Who Is James Giffen?

Record Columnist
Published Wednesday, Aug 31, 2005
Local man at heart of oil scandal

Stocktonians scatter to all corners of the globe. But none ever traveled as far, rose as high and got in such consequential trouble as James H. Giffen.

That is because Giffen, 64, is a key oil adviser to the president of oil-rich but notoriously corrupt Kazakhstan.

The 64-year-old New York investment banker brokered some of the biggest oil deals in recent history. He became one of the richest Stockton natives in history. And now he is charged in one of the largest overseas bribery cases in history.

Federal prosecutors allege Giffen bribed Kazakhstan's president and other officials with millions squeezed from big American oil companies thirsting for Kazakh oil.

Giffen is paying lawyers millions to prove his innocence.

Giffen's case has international consequences and is being reported widely.

This column was pieced together mostly from Bloomberg.com, also Record archives and a brief interview with Giffen's cousin.

A graduate of local schools, James H. Giffen is the son of the late clothier Lloyd Giffen, who operated the classy Oxford Shop for decades on Pacific Avenue. His stepmother, Rosemary Giffen, still lives in town. As does his first cousin, retired Judge William R. Giffen.

Giffen married the granddaughter of Franklin D. Roosevelt's right hand man, Harry Hopkins, in 1961. Thus connected, after earning a UCLA law degree in 1965, Giffen hit the ground running.

Going boldly against Cold War taboos, Giffen got in on the ground floor of trade with the Soviet Union.

Described as brusque, broad-shouldered, impeccably dressed "" no mystery there "" as well as hard-working, visionary and fearless, Giffen's import-export company by 1970 was doing half of America's then-modest trade with Russia.

He later formed a New York investment bank, Mercator, and led a trade group of 300 companies seeking Russian trade.

According to Bloomberg.com Giffen jetted overseas hundreds of times, moving in circles of senior Soviet officials and industry captains.

He amassed enough power to lobby Mikhail Gorbachev on issues such as the right of Russian Jews to emigrate.

He also became filthy rich. Mercator earned about $67 million in fees from 1995 to 2000 alone, prosecutors say.

"You pretty much can get ahold of him in the back of his limo," said Judge Giffen.

That would be an $80,000 Bentley Brooklands, garaged at Giffen's 11-acre estate in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Giffen also once reportedly blew $500,000 on jewelry for a girlfriend.

As the Soviet Union broke up, American oil explorers realized Kazakhstan possessed a bonanza of oil.

Giffen interposed himself between Big Oil and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

"You couldn't go to a Kazakh minister, particularly if you were an American company, without going through Giffen," a former Chevron executive told Bloomberg.com.

Kazakhstan, one of the most corrupt nations in the world, ranks a dismal 122nd out of 142 nations on Transparency International's corruption list.

The feds allege Giffen bribed Kazakh leaders with $20 million to grease the wheels of a $1.05 billion oil concession for Mobil; paid multimillions to gain entrée for Texaco; diverted a whopping $84 million to Swiss bank accounts owned by Nazarbayev and other Kazakh officials; and other extravagant violations.

Neither Giffen from the back of his Bentley? nor his stepmother returned calls.

Judge Giffen said cousin James proclaims his innocence.

"I've talked to him just very briefly in the past six months," Giffen said of his indicted namesake. "And he maintains it's all a setup. He will be vindicated and exonerated. That's pretty much all I know."

Giffen's case has international implications. By some accounts, Kazakh leaders are so furious at the federal prosecution they threatened to sell oil to China instead.

If that's true, one Stockton native may leave a legacy along Pacific Avenue far less popular than his father's Oxford Shop: even higher prices at the gas pumps.

Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at 209 546-8270 or michaelf@recordnet.com