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Robert Cone told the liberal Mother Jones magazine in 1996 that his family's political contributions had nothing to do with product liability. (The Cones did not respond to the Pitch's interview requests.) Yet, as Mother Jones reported, one of the recipients of the Cones' giving was Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, who sponsored a 1995 bill called the Common Sense Legal Reform Act. A section of the bill capped punitive damages in product-liability cases at $250,000. (President Clinton eventually vetoed the legislation.)
The Cones sold to Rubbermaid in 1996 for a reported $320 million. The company, however, continues to be haunted by claims that its products injure and kill. In a settlement reached last month, the company agreed to pay $4 million to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. In a press release announcing the settlement, the commission said that Graco had failed to report in a timely manner hundreds of incidents and injuries involving 16 products, all used by young children, sold between 1991 and 2002.
Having unloaded Graco, the Cones have been able to put their wealth and energy toward pursuits other than fighting lawsuits and the government. The FirstFruits Foundation and the Cornerstone Foundation (Edward Cone, president) control assets of more than $30 million, according to their most recent tax filings.
Of the two brothers, Robert Cone is the one more impressed by Tri-City. In addition to making a grant to Tri-City in the amount of $45,000, FirstFruits reported loans to Tri-City in excess of $2 million at the end of 2003.
Robert Cone has become something more than the church's benefactor and lender. He is today the nominal president of a company that now owns several dozen acres of what was formerly the church's property.
Tri-City members have been told that their church sold its major asset -- its excess land holdings -- for $18 million. But the paper trail leads down a much more convoluted path.
The Trinity Real Estate Development company was conceived on August 22, 2003. Less than a year later, Trinity took title to Tri-City's prize -- the undeveloped property around the church.
Robert Cone appears as the president of Trinity in documents filed later with Jackson County. The incorporation papers were filed by Gene Ruiz, an accountant who manages Tri-City's business affairs.
But did the church really get $18 million for selling its 70 prime acres to Trinity?
No -- not in cash, at least.
On July 30, 2004, the date of the title transfer, Trinity Real Estate Development borrowed $7.15 million from Security Savings. Logic dictates that Trinity would then have paid Tri-City $7.15 million for its 70 acres. But Tri-City lent $6 million to Trinity on the day of the sale.
It appears that the church used a portion of the money from the land sale to pay off some debts on the property; then it lent the remaining $6 million back to Trinity, giving Trinity some working capital.
The sale allowed the church to wipe only a portion of its obligations. A modification of the church's mortgage with Security Savings filed last October described debts totaling $6.9 million.
The $6 million loan from Tri-City to Trinity appears to represent the church's investment in any future earnings the property generates.
The church's loan, however, is subordinate to the Security Savings loan, according to court papers. In other words, if for some reason builders were unable to develop the land for a profit (a part of it sits in a flood plane) and Trinity went bust, Security Savings would take control and would be the first to collect.