Gene Haas and Haas Automation made headlines on Feb. 4 when the company confirmed to the Business Times that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is slated to make a recruiting trip to the Oxnard machine tool maker later this month.
Whether or not Haas pulls the trigger and expands in Texas or North Carolina, the home of his Sprint Cup Champion Stewart-Haas Nascar team, will be a big story for the region for the coming months.
But there’s another story moving behind the scenes for Haas that is equally headline-worthy — a grassroots effort to get him a presidential pardon. While he’s an icon in American manufacturing and its comeback during the past few years, Haas also has a maverick streak.
He has repeatedly clashed with the IRS on tax issues and, when a scheme to avoid paying taxes blew up, he went to federal prison in Lompoc rather than settle with Uncle Sam. Savvy leader that Gene Haas is, he put Haas Automation into the hands of a trusted management team and it remained on track while he was serving time.
But if my sources can be trusted, the felony conviction has become a stumbling block for Haas.
Given Gene Haas’ time served, some clauses in government contracting rules make it hard for his company, of which he is the sole owner, to conduct business as freely as it might like to. Those hurdles include restrictions on the company offering financing to some of its vendors, sources tell me.
Over the long run, it might be hard for philanthropic organizations to accept gifts from a person who had a felony conviction on his record. Convicted junk bond king Michael Milken seems to have gotten around that problem by having his brother Lowell make significant donations to UCLA.
So, we hear that a few prominent Ventura County business types have been encouraging a grassroots effort to get a presidential pardon for Gene Haas. After all, Haas Automation, a $1 billion a year company, is one of the last few U.S. manufacturers of machine tools and one of the region’s largest employers.
And, in fact, in the annals of presidential pardons or acts of executive clemency, a pardon for Gene Haas would not be terribly controversial.
The last Democrat to hold the White House, President Bill Clinton, issued a flurry of last-minute pardons including one to fugitive swindler Marc Rich, causing a firestorm in the media.
As Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts in her best-selling Abraham Lincoln biography “Team of Rivals,” the 16th president drove Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton up the wall with his generous pardons for deserters during the Civil War.
Yes, the government faces a fiscal mess. Yes, the actions of Gene Haas were indefensible nose-thumbing at all of us who pay our fair share to Uncle Sam.
But this is a guy who is by all other reckoning an American hero. His machine tools are the envy of the world. His management genius is evident. His Nascar team has taken home that sport’s highest honors. He paid his fines. And he did his time.
Nobody is suggesting that he be feted at the White House or receive the Medal of Freedom. But exonerating Gene Haas might not be the worst decision that President Obama makes.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]