Published on Sunday, June 18, 2000 in the Washington Post
Nader Donates More Than 80% Of His Substantial Income
by Mike Allen
After 35 years of bashing big business, rumpled Ralph Nader is worth at least $3.8 million and is heavily invested in technology stocks.
For decades, Nader refused to reveal even the name of his stockbroker, let alone any personal financial information, leading to criticism from conservatives that he was building a secret financial empire (sometimes derided as "Nader Inc.") even as he called for greater disclosure by government officials and business executives.
But Nader, who is to be nominated next weekend as the Green Party presidential candidate, offered a detailed picture of his wealth in several interviews, including two with The Washington Post last week, and in a 21-page filing with the Federal Election Commission that was more extensive than required.
"Ask anything you want," Nader said, seemingly intent on demonstrating that his presidential campaign is serious this time and that he is willing to undergo the requisite scrutiny.
Nader said that one of his few regrets is that he has been too conservative with his investments.
"The question should almost be, 'Why is it so little?' " he said. "If it was in any way comparable to what these corporate executives are getting, we could've done a lot more."
Nader said he gives away more than 80 percent of his after-tax income.
Nader is left with a net worth of at least $3.8 million, including $1.2 million in stock in Cisco Systems Inc., which makes Internet plumbing. He owns smaller amounts of five other technology-related stocks and has more than $2 million in two money-market funds. He lists no debt.
He estimated that he has made $13 million to $14 million in royalties, honoraria, interest income, and writing and television fees beginning in 1967. That was two years after he burst to prominence with his hardback sensation "Unsafe at Any Speed," which focused on the Chevrolet Corvair to argue that the American auto industry emphasized style and profits at the expense of safety.
With his idealistic young "Nader's Raiders" taking on the federal government from campuses around the country, he became such a celebrity that in 1975, Ladies Home Journal commissioned Nader and actor Robert Redford ("Two Fascinating Men") to interview each other. A Newsweek cover showed a sword and suit of armor superimposed over "Consumer Crusader Ralph Nader." Nader built such an indelible image as the little guy's champion that a coal miner willed his tiny estate to him.
Nader, 66, who is single, said he has made $200,000 to $300,000 a year just on speeches for 30 years. Income from writings, television appearances and interest is on top of that. But he said he does not take a salary from any of his groups and lives on just $25,000 a year.
He last owned a car (a '49 Studebaker) in the late '50s. He went years without a television set but now has a tiny black-and-white; reception is an adventure. He rents an apartment near Dupont Circle and often stays at the family home in Winsted, Conn. He writes his books on what he calls a "perilous" Underwood typewriter. He keeps meaning to buy a new ribbon.
Nader has plowed millions into his own projects, including the establishment of Public Interest Research Groups in 22 states. He has started several research centers devoted to health and safety, has taken on the standardized-test industry and has championed Native American rights, child protection and solar energy education.
More recently, he has put about $200,000 into organizing civic-action projects at Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1955, and Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1958.
"Aside from modest personal expenses, I have always treated my income as a de facto philanthropic fund for many projects and institutions that serve the interests of consumers, the environment, labor and more accountable business and government," he said in a statement attached to his federal filing. "In short, monies I earn are for strengthening civil society."
Chatting at the Northwest Washington row house that is his campaign headquarters, he added, "I'd like to set an example that people who have means should use those means to better society."
He keeps about two-thirds of his assets in money market accounts "because if we need it right away, I want to be able to use it. It isn't just civic projects, you know. We're up against huge, trillion-dollar industries."
As an example, he said that in 1972 he put up $500,000 for his Congress Project, which prepared 30-page profiles of each member of Congress. "That had to be done with speech money," he said.
Nader said he charges $5,000 to $15,000 for each speech, and he gave 59 over the past 16 months. He made $601 for appearing on ABC's "Politically Incorrect," and was paid $5,400 for an article on airline complaints in Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
The federal form does not require exact values for assets--only ranges, such as "$1,001 to $15,000" or "over $1 million." But Nader listed precise values for three of his largest investments.
He said the stocks he chose were "the most neutral-type companies."
"Number one, they're not monopolists and number two, they don't produce land mines, napalm, weapons," he said.
And he said he has no tax shelters. "I've had an opportunity to do tax-free municipal bonds--never would do it," he said. "I don't believe that corporations or major investors should invest in tax-free municipal bonds. I think they should pay their taxes."
Nader said he did not adjust his investment portfolio with the disclosure in mind. "I don't think I've had more than one trade in a year," he said.
Apparently concerned about how his fortune will play, however, Nader added a catechism-style explanation to the form that he filed with the FEC. He asked himself eight questions. One of them was, "In retrospect, how would you have invested your savings for a greater return?"
"I would have invested in shares of The Washington Post Co. back in the seventies, which would have increased by ten to twentyfold the amount of funding for those consumer and other civic initiatives that its newspaper too rarely covers," he wrote.
Despite his new openness, Nader said he will not release his income-tax returns. He declared that "assuring privacy rights for all Americans has been one of my active engagements for many years."
For the same reason, he said he did not regret waiting until now to end the speculation about his personal fortune.
"In our country, we have freedom-of-information law, and privacy law," he said. "So you always have to balance them. And if you are not a public candidate or a public elected person, then you have rights of privacy. While I may not care about disclosing these things, I didn't want to break the principle."
A look at Ralph Nader's wealth:
* Net worth: $3.8 million
* Lifetime earnings: more than $13 million
* Speech income: $200,000 to $300,000 a year for 30 years
* Nonprofit donations: more than 80 percent of after-tax income
* Stocks held: Cadence Design Systems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., ComCorp Inc., FiberCore Inc., Iomega Corp., Ziff-Davis Inc.