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Lord Browne former CEO of BP

By Mimi Swartz  September 2007 Issue

When a London tabloid threatened to out Lord Browne, the BP C.E.O. was forced to step down. Now, as the global oil giant struggles with a change in management and a crush of wrongful-death lawsuits, shareholders are learning that his company may also have been leading a double life.

Unlike Americans, the British have never been too eager to elevate their corporate leaders to godlike status, and for quite some time, that was just fine with John Browne, most formally known as Baron Browne of Madingley. Just 59 years old when the trouble started, Browne was a slight, acutely polite man with an elfin grin who also happened to be one of the most powerful businesspeople on the planet. He had devoted 41 years to turning BP, a once fusty national institution, into the world’s second-largest oil company and its fourth-largest company, period. And though he enjoyed being known as the Sun King by his legions of admirers, Browne was content to live quietly, spending time at his homes in London, Cambridge, and Venice. “Before all this happened,” says Peter Wright, editor of the Mail on Sunday, a London paper, “if you’d asked the man on the street about Lord Browne, he wouldn’t have heard of him.”

But then Wright’s newspaper got involved, and the result was the biggest boardroom crisis in the history of one of the world’s most buttoned-down companies. A former prostitute named Jeff Chevalier, after first attempting to force Browne to pay him to disappear, decided to sell a tell-all about his four-year relationship with Browne to the press. The result was a tabloid frenzy in the first week of May, which promptly obliterated the image of Browne as a new-age oil exec, savvier and smarter and more worldly than his peers. Over the course of just a few days, Browne would be chastised by a British judge for lying about the affair and would resign in shame, walking away from the company he spent most of his life building.

While much has been written in Britain about the seedier side of the scandal, the critical role that BP and its executives played in it has been largely overlooked. Company officials, for instance, reportedly encouraged the C.E.O. to out himself on one of the BBC’s most popular radio shows, a plan that fizzled when Browne lost his nerve in the studio. Before that, BP leaders were secretly enlisted to serve on the board of Chevalier’s company, which was underwritten by Browne. And in the end, the disclosure of corporate secrets was as much a concern to Browne as the revelation of his homosexuality. The threat that internal BP matters might be leaked led Browne to lie in a court statement, which in turn led to his humiliating resignation and public shaming. Among the secrets Browne wanted to protect: He was considering relocating BP overseas—a potential economic ­disaster that would have been a huge blow to Britain’s corporate psyche—and he placed a dollar value on the heads of his workers in the event that they were injured or killed in an accident. In one memo, company executives gamed out different disaster scenarios for BP, comparing them to the outcomes in The Three Little Pigs.

At the time, the disclosures would have made an already awkward management transition at BP even tougher. Now the company is trying to right ­itself under a new C.E.O., Tony Hayward, who has taken over amid a growing outcry over BP’s shoddy environmental and safety record, which Browne managed to keep as secret as his private life. Browne’s legacy, in the meantime, is being reconsidered in light of evidence that BP’s growth during his tenure came more from cost cutting and acquisitions than from strong management. As the company sorts itself out, Browne’s multimillion-dollar severance package is being withheld, while the inevitable flurry of lawsuits—filed by shareholders over Browne’s resignation and workers’ families over a deadly 2005 plant explosion in Texas—continues.

What has emerged in the wake of Browne’s departure is a picture of an executive who had begun to believe his own spin. Browne saw himself as the embodiment of his company, and he banked on the idea that what is ­basically a very grimy and combustible business could run on gloss and glitz. In the end, of course, it couldn’t. As Browne’s life grew ever more glamorous and then cratered, BP was left to flounder: Profits tumbled and the stock price flatlined. It’s telling that Hayward, a 25-year BP executive, has had to spend his first few months at the helm reconnecting the C.E.O.’s office to the business of oil and gas.

Most Americans  have a mental picture of an oilman. He is rich, expansive, and wily—a step or three up from the trashy Jett Rink character in the film Giant, updated to be more like the canny, globe-trotting, indicted Houston oilman Oscar Wyatt, and occasionally as cool and calculating as former Exxon Mobil chairman Lee Raymond. Maybe, at this point, he could also be a Saudi sheik, with the obligatory billions. But few would have associated the word oilman with an aesthete or aristocrat until Browne came along. He styled himself as a distinctly British oilman: cultured and eccentric, so polished that his ruthlessness was nearly impossible to detect, so forward-looking and intellectual that reporters listened raptly. In some ways, Browne’s persona is one very familiar to Americans, who have endured their share of recent corporate scandals: a sophisticated C.E.O. in a bespoke suit who can converse about anyone else’s business as easily as his own, who can hold forth on topics ranging from hedge funds to Broadway shows to fine art, from philanthropy to a lovely cabernet to the latest novel by Salman Rushdie. This is the kind of leader who gets a pass from the press, at least until disaster strikes.

One look at BP’s headquarters in St. James’s Square and you get it: The building is a monument to impeccable taste and assertive understatement. Nestled quietly among Georgian mansions, the squat, sunlit brick edifice nods to the past, and inside is as spare and hushed as a monastery. A large, contemporary landscape photograph by Thomas Struth and a video projection of moving grasses serve as the only adornment. A stranger venturing in would not necessarily suspect this is the headquarters of a corporation, much less a global oil company. It is as if someone wanted to pretend that BP was something else ­entirely—a thriving nonprofit dedicated to furthering the arts, for example. And John Browne, the anti-oilman, could have been its leader.

Though Browne was an iconoclast in many ways, the security and serenity promised by British Petroleum, as it was then known, must have called to him when it came time to choose a career in 1966. Tea was served every afternoon for decades; until the 1980s, BP survived largely because the government owned half the company, and Her Majesty’s Treasury kept it afloat during rough periods; jobs were deemed to be lifetime appointments. Before then, the company’s holdings were modest, consisting mainly of sites in Iran, Alaska, and the North Sea. But Browne’s father had worked for the firm, and BP was paying for Browne’s schooling at Cambridge. Hoping for advancement in New York, Browne wound up a pipeline engineer in Alaska, which he found stultifying at first and then, as he rose unbound through the ranks, invigorating.

By 1984, Browne—who got his master’s degree at Stanford, also thanks to BP—was group treasurer and chief executive of BP Finance International. Eleven years later, he became the company’s C.E.O. Throughout the 1990s, he made a series of acquisitions that won him enormous praise in Britain and heralded the consolidation of the major oil companies. It seemed novel then that British ­Petroleum grew not by increasing its oil exploration and development but by taking over American oil companies such as Standard Oil of Ohio and Amoco. The BP-Amoco merger was the largest of its kind and launched the company into the big leagues overnight. When Exxon bought Mobil the next year, Browne quickly retaliated by purchasing Atlantic Richfield for $32 billion.

Browne was also, like any great C.E.O., a P.R. genius. In 1997, to the horror of many of his oil-industry peers, Browne admitted in a speech that he ­believed global warming was real. He then hired a San Francisco firm to ­rebrand British Petroleum and come up with a new corporate slogan. The old BP logo was replaced with a green-and-yellow sunburst, and ads suggested that BP now stood for . . . Beyond Petroleum. It was a masterstroke: BP had only $100 million invested in solar power at the time of the renaming, compared with at least $10 billion invested in conventional energy. But thanks to BP’s green logo and green C.E.O., its reputation as a green company flourished.

At the time of Browne’s ascendancy, Britain could claim few corporate stars. The nation had an even stronger antibusiness strain than it has now, and executives tended to keep their heads down, lest they get blown off. It didn’t take long for Browne to be labeled a rock star for his business acumen and for BP’s boundless philanthropy in Britain and the U.S. His fortunes rose with those of his friend and confidant Tony Blair. In 1998, Browne was knighted, and Blair made him a life peer in 2001. The two grew so close that an underground passage seemed to connect 10 Downing Street and the headquarters of BP—which people began to refer to as Blair Petroleum. Browne even supported Blair’s decision to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2003, when Browne bought half the Russian oil firm TNK for $6.15 billion, in what was the first significant foray into Russia by a Western oil company, Blair attended the signing ceremony. There was the feeling in Britain of a new beginning, or maybe a return to grander days.

Browne was not quite so popular in the U.S., where experience on the ground is more important than a taste for fine art. “They pounded their chests a lot, but they didn’t know how to run refineries,” a former Amoco employee says of the BP executives. Because refineries are among the most intricate and dangerous workplaces on the planet, the old-timers feared that the BP ­executives’ ignorance would compromise safety, especially as BP cut jobs and budgets to reduce redundancy and raise profits for shareholders. (Similar allegations would later take center stage in the Texas refinery explosion lawsuits.) Other executives were skeptical of the hierarchical management structure at BP; they particularly complained about the handpicked “turtles” (named after the mutant ninja variety), who served as interns to Browne and were supposedly fast-tracked to replace other executives. There was also something known internally as the promise: a written business plan that could be used against employees who didn’t meet their projected goals. “They would use it to cut your throat if you failed,” a former engineer explains. Gradually, the company’s culture became less about innovation than intimidation. Fearful of losing their jobs, few spoke up about deteriorating conditions at some of the refineries. Behind Browne’s back, employees nicknamed him the “elf,” an acronym for “evil little fucker.”

Browne had his critics outside the oil industry too. The company was accused of committing human rights violations while building a pipeline in Colombia, and concerns were expressed about North Sea pollution. Greenpeace selected Browne for its Best Impression of an Environmentalist award. Matt Simmons, whose Houston-based Simmons & Co. is one of the largest investment-banking businesses serving the energy sector, was deeply skeptical of Browne’s 1999 prediction that, because of a worldwide market glut, oil prices would never reach $40 a barrel. “There was a vision of unreality in John Browne’s business plan,” Simmons says. “That generally works until you slip up.”

Still, Browne’s  public acclaim at home guaranteed that almost everyone except bitter Amoco engineers would studiously ignore his private life. When his father died of diabetes in the 1980s, Browne moved his mother, Paula, into the top floor of his Notting Hill house. And when Browne moved to Cleveland as a young executive to work on a merger with Sohio, his mother moved with him, and she is still remembered there as a charming escort and an irreverent hostess. She liked to have a cigar after dinner. Where Browne was understated, his mother was lively and outspoken. She was also his most trusted adviser. Browne’s friends and colleagues grew accustomed to a frequent request: “Do you mind if I bring my mother?”

The British press used a bit of ridicule to state the obvious: “He may be the head of Britain’s biggest oil company, but Sir John Browne is still a mummy’s boy at heart,” read one jab. Another publication noted that he collected Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of flowers. But as a gay man in the macho world of big oil, Browne had few choices if he wanted to advance. Asked outright by the press if he was gay, Browne was unequivocal in his denial: “You have got the wrong man there.” It was the kind of lie that people in his circle accepted. He had built a global oil company and made Britain a force to be reckoned with. Who cared about his sexual orientation?

Browne had always reserved his greatest passions for—or sublimated them in—his work. It was normal for him to put in 12- or even 18-hour days. “How did a 5-foot-6 guy who was Jewish and gay accomplish what he ­accomplished?” one of his friends asks rhetorically. “John worked night and day.” And when he wasn’t at work, he was serving on the boards of organizations such as the British Museum and the London Business School.

Then Browne’s world was shaken. Paula died in 2000, devastating Browne, who had always been closer to his mother than to his father. Born in Hungary, Paula had been deported to Auschwitz during World War II. Her son was very protective of her, but he also reveled in her. Stylish, cultured, and determined, she instilled in Browne the need not merely to live, but to triumph for those who perished in the Holocaust, urging him to look forward, never back, advice he took as gospel. Thus, several axioms guided John Browne as he matured: Remain silent about your private life, live for the future, and always, always remain in control.

Keeping these principles in mind, Browne took his mother’s death as an opportunity for rebirth. By 2003, he had begun to appear in public with a 23-year-old named Jeff Chevalier.

With dark hair, a widow’s peak, and brooding, ethereal features, Chevalier appeared to have come from another world, and in some ways he did: Chevalier, a Canadian, met Browne when the C.E.O. ordered him from a website called Suited and Booted. The relationship had all the pathos of most May-­December romances. Chevalier, who had not grown up wealthy, soon found himself drinking $6,000 bottles of claret with the prime minister and serving as a fourth at dinners with the out-of-the-closet European trade commissioner Peter Mandelson and Reinaldo Avila da Silva, whom the blushing press routinely referred to as Mandelson’s “Brazilian partner.” Chevalier flew on private jets and had the use of Browne’s Mercedes, driver, BP secretary, and private butler. Browne’s friends seemed to accept him with no questions asked. Once, Chevalier recounted to the Mail on Sunday, he was chatted up by Princess Michael of Kent. “You must be a brilliant pianist,” she gushed. When Chevalier explained that he wasn’t a pianist, she was unfazed. “Well, whatever you do, I am sure you are brilliant!”

Chevalier said Browne used his influence to extend Chevalier’s visa so that he wouldn’t have to leave England or return to Canada. He also alleges that once, when Chevalier was short of cash while on vacation, a BP employee met him at the airport with $5,000 so that he could fly back to London to meet Browne. Chevalier’s old life fell away, and he eased gradually into the semi-public role of Browne’s lover.

No one would dispute that Texas City, Texas, is a very long way from St. James’s Square. It is a rough-and-tumble blue-collar town on the Gulf Coast, where people know all too well that refinery work is often life threatening but just as often the only work available. On March 23, 2005, something went very wrong at BP’s Texas City refinery, the third largest in the U.S. An aging tank used to separate gas and fluid overflowed, filling the air with flammable vapor. A driver unwittingly left his truck running, igniting a fireball that by the end of the day had killed 15 people and injured more than 200. Not surprisingly, the blast led to the launch of hundreds of multimillion-dollar lawsuits and several investigations, including one by a commission that former secretary of state James Baker headed. A probe by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board specifically blamed BP’s closed culture for the explosion. In 2006, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the company $21.3 million, the largest penalty of its kind ever issued.

That wasn’t all that would befall BP. The next several months brought a cascade of problems, almost all blamed on lax oversight and poor management. In March, 200,000 gallons of crude leaked out of a BP pipeline at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, forcing the company to partially shut down a major field. The pipe, it turned out, hadn’t been cleaned in years. In April, the U.S. Department of Labor fined BP for unsafe operations in an Ohio refinery. Also during this time, the company was unable to capitalize on its Thunder Horse offshore oil platform—the world’s largest—which was damaged during Hurricane Dennis in 2005. And in June, the government charged some of BP’s traders in Houston with trying to manipulate the price of propane in the Midwest and Northeast.

All these incidents inevitably prompted this question: How could a company that was supposed to be a model of corporate citizenship have gone so wrong? The answer that emerged was simple, and the weakness of Browne’s highly praised policy of acquiring big companies and instituting massive cost cuts was suddenly, fatally exposed. Instead of putting excess cash into maintenance and safety, the executives in London had ordered the company to “bank the savings.” But as plaintiffs’ attorneys have alleged, a rubber band can be stretched only so far before it breaks. BP led the industry in refinery deaths from 1995 to 2005. For 10 years, there was a fire a week at the Texas City plant, and many were afraid to work there, fearing that disaster was imminent. As an employee explained in a survey, “No one here in management cares. . . . We have been very lucky so far with this.” At the same time, the arrogance of BP executives was easily recognizable. One memo, prepared for a meeting held before the Texas City explosion, insisted on cost cuts, a familiar refrain at the plant: “Which bit of 25 percent don’t you understand??? We are going to be wasting our time on Monday unless you come prepared to commit to a 25 percent cut.”

Even after the explosion, not much changed. An executive suggested that the refinery’s problems would soon be eclipsed in the press by the concurrent Terri Schiavo controversy, while ­another complained bitterly about having to visit the accident site during his vacation. “I arrived in Texas City at 3 a.m. with Lord Browne and we spent the day there—at the cost of a precious day of my leave,” read the email, which surfaced in a lawsuit filed after the ­explosion. Brent Coon, a Beaumont, Texas, attorney representing people ­injured in the explosion, says, “BP’s conduct questions whether it has a moral compass.” BP officials and Browne himself declined to comment on internal company matters.

The accidents didn’t help BP’s stock price, which stalled between $60 and $70 a share while Exxon Mobil’s soared. Worse, the Baker commission worked diligently throughout 2006 on its investigation, which would undoubtedly cause the company more grief. Browne, in a series of interviews and conference calls, slowly made the transition from denial to acceptance. Toward the end, he seemed rattled that the beloved image of himself and his company that he had so carefully constructed had been proved false. “He ­really viewed himself as a visionary on environmental safety,” one of the commission members says. “It really hit him where he felt the most secure.”

It didn’t help Browne that these events coincided with a steadily metastasizing internal debate at BP: the selection of his successor. Maybe it isn’t very surprising that the Sun King dragged his heels when it came to planning his departure: He had spent more than four decades at BP, and the company was in equal parts his business, his spouse, and his child. Browne was nearing the company’s mandatory retirement age of 60. (He turns 60 in February 2008.) BP’s chairman, a burly, no-nonsense Scot named Peter Sutherland, had made it plain that he was ready for Browne to go. The two had reportedly clashed over a proposed merger with Royal Dutch Shell. Sutherland opposed it, while Browne was a leading proponent of the deal.

Whether Browne wanted to fix the problems that had occurred on his watch or merely couldn’t imagine doing anything different with his future—or both—Sutherland would have none of it. As the story goes, in July 2006, an increasingly frustrated Sutherland called Browne into a meeting and demanded that he retire in 2008. Browne told Sutherland he would think about it. A day later, Browne made his decision. Instead of consenting to leave in February, he stalled for time, agreeing to leave only at the end of 2008. The formal announcement of his departure was to take place in January 2007.

Just as Browne was busy fending off Sutherland and the plaintiffs’ lawyers in Texas, his relationship with Chevalier began to crumble. For a while, each man had seemed to enjoy his appointed role. According to Chevalier, Browne told him what to wear, when to be at which function, and even who should attend the young man’s birthday party. The dinners on posh Cheyne Walk beside the Thames, with various political, social, and cultural celebrities, weren’t exactly relaxed affairs; Browne dictated they last precisely two and a half hours, according to attendees, though it couldn’t have been that painful to listen to, say, Tony Blair speculate on his life after leaving office.

Eventually, in an attempt to help him have something of his own, Chevalier said, Browne contributed about $50,000 to set him up in business. It was a business with the somewhat quizzical name of Txist; the goal was to sell cell-phone ringtones. But you, too, would have trouble getting a new enterprise off the ground if, at the same time, your partner was expecting you to accompany him to an event in New York on one day and Venice on another. On his Facebook page, Chevalier suggested that Woody Allen’s “The Whore of Mensa” was essential reading for anyone who “has ever been in a relationship with a neurotic, control freak, self-obsessed, vain person.”

The two men tried to keep the relationship afloat, but after four years, Chevalier went back to Canada. He said that, at a meeting in June 2006—sometime after the Alaska spill and amid increasing pressure on Browne to retire—the C.E.O. agreed to help Chevalier make a new life for himself. He alleges in court documents that Browne agreed to “assist in the first year of me transitioning from living in multimillion-pound homes around the world, flying in private jets, five-star ­hotels, £2,000 suits, and so on, to a less-than-modest life in Canada.”

During this time, Anji Hunter, once a press aide to Tony Blair and more recently director of communications for BP, reportedly suggested that Browne behave proactively and go public with his homosexuality, thus defusing any of Chevalier’s potential revelations. As it happened, Browne was scheduled to appear on a popular BBC radio program called Desert Island Discs, which invites notable Britons to muse upon the music that is near and dear to them—in other words, music they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. Browne’s list was eclectic: Along with various arias, he liked “Chan Chan,” by Francisco Repilado, and Marshall Crenshaw’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” Hunter and Browne are said to have agreed that the appropriate moment for Browne to reveal his sexual orientation would be during a discussion of Così Fan Tutte—the first opera he ever attended, with his parents. BP spinmeisters held their breath as Browne rhapsodized about all the wonderful things he had learned from his mom and then . . . nothing. Browne balked and didn’t reveal that he was gay, on Desert Island Discs or anywhere else.

In the meantime, Chevalier continued to press for more support, sending a note to Browne on Christmas Eve: “I have nothing left to lose,” he wrote. “I am facing hunger and homelessness after four years of sharing your lifestyle. . . . The least I am asking for is some assistance. . . . Please respond. . . . I do not want to embarrass you in any way, but I am being cornered by your lack of response to my myriad attempts at communication.”

Some people might have considered that a threat.

in Britain, the Mail on Sunday is something of an anomaly, or rather, like Lord Browne, it leads a bit of a double life. Indisputably right-wing, it isn’t exactly a tabloid, but it isn’t quite legit like the Independent, Guardian, or Telegraph either. It is hated by the intelligentsia but was recently chosen Sunday Newspaper of the Year by the London Press Club. In other words, Jeff Chevalier would read it; Lord Browne would not. Also, unlike Britain’s more respectable papers, the Mail on Sunday sometimes pays lavish amounts for stories. “If it hadn’t been for the Mail on Sunday, the story wouldn’t have come out in the sensational way it did,” says Andrew Neil, publisher of the Spectator, a right-leaning weekly magazine. “The Mail never liked John Browne. They saw him as a pro-Blairite businessman.”

So when Chevalier contacted a reporter at the Mail on Sunday, the interest in running his story was, to say the least, high. Editors were briefed, and a reporter was dispatched to Canada to meet with Chevalier in person. The rent boy from Suited and Booted started talking. According to press accounts, some poor soul from BP had to locate Browne, on an idyll in Barbados, to give him the news that the paper was seeking his comment on his relationship with Chevalier.

Browne jumped on a plane. Against the wishes of several advisers, he decided to fight back. He hired Schillings, a London firm that specializes in reputation management and has made a name for itself by successfully defending the privacy of such public figures as Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Hugh Grant, and Britney Spears. Thanks largely to Britain’s strict privacy laws, Schillings successfully obtained an injunction against the Mail on Sunday, preventing publication of Chevalier’s story.

Unfortunately for Browne, the paper appealed. A period of intense secrecy, from January to May, ensued. Any leaks from Browne would have breached his own injunction, and any from the Mail’s side would have been manna for the paper’s competitors.

Browne announced his early retirement from BP on January 12 with his head high and the press—largely unaware of the ­behind-the-scenes drama—generally approving. His successor, Tony Hayward, was one of his former turtles. Some reporters questioned whether BP had become too large to be run by one man, but that was as far as negative commentary went. Inside the BP boardroom, there was relief.

Schillings, meanwhile, was working as hard as it could to keep Chevalier and his secrets out of the press. The firm claimed that the story should not run, under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees British citizens the right to their private lives. During the past few years, lawyers have successfully used Article 8 to protect their celebrity clients. Though the Mail on Sunday argued that its BP story was an investigation of Browne’s business affairs, Browne’s attorneys fought back, claiming that the story represented an invasion of Browne’s privacy. Throughout the spring, the paper and the C.E.O. battled on. Browne might have been close to victory, but he made a serious miscalculation. He and his attorneys tried to bully Chevalier, gambling that the enormous weight of Browne’s power and accomplishments would easily trump the power of a nobody. In doing so, Browne lied about how he had met Chevalier—he said it had been in Battersea Park, across the Thames from his home—and he also lied about Chevalier, claiming that the Canadian was a drug user and an alcoholic. Browne also strongly denied having given Chevalier access to BP computers, as ­Chevalier maintained.

Alas, Browne’s assertions were simple to disprove, and the Mail on Sunday’s lawyers did so immediately, producing website information and medical records that showed Chevalier had been treated for nothing more than panic attacks. And when a Mail reporter came upon Chevalier’s sister’s computer—a gift from Browne—it was branded with the BP logo.

If it remains a mystery in London as to why Browne lied—he now says he panicked—it is generally agreed that the court would have been more circumspect about his private life if he had told the truth. “If he hadn’t lied, publication would have been allowed, but he obviously made it much worse,” says Rupert Earle, a media attorney with the British firm Addleshaw Goddard who is not ­involved in the case.

Like Martha Stewart, Browne soon learned that he could lie to his friends but not to the court. High Court Justice David Eady showed the kind of mercy Browne once dispensed to employees who didn’t make the grade—precious little. From the bench, Eady declared that while Browne’s mendacity was not crucial to the case, what mattered was that “the claimant clearly thought it important at the time and quite deliberately, and casually, chose to lie to the court about it. . . . 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 honors he has received under the present government, when asking the court to prefer his account of what took place.”

Then it got worse. The judge spoke to Lord Browne in a way that his many minions would never have dared: “It is ironic that the claimant should choose to tell this lie at a time when he was maintaining that I should heavily discount the factual account of [Chevalier] and also any evidence from him. A wholesale attack was being made on his credibility. It was said that he is a liar, unstable and adversely affected by dependence on alcohol and illegal drugs. . . . It is thus clear that it is not only the claimant’s willingness to tell a deliberate lie to the court, persisted in for about two weeks, that is relevant in assessing his own credibility and overall merits. So too is his willingness casually to ‘trash’ the reputation of [Chevalier] and to discredit him in the eyes of the court.”

The judge said he would consider further charges but noted sagely that “it is probably sufficient penalty that the claimant’s behavior has had to be mentioned in this judgment.”

He was right. “My initial witness statements . . . contained an untruthful account about how I first met Jeff,” Browne said in an official statement. “This account, prompted by embarrassment and shock at the revelations, is a matter of deep regret. It was retracted and corrected. I have apologized unreservedly and do so again today. . . . For the past 41 years of my career at BP, I have kept my private life separate from my business life. I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private. It is a matter of personal disappointment that a newspaper group has now decided that allegations about my personal life should be made public.”

There were not very many winners in the saga. The Mail on Sunday lost its scoop when its sister publication, the Daily Mail, rushed into print a preview of the High Court judgment on May 1. The next day, all the daily papers ran major stories covering the ruling and Lord Browne’s resignation in detail.

Amid silly disclosures of skirmishes over the best seats on commercial airliners and descriptions of opera balls in Salzburg, in the former home of the von Trapp family, were two matters that Browne desperately wanted to keep out of the press. The first was that BP, like many other companies, had set a value on human life in the event of a corporate disaster—in BP’s case, $20 million, a number familiar to plaintiffs’ lawyers, who were already busily soaking the company. In a memo found by those lawyers, BP executives calculated the cost of human life by drawing a metaphor with The Three Little Pigs, calculating what it would cost in lives if plants were improved with straw, mud, or brick. “The big bad wolf blows once per piggy lifetime,” the memo suggested. (To Brent Coon, the Beaumont attorney, this is “just like the Ford Pinto,” a car whose tendency to explode prompted numerous lawsuits. Ford had opted to pay damages for death claims rather than pay for a redesign.) The second revelation involved a possible relocation of the firm overseas, a move that would cost London a substantial number of jobs.

In the end, Browne lied less to save his image than to save the image of his company. It’s notable, for instance, that there was no talk of resignation when word first emerged that the press had its hands on Chevalier’s story. Only after Browne learned that the corporate secrets could leak did he finally decide to step down.

Browne’s early departure will not prevent continued legal battles for BP, but it is perhaps as close to a sacrificial act of love as Browne is capable of, and it has allowed the company to start fresh. Though Browne also resigned from the board of Goldman Sachs, he still works for Apax Partners, a global private equity firm, and goes to his office when it suits him.

In March, before Browne’s secret was finally disclosed, he gave a speech about multiple identities at a benefit in New York. He spoke about his mother’s cruel exile from her home and separation from her family, and about the plight of Jews and homosexuals who had been forced to be refugees. He wished for a world in which all people could enjoy personal freedom. “One of my ambitions,” he stated, “has been to break out of the standard social, cultural, and racial base which used to be the requirement for employment . . . to help people whose identities are constrained by circumstances beyond their control.”

Now with no secrets left, Lord Browne has his wish. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

1 Comment on “ Blackmail, Sex & Corporate Secrets”

  1. #1 OscarDUB
    on Aug 24th, 2007 at 13:23

    Very insightful article, and long … John Browne left and latched on with Riverstone. Looks like Riverstone’s 2 co-founders have deep connections with Browne through Goldman Sachs. Check them out here …

    their all mapped out for ya…

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