Founder of 5-hour Energy drink is big political donor
Farmington Hills — The billionaire founder of the 5-hour Energy drink and his Michigan-based companies have given millions to candidates for state office and political groups across the country, but he remains little-known in his home state.
Manoj Bhargava has donated at least $5.3 million since 2009 through several of his more than 70 limited-liability companies, yet politicians who have benefited barely know him, according to a report published Thursday by the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative news outlet in Washington.
His investment firm ETC Capital gave $2.5 million to the Republican Governors Association last year, joining conservative billionaires Sheldon Adelson and David Koch among the top five donors to the group that works to elect GOP governors such as Michigan’s Rick Snyder.
Few have given as much at the state level as Bhargava and his companies in recent years. Such donors are typically known and wooed by politicians. Yet Bhargava avoids the spotlight and has worked to obscure his political activity, the investigation found.
“I would have trouble knowing it was (Bhargava) if he walked in the door, honestly,” said former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak, who received $25,000 from ETC Capital during his first campaign for chairman.
The 62-year-old gives most heavily to Republicans but also donates to Democrats. Many donations appear to have ties to Michigan and nearly a quarter have gone to candidates for state attorney general, who can investigate his business, and organizations supporting their election efforts.
Five states are suing Bhargava’s energy shot business, accusing it of deceptive marketing practices. Twenty-eight other attorneys general have begun investigations into the marketing or safety of 5-hour Energy, which is based in Farmington Hills. Michigan is not among them.
Bhargava’s name is rare in campaign finance filings. The report said he makes most of his donations through his limited liability companies, which are not subject to the same restrictions on political activity as other corporations.
He did not respond to multiple calls and emails in the past month seeking comment about his political giving. A reporter who visited the headquarters of his companies was told Bhargava was not available.
Bhargava’s most active entity politically is ETC Capital, which invests in companies that do not qualify for traditional loans or private equity.
Since 2009, ETC Capital has given nearly $4.9 million to state candidates and political groups across the U.S., which made it one of the top 50 donors to state races in 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Companies tied to Bhargava have donated more than $1.2 million to candidates for attorney general and political committees backing them.
Companies tied to Bhargava and their executives also donated more than $450,000 in 2009 and 2010 to political groups based in Michigan. His companies have not donated directly to Michigan groups or candidates since, but national groups that received the biggest checks have been active in Michigan.
Eight weeks after ETC Capital gave $275,000 to the RGA in 2013, the group gave $276,000 to the state Republican Party. In 2014, Bhargava’s company gave $2.5 million to the RGA, which paid $3.2 million on the same day to the media company it used to place ads backing Snyder’s re-election.
In 2013, ETC Capital gave $125,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee, which donated $34,000 to GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette’s re-election campaign on the same day.
Numerous Michigan politicians, ranging from his local mayor to statewide political bosses, say they barely know Bhargava. A spokeswoman for Schuette said he has never met Bhargava. Snyder met with Bhargava once, in 2011, a spokeswoman said.
Several Michigan political insiders said they do not know of particular pieces of legislation or policy issues that Bhargava has tried to influence.
“What was strange is he never asked for anything back,” said Ron Weiser, a former Michigan GOP chairman and an ex-national finance chairman for the Republican National Committee. “Usually people want something.”