The Bush Clan's Donor Problem

A. Glenn Braswell, a Florida-based mail-order magnate who once served seven months in federal prison for perjury and mail fraud, has contributed $220,000 to Republican causes during the past two years--including $25,000 to George W. Bush's gubernatorial re-election campaign in 1998 and another $125,000 in "soft money" donations to the Florida Republican Party, federal and state records show.

During the same period of time, Braswell has gotten some unusual promotional help for his health care business-from Jeb Bush. A recent edition of the Journal of Longevity--a monthly magazine that serves as an advertising vehicle for anti-aging formulas, sex-drive enhancers and other Braswell health products--featured an article that ran under the byline of the Florida governor.

Moving quickly to quell any controversy about the relationship between Braswell and the Bush family, a spokesman for Texas Gov. Bush told NEWSWEEK today that Bush's gubernatorial campaign is returning the $25,000 contribution that Braswell made in 1998. The spokesman, Dan Bartlett, said Bush had a standing policy of refusing campaign contributions from "convicted felons."

In the July, 2000 article in the Journal of Longevity, Jeb Bush touts his commitment, and that of George W. Bush, to new health-care approaches that meet the needs of senior citizens. One of the most important, he writes, is greater emphasis on "alternative" medical treatments, citing the "growing popular demand" for natural "therapies and nutrients"--the same sort of products that Braswell markets in his direct-mail business. The article is accompanied by a color photo of the Florida governor standing side by side with a beaming George W. Bush.

"This is unfortunate--it's endorsement by association," said Dr. Stephen Barrett, the chairman of Quackwatch, a group that monitors health industry claims. Barrett noted that, over the past two decades, Braswell's companies have been repeatedly chastised by federal regulators for their advertising and labeling practices. By agreeing to appear in Braswell's magazine, the Florida governor was implicitly lending his name and prestige to his companies' product lines, Barrett said. "Here you have a prominent and popular governor who is appearing to endorse these products," said Barrett.

But Katie Baur, Jeb Bush's communications secretary, said that the Florida governor hadn't done any special favors for Braswell--and may even have been misled himself by the GOP campaign donor. "This office receives hundreds of requests for articles like that and we attempt to answer all of them," said Baur. "This request was like every other."

Baur said that after the article appeared, Bush's office complained that the Journal of Longevity had altered the version approved by the governor's staff and inserted passages that seemed to more directly promote some of Braswell's health products. "We were very disappointed that they would take liberty with the article we sent them," she said. "There was an implied endorsement of products that in no way shape or form was intended."

But exactly when, and why, Bush's office complained about the alterations is unclear. Asked for a copy of any letter of protest the governor's office sent the Journal of Longevity, Baur instead faxed NEWSWEEK a copy of a brief memo that was written by Ron Tepper, editor of the Journal of Longevity. In the memo, Tepper apologized for an "editing error" that resulted in the magazine publishing a version of the article "that was not the version approved by Governor Bush."

The letter was dated August 23, 2000, the day after a NEWSWEEK reporter showed up in the offices of the Journal of Longevity in Marina Del Ray, Calif. and inquired about Braswell's ties to Jeb Bush and George W. Bush. Tepper said he had not received any complaints from Bush's office prior to that. He also described the changes as small, involving the insertion of one paragraph. Bush's reference to "therapies and nutrients"--the kinds of products offered by Braswell--was contained in the original version of the article supplied to Newsweek by Jeb Bush's office.

The Jeb Bush article ran under the heading "Health Care Reform." But the story of how it came about appears to say as much about Braswell's financial generosity to the GOP as it does about the health care positions of either of the Bushes.

Journal of Longevity editor Tepper told NEWSWEEK that Braswell sought out Jeb Bush to write the article because both he and his brother, George W. Bush, "are sympathetic to alternative medicine"--a position that he says stands in stark contrast to the Al Gore's "silence" on the issue. Several months ago, Tepper said he inquired with a member of Jeb Bush's staff about having the governor write an article for the magazine. When the staff member gave the green light, Tepper said he assigned one of his own staff members at the Journal of Longevity to prepare a draft for the approval of the Bush staff aide. "We wrote that here," Tapper said. "Then it was given to them for their approval."

When asked the name of the Jeb Bush staff member he dealt with on the matter, Tepper identified a woman named Ann Herberger and offered a reporter her phone number. But a quick check established that Herberger doesn't work for Jeb Bush's gubernatorial office at all. Nor does she have any particular responsibilities for health-care issues. She helps Jeb Bush in another capacity--as finance director of the Florida Republican Party.

Herberger did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. Bush communications director Baur disputed Tepper's account of how the article came to be published. Bauer said the article was prepared "inside the communications office" of Gov. Bush. She also said she could not explain why Tepper said his contact had been Herberger, the Florida GOP fundraiser. "Maybe she just forwarded the request," Baur said.

A tall, retiring businessman who shuns the public spotlight, Braswell is considered one of the country's biggest mail-order marketers of "natural" medicines. Operating through a company called Gero Vita International, and several related firms, his products are promoted for their abilities to relieve a wide range of ailments, ranging from arthritic pain to memory loss. Some of his most popular products claim to boost sex drive. "The Key to Great Sex for Men Over 50!" reads an ad for one such product called Andro-Teston. "You no longer have to wait when you've got serious loving to do," reads an ad for another Braswell product called Intimex, described as an "oral spray" that contains "nature's most powerful prosexual nutrients."

Braswell's promotions have drawn repeated complaints by federal regulators and consumer groups over the years. In 1983, federal court records show, Braswell was convicted in Atlanta of perjury and mail fraud stemming from a Postal Service investigation into allegations that he had promoted a purported baldness cure by using faked "before and after" photographs of hair growth on a man's head.

During the past decade, Braswell has once again tangled with federal regulators and consumer groups over his advertising techniques. In 1995, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus concluded that Gero Vita International could not substantiate claims for one of its products, a GH3 Anti-Aging Pill. A company advertisement proclaimed that the pill "improves memory...Sex Drive! and reduces chance of Heart Attack by 83%!" The group called the claims "exaggerated and overstated" and "misleading to consumers."

Because Gero Vita products were ordered from a Canadian postal address, the Food and Drug Administration that same year imposed an "import alert" on some of the products. The agency acted after determining that certain Gero Vita products were being promoted as "drugs" that could cure various ailments--without receiving FDA approval. Stone said the alert is still in effect. "We deem these products to be unapproved drugs," Brad Stone, an FDA spokesman told NEWSWEEK. Sheldon Lustigman, a lawyer for the company, says Gero Vita has since changed the formulas on the products and has asked the FDA to lift the ban. "The company believes all of its products are accurately labeled and marketed in full compliance," with federal rules, Lustigman says.

Braswell did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this article. But Tepper, editor of Braswell's magazine, vigorously defended the Gero Vita's advertising and said any findings of misleading claims were all in the company's past. "We never make a claim that we're going to cure anything," Tepper said. "We do not sell drugs. We sell nutritional products and every claim we make is substantiated by the research. We have regulatory attorneys to make sure we don't say anything that would disqualify any of these products." Tepper and another company official acknowledged that there may have been problems with advertising in the past, but say they have been corrected. "As of now, the company is very careful to make sure its statements in any brochure are backed up by research and scientific studies," said Dr. Nancy Johnson, a lawyer for the company.

Tepper also emphasized that any consumer who is dissatisfied with any of the company's products gets a full refund. He said many of the criticism of the company's practices come from groups like Quackwatch which have ties to "pharmaceutical and chemical companies" that are threatened by alternative medial therapies and nutrients and see them as a threat to profits.

Meanwhile, Braswell's legal troubles have mounted on other fronts. Two of the top executives in his principal holding company, G.B. Data Systems, left the company after a bitter falling-out with Braswell. Acting on information supplied by the executives, a team of IRS agents raided the Marina del Ray office of G.B.Data in June, 1999, seizing documents and company computers, according to two former employees. Court records reviewed by NEWSWEEK show that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles last year opened a criminal investigation with the IRS into some of Braswell's companies, including allegations involving the "transfer of funds" from G.B.Data to "off-shore accounts." According to the documents, prosecutors said they were also investigating allegations involving an off-shore trading company and alleged efforts by Braswell and his employees "to conceal documents" from the government. "I'm not at liberty to discuss any of that with you," said Gerald Feffer, a lawyer with the Washington based firm of Williams & Connolly, who is representing Braswell in connection with the tax investigation.

Federal and state campaign records show that, as his troubles escalated, so too have Braswell's campaign contributions. Although he had given modest donations in the past, Braswell only became a significant player in the world of unregulated "soft money" during this election cycle. Braswell donated $100,000 to the Florida Republican Party in July 1999, $50,000 to the Republican National Committee in November, 1999 and another $25,000 to the Florida GOP in March, 2000.

Tepper said that Braswell had gotten to know Jeb Bush well. "They've had lunches and meetings," he told NEWSWEEK. He also said that Braswell had met George W. Bush through the Florida Governor. But Jeb Bush spokeswoman Baur disputed that, saying "to the best of our knowledge, they [Jeb Bush and Braswell] have met once or twice at a fundraiser."