Dan Morain

Sorry about the broken cake, Mr. Blum

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, center, smiles as she stands on stage with husband Richard Blum and granddaughter Eileen Mariano before speaking at an Election Night rally in San Francisco, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, center, smiles as she stands on stage with husband Richard Blum and granddaughter Eileen Mariano before speaking at an Election Night rally in San Francisco, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. Associated Press file

As I remember it, Dick Blum had the look of a man about to undergo a root canal, or maybe some other more intrusive procedure.

As we exchanged stilted unpleasantries in his San Francisco financial district office 26 years ago, I noticed a sculpture displayed prominently on a table. It was a brightly colored ceramic cake, presented to him in commemoration of the biggest deal of his career to that point, the purchase of Northwest Airlines.

Atop the objet d’art was a model Northwest jet, on the ascent. Oaf that I am, I brushed against it and broke it. Our relationship descended. If they’re doing their jobs, newspaper reporters don’t make many friends. So it was then with Blum, the investment banker husband of Dianne Feinstein.

In 1990 when Feinstein ran for governor, and in 1992 when she won the U.S. Senate seat she holds, it fell to me to pick through her campaign finance reports, her conflict of interests reports and, notably, her tax returns. And that meant rummaging through Blum’s affairs.

I bring all this up because I spent a part of last weekend reading Blum’s new memoir, “An Accident of Geography,” and learned far more about him than I knew two decades ago. More to the point, another rich man, one who aspires to be president, is taking a very different approach to transparency.

Unlike FeinBlum, as I had taken to calling them, Donald J. Trump hides the most basic aspects of his business life including his tax returns, claiming, disingenuously, that he cannot release his tax returns because he is being audited. He could release them but chooses not to do so.

His son, Donnie Trump, offered an only marginally less mendacious explanation, telling the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the old man won’t release his tax returns “because he’s got a 12,000-page tax return that would create … financial auditors out of every person in the country asking questions that would detract from (his father’s) main message.”

Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald, who has been investigating Trump’s business, offered a more plausible theory: “Let’s not pretend: Trump is hiding something. Is he a tax cheat? Does he give nothing to charity? Does he derive income from investments in Ukraine and Russia? Who knows?”

And he explained why voters should insist that Trump open his returns: “If there is something untoward about Trump’s businesses and personal finances, Americans need to know now, rather than waiting to discover later if that now-hidden information will set off the rumblings of another impeachment when the curtain is pulled back.”

Trump’s charitable giving, or lack of it, is another reason why voters should insist that he open his tax records. As The Washington Post reported, Trump used $20,000 in other people’s money to buy a 6-foot-tall painting of himself at a charity auction at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., hardly using his wealth to heal the sick. And yet Trump attacks the Clintons’ charity, which discloses its donors and spends money to help educate and care for people in developing nations.

In the 1990s, Blum’s wide holdings included the airline. His partners and investor-friends included a billionaire owner of a savings and loan, and a Republican heavyweight who managed George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaigns. It all posed a potential conflict for a U.S. senator. FeinBlum chose to confront the issue by opening their books.

Knowing my limitations, I used company money to hire an accountant, Robert K. Mah, to accompany me when Blum opened his and Feinstein’s tax returns. Blum hesitated and relented, and we picked over his returns, gleaning sufficient detail to write about the couple’s income, the amount they paid in taxes, and how much they donated to charity, which was a lot.

From Blum’s memoir, I know now that his main charity was and remains the American Himalayan Foundation, through which he pays for clinics, schools and environmental restoration in Nepal. His money assists girls who are used as sex slaves; Tibetans, who are oppressed; and Sherpas, who have guided him and his friends, including President Jimmy Carter, as they scaled the world’s tallest mountains.

Now 81, the long-distance jogger and mountain climber recently was diagnosed with lung cancer, though Blum, a UC regent, was well enough to attend the regents’ meeting this week, and travel to New York, where I caught up with him by phone.

“I’m not one of the guys running around saying, ‘Look how much I give.’ That’s not what people do unless you’re Donald Trump,” Blum said, though when I pressed, he did some math and figured he probably has given the Himalayan Foundation $40 million to $50 million, and much more to other charities, including UC.

Blum has never done a deal with Trump. But acquaintances who have tell him, “You only did business with this guy once.” That’s damning commentary from a man who prides himself for being a tough but fair businessman who has longtime partners and investors.

Blum remembered letting me read through his joint tax returns. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was a way to remove some of the mystery about his business and himself, and make the point that his business and Feinstein’s public career would not intersect.

He did not, however, remember the cake that I broke. Which is probably for the best.

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