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June 18th, 2003 NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories
 

LEWIS & CLARK'S MICHAEL MOONEY:

THE REAL STORY

     
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NAMPA, IDAHO--The grass and weeds grow waist-high here at Environmental Oil Processing Technology's dormant refinery 22 miles west of Boise. They're nearly tall enough to hide the dozens of barrels of sludge stored in what used to be a pasture. Nearby, more than a dozen huge tanks hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste oil, dirty from circulating through car engines and other machinery. Pipes erected to clean the impurities out of the oil sit empty. A 10-foot-long American flag, now badly tattered, flutters over the plant, and the only mail in the box is a weathered Idaho Statesman dated Jan. 29.

It's a landscape far from the rarefied world of Michael Mooney, the erudite president of Lewis & Clark College, who announced his resignation on Monday.

But it is on this very patch of land that Mooney's illustrious career collided with that of a former wildcatter and miner named Norvin "Tod" Tripple. The 66-year-old Tripple, whose ruddy, sun-creased face and scuffed cowboy boots speak of a life lived outside, believed he had found the solution to one of the world's great environmental challenges: the billions of gallons of waste oil produced by vehicles and industry annually. "I've made money and I've lost money," says Tripple. "But this was the big one--and it will still make history."

Tripple bet everything he had on finding a solution for waste oil. For nearly four years, he and his wife, Marilyn, lived in a fifth-wheel trailer nestled smack in the middle of the refinery. Their horses grazed in the shadow of the oil tanks.

But early this year, representatives of Lewis & Clark College tossed Tripple and his employees off of the six-acre site and changed the locks.

Today, Tripple keeps an office around the corner at a dusty strip mall called the Garrity Business Park. "I hate to drive by there," he says of the refinery.

Three hundred and thirty miles away, Lewis & Clark College President Michael Mooney, 60, rattles around in his presidential manor, a seven-bedroom Tudor estate on eight acres in Dunthorpe, and clearly wishes that he had never heard of Tripple, let alone lent him $10.5 million of Lewis & Clark's money.

Like Tripple, Mooney believed. He believed Tripple did have a solution for waste oil. He believed Tripple could ease Lewis & Clark College's financial challenges. Mooney even believed that Tripple would make him personally rich.

In fact, Mooney believed so much that it took him less than 24 hours after hearing Environmental Oil's story to agree to loan the cash-strapped company $10.5 million. He didn't feel the need to tap the combined investment wisdom of Lewis & Clark's board of trustees. He even ignored the counsel of the college's law firm. Mooney believed so much that even when it was clear that Environmental Oil couldn't possibly repay its loan, he refused to sell the 113,676 shares he had accumulated in his personal account. "It was a great opportunity," Mooney said in an interview with WW June 2. "I've since realized that it was an imprudent thing to do."

Mooney's resignation ended a 14-year run during which he quadrupled the college's endowment, expanded and modernized its physical plant and put Lewis & Clark on the national map. But the same confidence that helped Mooney transform the college contributed to his undoing. The trustees whom he'd charmed faced the quandary of whether to remove from the college the man who had made it successful. All because Mooney ran into a man who looked for inspiration not in books but beneath the ground.

Tod Tripple was born in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, about 75 miles from Boise. The son of a railroad engineer, he drilled for oil in Kansas as a young man, but he has spent most of his life in his home state.

In the mid-'90s, Tripple decided to stop chasing his fortune in oil fields and mines. The real opportunity, he decided, was in waste oil--the three billion gallons of used lubricating oil discarded annually constitute an enormous environmental hazard for which there is currently no solution and little market.

Tripple and his brother, Tony, who once ran Portland's Harbor Oil, were captivated by the alchemistic notion that they could re-refine waste oil into such high-value products as gasoline and diesel fuel. They bought a small prototype refinery. "It blew eight times and never really worked," Tripple says.

After investing $3 million of their own and others' money on the plant, Tripple says, he and his brother hired Jacobs Engineering, a $4 billion company, to model and design a new plant that would work.

Tripple built it from scratch in Nampa, a booming former cow town that is now Idaho's second-largest city. While just down the road chipmaker Micron Technology turned pastures into clean rooms, Tripple set about trying to solve a problem that had buffaloed everybody who had ever taken a crack at it.

Environmental Oil grew with Nampa, and soon Tripple's vacuum trucks ranged from Twin Falls, Idaho, to the San Francisco Bay Area collecting the dirty oil that others didn't want. The company did find local markets for its re-refined oil, selling to cement companies, mining companies and Boise wholesalers--but the plant kept breaking down.

By 2001, the company had achieved enough to go public. Not long after Environmental Oil's stock price reached its high of $9.10 per share in the first quarter of 2001, Tod Tripple's and Michael Mooney's paths crossed.

The man who brought them together was Stephen Persad, 41, who grew up in the Portland area and earned a business degree from Lewis & Clark in 1983. Persad, the son of Trinidadian parents, became a stockbroker and married a fellow Lewis & Clark alum. Beginning in the mid-'90s, he helped Wayne Pederson, then Lewis & Clark's vice president for finance, invest the college's short-term cash surpluses. They placed the money in low-risk vehicles such as commercial debt.

In 1997, Persad came across a small company that he was convinced had the potential to help solve a global problem--and make those who got in on the ground floor wealthy. Emboldened by his own research and visits to Nampa, as well as the endorsement of his father, who had worked at a Texaco oil refinery in Trinidad, Persad jumped with both feet. He helped raise money for the company, encouraged his clients to buy stock in Environmental Oil and put his own resources on the line. Persad eventually bought 2.1 million shares. At one point, the value of his shares exceeded $18 million. "I believed then, I believe now and I will believe until the day I die in this company," Persad says.

In late 2000, Pederson retired from his post. Mooney chose Mervyn Brockett, a political-science professor turned administrator, to replace Pederson. The choice struck some in the Lewis & Clark community as odd. Although Brockett was well-liked and enjoyed a close relationship with Mooney, his qualifications for handling the college's money were minimal. "I have no experience on the investment side," Brockett told WW.

At about the same time as Brockett assumed his new role, Tripple found what he thought was a can't-miss opportunity to cash in on stratospheric electricity prices.

He was negotiating a $47 million contract to sell 11 months' worth of power to Sierra Pacific (a large Nevada utility that made an abortive attempt to purchase Portland General Electric in 1999). Tripple planned to buy land in Reno, Nev., with access to Sierra Pacific's transmission lines. He would then purchase turbines that would be powered with diesel fuel refined from waste oil on the same site. All Tripple needed was cash for the land and turbines.

On March 19, 2001, Persad met with Brockett and Mooney in Mooney's office to discuss whether the college might loan money to Environmental Oil. Although college presidents do not typically involve themselves in investment decisions, several trustees told WW that Mooney kept a close eye on the performance of the college's endowment--which at that time was faring poorly.

That spring, of course, the stock market was plummeting. Records show that Lewis & Clark was heavily exposed to declining share values: As of May 2001, 86 percent of the college's investments were in common stocks. At the same time, the college was in the midst of an aggressive construction campaign and had more than doubled its bonded debt.

Persad sat down with Mooney, Brockett and Brockett's assistant, Pat Smith, a former commercial banker, and told them about Environmental Oil and its need for $10.5 million for one year. The company, Persad said, was willing to pay 10 percent interest. That rate was double the return that the college could earn on more traditional short-term investments.

While the risk was greater and the amount requested totaled more than 10 percent of the college's annual budget, Mooney was intrigued. He negotiated with Persad. "Mike asked if the company would pay 12 percent," Persad recalls. "I said that I did not know but they probably would, because they wanted to move forward with the Sierra Pacific contract." Mooney also secured 550,000 shares of Environmental Oil--then worth nearly $200,000--for Lewis & Clark in exchange for agreeing to the loan. "That was their idea, not mine," Tripple later said.

Persad says that after he and Mooney came to an agreement, expectations were high. "A comment was made that if this [the investment] were successful, then the college would name a building after me," Persad recalls. "I explained that I do not want any buildings named after me. If you do move forward and this is successful, all I ask is that you let my kids go to Lewis & Clark for free."

In funding Tod Tripple's dream, Mooney made a serious blunder. Lewis & Clark's investment policies, adopted in 1995 during Mooney's tenure, clearly state that the college's cash reserves (as distinct from its endowment money) could be invested for a maximum of 270 days. Further, the college could only invest in increments of $1 million or less and in vehicles that met rigid credit-quality standards. The loan to Environmental Oil violated all of those requirements.

Later, in separate interviews, Brockett and Mooney said they were unaware of the college's policy on short-term investments. Persad, however, claims that Mooney had the policy on his desk when they met on March 19. "He had a copy of the short-term investment policy," Persad recalls. "He said, 'Based on my interpretation, I have the authority to make this decision.'"

Whatever his knowledge of the policies, Mooney okayed the loan to Environmental Oil the very next day. He later explained to WW that the company's environmental mission and the potential to profit from the energy crisis won him over. "Here was a great opportunity," Mooney said.

For reasons that remain unclear, Mooney chose not to ask any trustees--who included investment managers Craig Berkman and Rocky Dixon, as well as several current and former CEOs--about the wisdom of such an investment. Asked about due diligence, Mooney says, "Not a whole lot was done."

Mooney's speedy approval of the loan came as a pleasant surprise to Tripple. "I was shocked," he says. "They didn't ask for anything. Anybody else I've ever done business with, the first thing they ask for is a business plan and a financial statement."

On March 23, even before he signed a contract, Mooney agreed to send the first $1.6 million to Environmental Oil. Five days later, Mooney confirms, he purchased 5,000 shares of Environmental Oil stock in his personal account at Bidwell and Company. On March 30, he purchased another 5,000 shares.

Last week, quoting two securities lawyers, WW suggested that Mooney's initial purchase may have constituted insider trading. In the past week, other experts have said this is a stretch.

WW reported that Mooney's first stock purchase occurred on March 28, two days before the Securities and Exchange Commission was notified about the loan. There is, however, an earlier SEC document dated March 22 that refers obliquely to the company receiving outside financing.

The date of the stock purchase, however, is less meaningful to the issue of insider trading than is Mooney's role, says Professor Jennifer Johnson, who has taught securities law for more than 20 years at Lewis & Clark Law School. Johnson says she believes that the reported facts of Mooney's personal investment do not constitute insider trading. "It might be different if he was a director or officer of Environmental Oil (which he was not), but in this case, he is a lender, and--standing alone--the lender/borrower relationship does not trigger the application of the insider-trading prohibitions of the securities laws."

Almost immediately after Mooney committed the college's resources and his own money to Environmental Oil, Tripple's plans went awry. Federal regulators clamped down on the runaway electricity market, which made the construction of new power plants uneconomical. Tripple had never finalized a contract with Sierra Pacific and was now left with land in Reno and partially built turbines that were of no use.

Despite the dramatic setbacks, Mooney still agreed to transfer the balance of the $10.5 million to the company. (The loan was funded in three installments.) The last transfer for $4.5 million was sent to Tripple in November 2001, nearly five months after the Sierra Pacific deal fell apart.

Meanwhile, most of Lewis & Clark's trustees still had no idea that a big chunk of the college's money was at risk. At the beginning of 2002, when a few board members began to learn of the investment in Environmental Oil, repayment was already in serious doubt.

Mooney was nervous. In January, he sent Brockett, Smith and trustee Lloyd Babler to Nampa. If any board member could evaluate Tripple's business model and appreciate the challenges he faced, it would be Babler, a Lewis & Clark alumnus who runs a heavy-construction firm and made his fortune in the asphalt business.

"Babler told me about building an asphalt plant in Alaska that people said would never work," Tripple says. "He told me, 'Tod, you stick with this, because you will win." Tripple sent Babler home with a photo of a bronze eagle as a token of their shared entrepreneurial spirit. "This guy," says Tripple, "was a real guy." (Babler confirms Tripple's version of the visit.)

On March 23, 2002, the one-year loan came due. Tripple could not pay his debt and flew to Portland to meet with Mooney, Brockett and Smith. "You could feel the tension," Tripple recalls of the meeting, which was held in Mooney's office. "I knew I could lose my business. They all--including Mooney--told me they could lose their jobs." Facing no good choices, Mooney agreed to extend the loan for six months.

Mooney told WW that Lewis & Clark's full board finally became aware of the Environmental Oil situation in May 2002, 14 months after he made the loan. Trustees' reactions were mixed. Some were focused on how to get the money back. Others were simply puzzled at what they saw as a serious error on Mooney's part. "We were totally bowled over that he could have made a mistake of this size," says Mary Bishop, whose family owns Pendleton Woolen Mills.

Meanwhile, Mooney continued to buy stock in Environmental Oil, purchasing an additional 40,000 shares in May and June 2002 and eventually accumulating 113,676 shares.

On Sept. 2, 2002, 18 months after he agreed to lend Environmental Oil the college's money, Mooney made his first visit to Nampa, accompanied by trustees Bruce Burns and Fred Jubitz, who, like Babler, had some familiarity with refined oil products. Burns' family operated truck stops. Jubitz's family owns a $100 million trucking-services company, including a well-known Portland truck stop.

The visit produced no positive results. Eight days later, Mooney disposed of his stock, by then worth less than he paid for it.

Three weeks later, on Sept. 23, Tripple failed to meet the deadline for the six-month extension of the loan. Shortly afterwards, Mooney was removed from all involvement with Environmental Oil. The board of trustees appointed a committee, headed by Ken Novack, to investigate the circumstances of the loan and recover whatever money possible.

At a board meeting in November, trustees were asked to forgive Mooney and increase their financial commitment to the college. Most trustees agreed to the request, but three refused and resigned from the board: David Stern, a local investor; Debi Coleman, once Apple Computer's chief financial officer; and Gert Boyle, the founder of Columbia Sportswear. "I was surprised that more people didn't resign," Boyle says. "I don't want to be a 'yes person.'"

In December, Environmental Oil filed for bankruptcy. The college foreclosed on the company's assets, which included land in Reno and Nampa, a fleet of trucks and the half-built turbines. Over the next six months, court filings and other legal documents placed details of the ill-fated loan into the public domain, but Mooney and his board managed to keep the story under wraps.

In May, when WW began calling trustees and others involved, Mooney decided to tell the Lewis & Clark faculty and staff about the loan.

James Huffman, dean of Lewis & Clark Law School, says he learned of the lost $10.5 million on May 19, more than two years after the loan was made.

When Mooney broke the news to law-school employees, Huffman says, the reaction was "very mixed, from deep concern to no concern at all. He said he waited to tell us because he was advised by counsel to not discuss it. But rumors had emerged, and he thought he needed to advise us about it." While the college had recently announced layoffs and reduced hours for a number of other employees, Mooney said at a June 4 press conference there was no connection between this cost-cutting and the bad loan. "It hasn't affected, in any significant way, our operations," he said.

Today, all Lewis & Clark has to show for its investment in Environmental Oil is several hundred thousand shares of worthless stock--and a nearly equal number of gallons of waste oil, sitting in unmonitored tanks in Idaho. Perhaps harder than recycling that waste oil will be cleaning up Lewis & Clark's reputation.

It's unclear what the final chapter in the Environmental Oil story will be, but three lives have certainly been altered. Persad quit the brokerage business after 17 years and now sells advertising. Tripple spends his days answering lawyers' questions and worrying about his future. "I almost feel like I'm having a nervous breakdown. What do you do when you are 66 years old and in debt up to here?" he asks, holding his hand above his nose.

As for Mooney, the announcement of his resignation on Monday places a blemished capstone on an otherwise stellar tenure as Lewis & Clark's president.

Five years ago, Mooney told the Business Journal his favorite quote was an observation by Francis Bacon: "Truth is the daughter of time."

Twenty-seven months after Mooney became enamored of an investment in Nampa, Bacon's words have never seemed more poignant.


Michael Mooney was born in Indiana in 1942.









Mooney received his undergraduate degree from St. Meinrad College in Indiana and his master's and doctoral degrees from Columbia University.









Mooney lives alone. He has two adult daughters, one of whom attended Lewis & Clark's law school.









Prior to coming to Lewis & Clark College, Mooney was an administrator at Columbia.









Lewis & Clark's endowment is approximately $130 million. Reed College's endowment is approximately $300 million.
 
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