

Former employees said Scaife turned up in Sacramento about once a year, to visit with editors and attend the daily news meeting.

Generally publicity-shy, he held a news conference at the Sutter Club in downtown Sacramento in 1984 to announce the hiring of a new Union chief executive officer, Alan Ewen.

“We are sending a clear message to the Sacramento region,” Scaife told reporters that day. “The Union is here to stay.”

Scaife entered the Sacramento scene in 1977, when he paid a reported $13 million to buy a 50 percent stake in the Union from owner John McGoff.

While the paper had a circulation of about 100,000, financial difficulties emerged. There were layoffs and pay freezes. In 1978, The Bee switched from evening to morning publication, intensifying the competition between the two papers. The Bee gradually won out.

It didn’t help that Scaife and McGoff had an almost immediate falling-out over terms of the 1977 deal, according to Walters.

“The two became blood enemies and wouldn’t speak to each other,” Walters said. “It kind of paralyzed the paper.” Scaife bought out McGoff five years later for an undisclosed price.

In the mid-1980s, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office fined the paper $40,000 for misstating its circulation numbers to advertisers. The DA also announced that the paper would pay advertisers $2 million in restitution.

Even as the Union struggled, Scaife “stood by the paper,” Banvard said. “We appreciated the investment he made in the paper.”

Jerry Eagan, a former Union employee who recently retired as The Bee’s business editor, agreed.

“His ownership extended the life of the Sacramento Union,” Eagan said. “It was a time when many second newspapers were dying. If he hadn’t owned us, we wouldn’t exist.”

Relations with employees turned sour in 1986. When contract talks with the Newspaper Guild stalled, the paper unilaterally imposed a 15 percent pay cut. It also fired four employees who had written a letter to the Union’s advertisers, seeking to rally them to the workers’ cause during contract negotiations.

“Scaife evidently decided he wanted to knock the Guild down,” said Banvard, who was active in the Guild.

The four fired workers were ordered reinstated by the National Labor Relations Board. In 1989, amid litigation over the pay cuts, the Union agreed to give more than 200 employees a combined $2 million settlement in back pay and benefits.

The settlement came as Scaife was negotiating to sell the paper to Sacramento developers Danny Benvenuti and David Kassis.

“Scaife lost interest, was tired of losing money,” Walters said.

In 1994, its circulation having dwindled to around 30,000, the paper folded. It was revived as a weekly in 2006 but folded again three years later.

As news spread of Scaife’s death, he was hailed by politicos on both sides of the spectrum.

“A patriot and philanthropist, Dick Scaife will be remembered for a long life, well lived,” said former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Scaife was liberterian on many issues, supporting same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana. Late in life, Scaife’s antipathy toward the Clintons softened. The Pittsburgh paper endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, and Scaife donated $100,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative.

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