Yawning Bread. May 2007

Fall of the BP chief, part 1


    

 

 

The 170-word article in the Straits Times (2 May 2007) was headlined "BP chief quits over gay affair". The opening sentence said he resigned "after a judge lifted a legal injunction preventing a newspaper from publishing details of his homosexual relationship."

This is technically accurate but misleading, because it was silent over the real nub of the matter. Readers are likely to be led to think that the BP chief had to go when he failed at hiding his sexual orientation from the public. This in turn calls up subliminally a host of unquestioned associations: that homosexuality is a moral failing, therefore such persons are unfit for high office, hence it should be hidden, failing which one has to quit.

Let me tell you the story in a nutshell. It's a tawdry story, but the tawdriness, as I will explain in Part 2, does not lie where you might at first think it does.

In January this year, the UK newspaper, the Mail on Sunday (MoS) -- well known for its sensationalist style -- was on the verge of publishing an exposé about Lord John Browne of Madingley, the CEO of BP, one of the world's leading oil companies. Browne had been CEO for 11 years and is highly respected for his leadership. Liz Hunt, writing for The Telegraph, said that through his career, Browne "showed the daring, vision, cunning and ruthlessness that had him lauded as the most brilliant businessman of his generation, the saviour of a floundering company on which 97,000 employees and numerous pension funds depended." [1]


John Browne 
  

As soon as Browne knew of the MoS' plans, he sought and obtained a court injunction against publication on the ground that it violated his privacy. The MoS appealed the injunction, finally reaching the House of Lords, Britain's highest court. It's what happened at this appeal stage that precipitated Browne's resignation.

Although the MoS has not yet published its exposé as of the time of writing (3 May 2007), the outline of the story has emerged, centering on a 4-year relationship Browne had with 27-year-old Jeff Chevalier from Canada. The newspaper alleges that:

  • Browne helped Chevalier set up a mobile phone ring tones business and senior BP executives were persuaded to act as directors in the lover's company;
     
  • BP computers and support staff were used to run Chevalier's business. The CEO's personal assistant acted as the Canadian's secretary and a senior BP employee carried cash between the lovers;
     
  • Browne paid for a university course in Britain so his partner could stay in the country on a student visa;
     
  • The BP boss paid for renovations to his flat in Venice with cash and "dodged" a tax bill -- an allegation he vehemently denies;
     
  • Browne also told the younger man details of conversations he had with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

Source [2]

 

 

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The MoS said in a recent public statement: "The story we originally tried to publish was a business story involving issues of great importance to shareholders and employees of BP. Lord Browne chose to suppress this story by arguing to the High Court that, because the story was supplied to us by his former lover, Chevalier, it breached his right to private life under the Human Rights Act." [3]

Well, before we get too carried away with the MoS' attempt to do a high-minded public service, there are some aspects to consider:

BP, in a public statement, said that it had reviewed allegations of misuse of company assets but concluded they were "unfounded or insubstantive." [4]


Jeff Chevalier
  

Browne and Chevalier were, by all accounts except the MoS', in a steady relationship for 4 years from 2002 to 2006. That Browne was gay was an open secret among his friends. The couple went to social events together and were said to have been treated as a couple by their hosts. 

As for that and allegations of abuse of rank, Matthew Parris of The Times wrote, "Even were they true they would be small beer. There must be many respected CEOs who have sent a car on an errand for someone they loved, or asked a colleague to help out on something unconnected with the company. And what wife, husband or lover has never overheard their partner talking about business, or been told what he or she did at the office today?" [5]

Continuing, Parris wrote: "suggestions that Lord Browne may have described a dinner with the Prime Minister or a discussion with Peter Mandelson [6] strike me as pathetic attempts to attach a public interest tag to what is really just a juicy bit of tittle-tattle [by MoS]."

"The 'public interest' aspect of these stories looks slim to the point of desperation: a fig-leaf to cover more prurient motives for relating a gossipy human story." [7]

A dispassionate look at the details paints Browne as a kind and generous man. There is no suggestion of any infidelity. Quite the opposite: he tried to set his lover up in business, so that the young man would have some independent means. It would also have been good for Chevalier's self-esteem not to be treated entirely as a kept boy -- and the number of heterosexual male executives doing likewise to help their kept women must be legion (and they don't seem to interest scandal sheets).

As for senior BP executives being directors of the ringtones company, surely senior corporate executives knew what they are doing and must have willingly consented. It's also another indication that the Browne-Chevalier relationship was no closely-guarded secret.

And what's so scandalous about helping a partner stay in the country, paying for his education?

Finally, when the relationship ended, Browne gave Chevalier money, paying for an apartment in Toronto. [8]

Chevalier evidently didn't think that was enough. He contacted the Mail on Sunday. And that's how it started. I have to admit that I don't know for a fact whether what I think was his motive was truly the case, but please, are any of us born yesterday?

* * * * *

 
If that's the background, how did it rebound so badly on Browne? What exactly happened at the appeal stage that brought this on?

Browne's downfall could be traced to his foolishness when trying to convince the high court to affirm the prohibition against MoS publishing the story. He lied to the court about how he had first met Chevalier, and tried to impugn the younger man's character by making unfounded allegations about his substance abuse.

Browne told the court that contrary to the MoS' story, he had met Chevalier while exercising at Battersea Park. He also claimed that Chevalier was "a liar, unstable and adversely affected by dependence on alcohol and illegal drugs". For two weeks, Browne insisted his allegations were true, but eventually, evidence including medical records emerged showing that they were not. [9]

That made the judge cross. Justice David Eady said of Browne's lying under oath, "I am not prepared to make allowances for a 'white lie' told to the court in circumstances such as these -- especially by a man who prays in aid his reputation and distinction and refers to the various honours he has received under the present government when asking the court to prefer his account. It may be that it should be addressed as contempt or as some other form of criminal offence." [10]

It was this public scolding that brought him down. For lying to a court. Not for being gay; not for having a lover.

* * * * *

 
So far, I've only dealt with the narrative. Part 2 will discuss some implications of this tale.

But before we go, some readers would want to know -- how did Browne first meet Chevalier, if not at Battersea Park? It's not altogether clear (yet), but The Telegraph said it was through a gay escort agency. [11]

If so, here again, Browne comes across as a well-meaning man, trying to help someone he loved get out of the "business". Yet, like so many Greek tragedies, it was the nature of the man himself that was his undoing. When faced with a challenge to his privacy by an ex-lover and newspaper, his hard-driving, risk-taking nature that had served him so well in business, took the better of him. Browne went on the offensive to demolish his opponent, to the extent of fabricating lies before a court of law. 

Go to Part 2

© Yawning Bread 


 

 

 

Here are more details provided by Chris Hansen, a friend who lives in the UK:

The story had to do with a dinner Browne had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which the presence of Browne's partner was commented on as well as some other details of their relationship.

Browne sued to have that reference deleted, and in the course of that lawsuit fibbed when he said that he had met the young man while jogging in Battersea Park (a lovely place so to do). In actuality, the young man, working as a rent boy, put a page on a website called Suitedandbooted.com, which page Lord Browne saw and set up a date, after which Chevalier became his lover.

It is clear that Browne was a bit embarrassed about the source of his acquaintance with Chevalier, and lied to the court about it. This may yet become the source of criminal charges.

The Mail on Sunday actually was not going to be writing about the young man's relationship in detail. However, after the suit, it was discovered that Chevalier had had assistance from Browne and some BP chums of his in setting up a ringtone sales business. BP had investigated and found that the amount of money and time involved was not material. (The business has failed and has been wound up.)

Browne did a "My Fair Rent Boy" on Chevalier, buying him Prada clothes, taking him as his partner to various functions, including a dinner with the Prime Minister as well as the one already alluded to. He jetted around the world with him, and the like. In addition, he paid for education for Chevalier so that he could stay in the UK with a student visa.

After a while they broke up and Chevalier ended up back in Canada in need of funds. He got in touch with Browne and asked for money.

When Browne refused to pay Chevalier anything, he went to the Mail and got money (about GBP 40K) to live on, as well as money for trips abroad to "research" the story. The Mail on Sunday was furious that the injunction was raised on Tuesday, thus robbing it of its exclusive.

Now the kicker is that Browne was due to retire soon anyway, as his stewardship of the company has come under fire because of safety lapses (oil spills in Alaska and the refinery fire in Texas) which may have resulted from economy moves set in train by Browne. He has lost more than the potential amount of money he would have paid to Chevalier. He has lost profit sharing for this financial year as well as pay and the like. Could amount to as much as GBP 17 million, I understand. Quite an expensive lawsuit.

The fact that he was caught in a lie made his CEO position at BP untenable, and raises the question of whether Goldman Sachs (where he is a non-executive director and head of the Audit Committee) and other organisations of which he is a director will allow him to continue.

The newspaper's point of interest is that Chevalier was, effectively, Browne's partner and participated in business and political events as such. Thus there was a public interest angle to writing about him.

I think that we haven't heard the last of this; there is Much Binding in the Marsh over it and a goodly amount of dishing not of Browne's private life, but of his public missteps and declining star at BP.

The funny thing is that, had Browne told the truth, he probably would still be BP CEO. And the truth, while sordid, wasn't illegal or immoral (there are lots of straight websites analogous to Suitedandbooted.com).

Oh, and the Straits Times headline is incorrect. Browne did not quit over his gay affair. He quit because he lied about it. A big big difference. If the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and all his co-workers at BP as well as the nabobs of commerce in whose circles he moved knew about his sexual orientation, there was no reason for him to quit over it. He quit because he LIED ABOUT IT! (sorry for the shouting, but the point is very important). Had he told the truth, he'd still be BP CEO today.

 

Footnotes

  1. The Telegraph, 3 May 2007, Why I don't feel sorry for Browne -- by Liz Hunt
    Return to where you left off

  2. The Evening Standard, 1 May 2007, Hubris, lies and the gay affair that brought down BP boss 
    Return to where you left off

  3. Online Press Gazette, 2 May 2007, Mail on Sunday still wants untold Browne story to be made public -- by Dominic Ponsford 
    Return to where you left off

  4. The Evening Standard, 1 May 2007, Hubris, lies and the gay affair that brought down BP boss 
    Return to where you left off

  5. The Times (UK), 2 May 2007, There is no public interest in this juicy bit of tittle-tattle; Lord Browne paid the price for the City’s awkwardness about gays – by Matthew Parris 
    Return to where you left off

  6. Peter Mandelson was formerly a minister in the Tony Blair cabinet, and is currently the EU Trade Commissioner. He is openly gay. 
    Return to where you left off

  7. The Times (UK), 2 May 2007, There is no public interest in this juicy bit of tittle-tattle; Lord Browne paid the price for the City’s awkwardness about gays -- by Matthew Parris 
    Return to where you left off

  8. Ibid
    Return to where you left off

  9. The Evening Standard, 1 May 2007, Hubris, lies and the gay affair that brought down BP boss 
    Return to where you left off

  10. Ibid 
    Return to where you left off

  11. The Telegraph, 3 May 2007, Why I don't feel sorry for Browne -- by Liz Hunt
    Return to where you left off

 

Addenda

None