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© 2008 New York Times News Service

PHOENIX – When Sen. John McCain is in Washington, he lives in a luxury high-rise condominium in Arlington, Va., owned by his wife, Cindy Hensley McCain. Cindy McCain also owns their condos in Phoenix, San Diego and Coronado, Calif., and their vacation compound near Sedona, Ariz. And it is the beer business, Hensley & Co., she inherited from her father that is the source of the McCain family fortune.

That fortune makes John McCain one of the richest members of the Senate. Yet barely a sliver of it is in his name.

Democrats have increasingly highlighted McCain’s wealth: Sen. Barack Obama ridiculed him on Thursday for being unable to say how many homes he owned, saying it showed that McCain was out of touch with ordinary Americans.

But with the McCains’ money in Cindy McCain’s name, as dictated by a prenuptial agreement, the senator’s finances are more difficult to assess and scrutinize than those of many other political candidates.

The husbands and wives of senators are subject to fewer disclosure requirements than their office-holding spouses. In addition, Cindy McCain, who files separate tax returns from her husband, controls a privately held company and invests mainly through a web of limited-liability corporations and trusts that have few disclosure requirements. She declined to be interviewed.

“Cindy is a private person, and I think in many ways that defines her,” said Robert Delgado, her father’s successor as chief executive of Hensley & Co., who spoke at the McCain campaign’s behest.

But the Hensley family wealth, from its rough-and-tumble origins to prominence in Arizona’s corporate world, is also the fortune that propelled John McCain into national politics. A clearer picture of that fortune emerges from a review of public records and interviews with employees, business associates, friends and relatives.

Hensley & Co. has grown from a tiny operation in the 1950s to the dominant beer wholesaler in Arizona and the third-largest Budweiser distributor in the country, with more than $300 million in annual sales. It plays a leading role in corporate Phoenix – Andy McCain, the senator’s stepson from his first marriage and a top executive of the beer company, is now president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce – and is a forceful presence in state politics on the issues that matter to it.

But by all accounts, Cindy McCain is far from a forceful presence at the company, where she is the chairwoman.

She crisscrosses the country on the company jet, keeps an accountant on the company payroll to mind her personal finances, drives a company Lexus with “MS BUD” plates, and says she oversees the company’s “strategic planning and corporate vision.” Yet she almost never shows up in the office, is deemed an absentee owner by Anheuser-Busch and has left scarcely a mark on the company, present and former executives say.

Cindy McCain has spent far more time as a volunteer on behalf of needy children. She is a board member of CARE and Operation Smile, which provides cleft-palate surgery for impoverished children; when she visited Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh 17 years ago, she brought a baby girl back for the surgery and then adopted her.

Her business, however, recently found itself at odds with advocates for pediatric hospital beds in Arizona’s neediest communities and for a statewide childhood education program. When the advocates proposed initiatives that would raise liquor taxes, Hensley opposed them.

Cindy McCain has not said how she would handle her business if her husband is elected president. The federal government has domain over issues important to the alcohol industry, like excise taxes, marketing to under-age drinkers and beverage labeling.

Anheuser-Busch documents suggest that Cindy McCain’s ownership of Hensley & Co. could also create an unusual circumstance. The brewer’s contracts with wholesalers require that absentee owners supervise their managers, attend meetings and make timely decisions, meaning that the business would be overseen by the first lady. And if she chose to withdraw from ownership, Anheuser-Busch would have the right to approve whoever bought her shares, or to make an offer to buy them itself.


He was a young husband and father before he went off to war. Wounded in combat, he returned home a hero, but stunned his wife by divorcing her to marry another woman. The warrior in this case was not Cindy McCain’s husband, but her father, James W. Hensley.

Jim Hensley’s first marriage was to his Phoenix high school sweetheart, Mary Jeanne Parks. Family lore says he was treading water in the English Channel, after his B-17 was shot down, when his daughter, Kathleen Anne Hensley, was born in February 1943.

The marriage ended there, according to that daughter, now Kathleen Portalski. Recuperating far from home, he fell in love with Marguerite Smith, a woman from Tennessee with a 10-year-old daughter. By March 1945, he was divorced and they married.

Back in Phoenix, he and his brother, Eugene, went into the liquor business with Kemper Marley, a businessman who had cornered much of the market in Arizona after Prohibition ended.

In March 1948, a federal jury convicted both Hensleys of concealing sales of black-market liquor. Jim Hensley’s six-month sentence was suspended. A second indictment, in 1953 for falsifying records to evade taxes, was dismissed.

The Hensleys bought a New Mexico horse track in 1952. Eugene Hensley’s role at the track led to lawsuits, tax-evasion charges and prison. In 1969, he sold out to a mob-connected company with close ties to Marley, according to published reports. (The Phoenix police named Marley as the man they believed ordered the 1976 assassination of Don Bolles, an investigative reporter for The Arizona Republic. Marley, who died in 1990, was never charged.)

Jim Hensley sold his stake in the track in 1955, and took a job at a beer wholesaler. After buying the business, in 1959 he got a federal wholesaler’s permit as Hensley & Co.

Selling Bud in steel cans and Michelob draft, Hensley & Co. started out with only a 6 percent market share. But Jim Hensley, bent on building the “Cadillac of beer companies,” began luring workers with generous pay and benefits.

Few big cities have only one Budweiser wholesaler, but Phoenix had just 107,000 residents in 1950. Ten years later, the city’s population had quadrupled. Hensley’s market share catapulted to 50 percent in 1987, from 20 percent in 1970; today it owns nearly two-thirds of the market.

Those who knew Jim Hensley, who died at 80 in June 2000, invariably sing his praises. If he had one flaw, they add, it was being unable to say no to his wife or their daughter, Cindy Lou, who was born in 1954.

At her father’s funeral, Cindy McCain told of his gentle reaction when she wrecked the car he had bought her after she graduated from the University of Southern California, according to people who were there. She did not mention, as a former employee recalled, that it was a Porsche and that he replaced it with a Mercedes. When the young Cindy Hensley began teaching high school and caught flak for driving a fancy car, the former employee said, her father bought her a Volkswagen, which she kept at the Hensley garage, to drive to school instead.

Hensley was also quietly subsidizing his first daughter, Kathleen Portalski, and her family. He paid for her children’s schooling, gave them credit cards and wrote company checks totaling $40,000 a year to Portalski and her husband, the couple said in an interview.

In his will, Hensley left Portalski just $10,000 and her offspring nothing. “It’s so disappointing, just being pushed aside,” she said. Portalski said that Cindy McCain added insult to that injury by referring to herself, in her funeral eulogy for her father, as his only child – while her half-sister sat in a front pew.

Shortly after Jim Hensley’s death, Portalski’s daughter said, she tried charging a meal and had her company credit card rejected. Her son says he learned that Hensley’s promise to pay his graduate-school tuition was no longer operative.

A McCain campaign spokeswoman, Jill Hazelbaker, said Hensley’s will did not provide for continuing his periodic gifts to relatives.


Her father’s death left Cindy McCain with full control over his company, though she has seldom intervened, executives say. “She’s never been a day-to-day manager in this business,” said Delgado, the chief executive.

In the late 1980s, she set up a charitable organization out of Hensley headquarters, distributing medical supplies in Third World countries. But she disbanded the group in the early 1990s after she became addicted to painkillers and was caught stealing from its supply of drugs.

Since then, her parking space has seldom been occupied. In fact, Anheuser-Busch treats her as an absentee owner, requiring Delgado to have total control over business operations and capital investments.

Delgado confirmed that after Jim Hensley died, Anheuser-Busch approached Cindy McCain about buying the distributorship, because the brewer prefers hands-on owners. But he said Cindy McCain decided she wanted to be the steward of her father’s legacy.

But others who have seen the company’s books gave another reason: The company is handsomely profitable. She owns a controlling 34 percent share of a company with net profits estimated at more than $5 million a year.

In addition, Meghan, Jack and James, the biological children of John and Cindy McCain, each have 7.73 percent of Hensley & Co. Andy McCain, 45, the senator’s stepson, has 6.8 percent. Bridget McCain, the McCains’ adopted daughter, has shares worth 3.4 percent. (Hazelbaker of the McCain campaign said Bridget’s stake would eventually equal her siblings’.)

Delgado declined to discuss equity stakes or distribution of profits and said Cindy McCain spoke to him a few times a week, often about personal financial issues. He said she took an interest in Hensley’s charitable giving and in “things that could affect the company’s existence.”

For example, when he proposed taking on debt to build a large warehouse in Tempe, he said Cindy McCain’s input was “advice and consent.” He praised her for otherwise letting management run the business.

Another person knowledgeable about the company’s finances said Cindy McCain’s involvement in Hensley was more limited. “Delgado will tell her how much money they made, so she can tell him how much she’ll take out,” this person said. As the controlling owner, Cindy McCain is entitled to distribute profits to all the shareholders whenever she sees fit.

How much she receives in profits is not a matter of public record. Distributions to other shareholders, who discussed them only anonymously, suggest she receives hundreds of thousands of dollars several times a year. Cindy McCain has released only a two-page Form 1040 from her 2006 return. It listed $4.5 million in income from S corporations (like Hensley), partnerships, rental real estate and other categories; capital gains of $743,000, and dividends of $283,000. John McCain’s tax returns show that his wife received a salary from Hensley of more than $430,000 each of the last two years. (John McCain listed $361,373 of his own income in 2007.)

Senate rules do not require spouses to specify the values of assets or income sources exceeding $1 million, and Cindy McCain has many of them, including shares in Anheuser-Busch, which at a minimum are worth $2.7 million.

Cindy McCain has also invested in banks, including one founded by Valley National Bank, where her father got his first business loan. Valley National, now part of JP Morgan Chase, holds a promissory note of $500,000 to $1 million that Cindy McCain has been rolling over annually since 2003. And Hensley’s entire debt of $30 million is held by JP Morgan Chase, Delgado said.

Far more of Cindy McCain’s money is invested in real estate. With Sharon Harper, a close friend and developer, Cindy McCain has stakes in three office complexes. At the Brophy College Preparatory School, where the McCains’ two sons went to high school, the Harper Balcony sits just over the McCain Colonnade.

Cindy McCain owns 10 homes, including rental properties.

There are the condominium in the Crystal City section of Arlington; two in an oceanfront tower in Coronado; her father’s condo in the La Jolla section of San Diego; a $4.7 million condo atop one of Phoenix’s newest luxury towers; another unit on its fourth floor; and a $700,000 townhouse nearby.

Then there are Cindy McCain’s vacation homes outside Sedona. In 1985, a Hensley entity bought the first, in a secluded enclave along Oak Creek, down a steep road from the plateau of the Coconino National Forest. In 1996, Cindy McCain bought an adjacent home for $750,000.

In 1992, the McCains and the Harpers formed a partnership to buy six acres of vacant land across the creek, and in 2000 they bought another neighbor’s spread. The Audubon Society turned the vacant land into a private bird sanctuary with help from the McCains.

While all of the family’s real estate is held by Cindy McCain, the John and Cindy McCain Family Foundation is funded by John McCain. From 2001 to 2006, its donations averaged about $260,000 a year. In addition to big donations to children’s causes, mine clearing, and Parkinson’s research, the U.S. Naval Academy received $420,000 to run an ethics conference in the senator’s name; the Brophy school has received more than $250,000; Christ Lutheran, which Bridget and Jim attended, more than $100,000.


The booming Hensley business financed John McCain’s entry into politics: after marrying Cindy, he retired from the Navy in 1981 and planned a run for Congress the next year. To that end, he took a public-relations job at Hensley and set about introducing himself to voters. His father-in-law’s wealth – Cindy McCain was given $639,000 by a Hensley affiliate in 1982 – also enabled John McCain to lend his campaign $167,000.

Today, Hensley & Co. is a major donor to Arizona politicians, and above all has fought increases in the state excise tax, now about 1.5 cents per beer. The tax has risen only three times since the repeal of Prohibition, last in 1984, and remains 16 percent below the national median.

Its contributions have occasionally drawn bad publicity. In 1991, an Anheuser-Busch lobbyist accused Jim Hensley of passing him cash to give to lawmakers. But the lobbyist recanted and no charges were filed. Hensley workers also told a local columnist in 1989 that they had been pressured to donate to specific political committees and to canvass for John McCain’s first congressional race in 1982. The company denied it. But workers say Doug Yonko, an executive and nephew of Jim Hensley, still buttonholes colleagues for donations. Yonko said all gifts were voluntary.

At the national level, the company’s priorities, fought for by the National Beer Wholesalers’ Association, have included rolling back the national excise tax of about 5 cents a beer, which was last raised in 1991, and fighting efforts by hard-liquor distillers to require labels showing the amount of alcohol in a standard serving. The beer lobby also successfully opposed a bill to pay for TV advertisements combating under-age drinking.

Still, industry critics acknowledge that John McCain has consistently recused himself from alcohol-specific issues. Yet he has received more contributions from the industry than nearly any other senator.

The reason, beer executives say, is that John McCain is sympathetic to business owners and shares their views on taxes and other economic issues.

But George A. Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that is a frequent opponent of the alcohol lobby, said the industry would benefit if a McCain administration steered clear of alcohol policy to avoid conflicts of interest. In the industry’s view, Hacker said, inaction is almost always better than action.

Nothing better sums up the low-key but formidable political power of Hensley & Co. than its response to two recent ballot initiatives.

Nadine Mathis Basha, the wife of a supermarket mogul, envisioned an early-childhood education program for toddlers statewide. To pay for it, Basha said, she approached Hensley in 2006 with a proposal to raise taxes on alcohol and tobacco. Delgado told her that while he supported such a program, a beer tax would “open the floodgates” nationwide and he would fight it, Basha recalled. Daunted, she went ahead with a tobacco-only tax increase, and her initiative passed.

This year, Phoenix Children’s Hospital proposed an initiative to raise money for pediatric hospital beds. Polling showed a liquor-tax increase would be an easy sell, but the hospital offered to soften the blow with a 30-year moratorium on any further liquor-tax increases. But Delgado said he learned that the moratorium was not ironclad and vowed to fight. The hospitals, lacking money for a costly advertisement campaign, folded, according to people involved.

But Hensley & Co. is taking no chances. It is supporting another initiative that would require that any ballot measure imposing a tax increase be approved by a majority of all registered voters in the state, not just of those who turn out at the polls.

© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared on nytimes.com.

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