WASHINGTON - Ralph Nader, consumer champion, corporate scourge, legendary ascetic, turns out to be something else, too: a rich capitalist.
A first-ever peek into Nader's personal wealth shows that he's a millionaire several times over. Once reputed to live on $5,000 a year (in a boarding house with a bathroom down the hall), he still spends only about $25,000 a year on living expenses, Nader said in an interview yesterday.
He rents an apartment in downtown Washington. He doesn't own a car (or real estate or a yacht, he points out).
But over the past 16 months, he earned more than $512,000, mainly in speaking fees. His personal holdings are conservatively valued at more than $3.9 million, including a sophisticated portfolio crammed with high-flying high-tech stocks.
He would have even more money, Nader says, had he not given away "several millions of dollars" since 1967.
Details of his holdings, long shrouded in mystery and the subject of rumors and conspiracy theories, are spelled out for the first time in a financial disclosure report that Nader, a candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination, filed this week with the Federal Election Commission.
The fact that he is revealing his finances is noteworthy, because Nader has gone to great lengths to protect his privacy, even while pushing for greater and greater public disclosure by government and industry.
"Piece of cake. Nothing to it. Simple life dedicated to the pursuit of the public interest," he says wryly, in the most wide-ranging interview he has given about his finances.
Famously secretive - he supposedly won't tell co-workers where he lives -Nader says he is "very proud" that he funnels the bulk of the money he makes into his projects and other nonprofit organizations.
"I'm not going to brag about it," he says, sitting at a folding table in his cluttered campaign headquarters and wearing his usual uniform, a rumpled business suit.
But he does.
"It's a spectacular record," he says. "Eighty percent of everything I earn goes into civic projects, either directly or through foundations. There isn't anybody who comes close to that anywhere. I've never met anybody in the country who comes close to that, no matter what their wealth is."
Nader, who says his presidential bid is aimed at breaking up the concentration of wealth and power in America, makes no apologies for having exploited the financial markets for the benefit of his decidedly anti-corporate crusades.
In fact, after watching the value of his holdings soar over the past few years, he says with a note of regret that he has been "too conservative." (Even now, cash or money-market accounts make up two-thirds of his assets.)
"It's going to be interesting to see how the press plays this," Nader muses. "Because it's, I don't mind saying, it's a remarkable record. I don't mind saying I love living in a country that facilitates this."
One obvious target is Nader's largest single stock holding: shares of Cisco Systems stock worth $1,158,750, as of June 2. (The value of the shares has risen 5 percent since then).
Nader, who says he manages his own investments on the advice of his broker and others, says he has been buying technology stocks for the past five years.
He invested in Cisco, the Internet networking company, about 2 1/2 or three years ago. Since then, the stock price has shot up by more than seven times. All you had to do, he says, was "read the papers," since "everybody said this was an unbelievably well-managed, innovative" company.
Cisco also is a major beneficiary of China's pending entry into the World Trade Organization, a central element of the corporate globalization that Nader has condemned as "a low-intensity war waged to redefine free society."
Just this week, Cisco's chief executive, John Chambers, said in Beijing that the company's 15 Chinese manufacturing partners would provide $650 million worth of parts this year to Cisco, whose rapidly growing sales in China are approaching a half-billion dollars a year.
Foe of globalization
In his presidential campaign, Nader is making a special appeal to American workers who have become victims of the trend toward globalization.
Asked to explain the seeming disparity between his rhetoric and his investment choices, Nader says he invests only in companies he considers socially conscious, based on what they produce and how they treat their workers. He avoids those, like General Motors, that he is actively campaigning against, he adds.
But Nader says it is impossible to avoid potential conflicts, and, if you looked hard enough, "you wouldn't invest in anything."
"Put your money in the local bank and you're hooked into Beijing, one way or the other," he says. "They're all hooked in. You live in a capitalist society."
If it turns out someday that Cisco is guilty of irresponsible corporate behavior, "I'll blast them," he adds.
Nader says he built his fortune on money that he began saving back in the 1970s from speaking fees and writings.
Hefty speaking fees
He currently receives up to $13,500 per speech (he gave 60 for pay during the 16-month period covered by the report).
On one day last July, he received a total of $25,500 for two speeches in California, to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and a pension and benefits conference in San Diego.
Among others who paid fees of $12,000 or more to hear Nader speak between February 1999 and this month were the American Chemical Society, the American Bar Association, the Institute of Bioremediation in San Diego and EarthWeb, an information technology company.
Another group that paid him an honorarium was the California Nurses Association, which gave him $6,300 on March 20, more than a month after he became a presidential candidate. The nurses' union, which claims 31,000 members, formally endorsed his candidacy this week.
Most of the speeches were to audiences at colleges and law schools. He was paid a total of $378,726.91 for speeches, articles and lectures, according to his disclosure report.
Nader also reported earnings on investments of at least $133,900. The exact amounts could not be determined because the financial disclosure form requires candidates to list earnings only in a general range, such as $15,001 to $50,000.
No public tax return
In a three-page addendum to his filing, Nader conducts a self-interview, providing answers to eight questions that he says are likely to be asked.
Included is a defense of his refusal to make his income tax forms public, as both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have done.
"The growing erosion of personal privacy in many forms comes in increments and should be resisted, regardless of our limitless curiosity about [public] and private personages," Nader writes.
Among the projects that Nader lists as having been financed with his own money are the Congress Project of the 1970s, organizing efforts for public-interest research groups on college campuses, solar energy education, consumer insurance protection, work on global infectious diseases, truck safety and aviation safety projects.
'I don't have yachts'
"Money doesn't mean anything to me, except to fund projects. I don't have real estate. I don't have cars. I don't have yachts," he says.
The 66-year-old lifelong bachelor adds that he also doesn't have to worry about having to put kids through college.
He also wonders how much more he could have earned if he had taken his Harvard Law degree and gone into private practice.
"Can you imagine me as a product liability lawyer or a class-action lawyer?" he asks, with a chuckle.