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Big oil, gay touch, messy end

A hustler's betrayal reveals the limits of gay tolerance

FROTHING WITH SALACIOUS DELIGHT. Though many people continue to stand by Lord John Browne, much of the media coverage gleefully revealed details of his relationship with former escort Jeff Chevalier.

“I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private.”

With those words, Lord John Browne of Madingley resigned as group chief executive of BP (formerly, British Petroleum), the world’s second largest publicly held oil company on May 1.

A messy end to a four-year relationship with a former gay hustler — played out in a British court — thus cut short a 41-year career, and cost Browne at least $30 million.

Anglo-Persian Oil, BP’s precursor, was close to folding in 1914 when Winston Churchill persuaded the government to rescue it, to supply the Royal Navy on the eve of World War I. It took Margaret Thatcher to fully privatize the company. By then, BP was not among the best industry performers.

Browne took the company to its current eminence in 12 years at the helm. Born in 1948 in Hamburg, his mother a Hungarian-Jewish Auschwitz survivor and his father a British Army officer, Browne was a BP university apprentice at Cambridge. Later years were spent in petro exploration and production in the US and Canada, and in 1986 he took the top job in Cleveland when BP took over Standard Of Ohio. In 1995 he was appointed to head the entire BP group, in London.

Takeovers of Amoco and ARCO, along with acquisitions of Burmah Castrol and Germany’s Aral stations followed. In 2003 Browne joined BP’s assets in Russia, where other major oil companies had faltered, with TNK to become Russia’s third largest oil producer. He also initiated joint ventures with Chinese oil companies.

Meanwhile Browne rebranded BP stations worldwide with a stylish “Helios” logo, dropped the British Petroleum corporate name, and positioned the company as ecologically sensitive, epitomized in BP’s advertising tagline “beyond petroleum.”

A 1997 Stanford University speech by Browne signalled a turning point in corporate thinking on global warming — a problem the industry had long denied. Though many environmental activists remain skeptical, solar, wind power and biofuel research have long figured large in BP’s public agenda, no small thanks to Browne.

Mom as beard

Until her death, Browne lived with his mother, who was his partner at official functions. He seems to have lived for his work. Then in 2002 Jeff Chevalier came into his life.

Browne had made little effort to hide the relationship from friends and close aides, but in conversations would say he’d met Chevalier, now 27, while he was jogging in Battersea Park near his home.

By the time Browne told the lie in court, in the course of a suit to ban publication of Chevalier’s story in the UK newspaper The Mail, it had probably assumed, by constant repetition, the ring of truth.

Yet this was the lie that would decide his fate.

Two weeks later Browne came clean: “My initial witness statements, however, contained an untruthful account about how I first met Jeff. This is a matter of deep regret.”

Browne had, it seems, met Chevalier, not while jogging, but in a more professional context.

Even in the gay world, it’s a disagreeable admission (of age or physical unattractiveness) if obliged to pay for sexual company. Foolhardy, too, to make a lover of an escort.

In a Daily Mail interview, Chevalier’s former Toronto businessman boyfriend, John Tricky talks about meeting Chevalier at “17 or 18 and working as a male prostitute” after being kicked out by his mother from a Toronto suburban home. Tricky claims he paid him $80 the first night for sex, and that for four years they lived together.

While Chevalier inspired love and loyalty, his older lover soon noticed some odd behavior. To quote Tricky from The Mail’s article: “He was thoughtful, kind and extraordinarily eccentric; he would never let people look at him while he was eating, he would only ever turn to his right, never the left, when he was walking anywhere, and the whole time we were together he wouldn’t let me go in the kitchen.”

The relationship ended with the failure of Tricky’s business.

In happier times they’d taken a vacation in England, and Chevalier soon returned there. On the website Facebook.com, he says he took a course at the University Of Westminster. At some point he became one of the hundred or so young men who offered “discreet, friendly service from guys who enjoy their work” on the web pages of Suitedandbooted.com, an escort service.

The Mail frothed with salacious delight about the website: “littered with images of naked and semi-naked men, some of them in bizarre fetish gear, many in suggestive poses.”

But that same paper also quoted Tricky about Chevalier: “He was cute, smart, one of the most intelligent people you could ever meet. I’m sure it was those qualities which attracted Lord Browne to him.”

Up, up and away

The next four years were an experience that Jeff Chevalier could never have anticipated, and from which he may never recover.

He lived in Browne’s expensive homes in Chelsea, Cambridge and Venice, travelling first class in the (incidental) company of Mick Jagger and Hugh Grant, or on private jets. Chevalier found himself on a first-name basis at dinner (sipping $6,000 a bottle claret) with then prime minister Tony Blair and also with Peter Mandelson (Britain’s commissioner of the EU for trade) and his Brazilian boyfriend Reinaldo da Silva.

He was introduced to Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, to wealthy businessmen, lords, ladies, senators, congressmen, CEOs of major corporations and other notables.

He rubbed elbows with Elton John at the singer’s Venice home. The butler, drivers and the jet were at his disposal, and they had the best seats at the opera.

The Times Of London published court documents telling of Browne extending Chevalier’s visa by paying for a university course.

As well, Browne underwrote a mobile phone ringtone business to the tune of £25,000, to get Chevalier involved in something. BP VIPs were persuaded to be on the board of the company, by then called Txist. But it soon failed.

So too did Browne and Chevalier’s relationship in early 2006.

Chevalier had begun to have panic attacks, unable to keep up with the unrelenting social obligations.

On leaving London, Chevalier returned to Toronto and slept on John Tricky’s sofa for a month. “[H]e had 20 bottles of prescription pills and would drink a litre-and-a-half of red wine in the evening,” Tricky told The Mail.

In court, Chevalier said that Browne gave him money for an apartment and furnishings for a new life in Toronto. Later that summer it was agreed “that if needed, [he] would assist in the first year of me transitioning from living in multimillion-pound homes around the world, flying in private jets, five-star hotels, £2,000 suits, and so on to a less than modest life in Canada.”

The documents note that his years being “kept” had not helped in his ability to support himself.

Blackmail

Judge David Eady in his summary noted Chevalier’s e-mails complaining of homelessness and hunger, with requests for more money culminating in a “thinly veiled threat” on Dec 24 in which Chevalier says: “I do not want to embarrass you in any way but I am becoming concerned by your lack of response to my myriad attempts at communication.”

The call came from BP on Jan 5, as Browne was on a Caribbean vacation. The Mail would be publishing Chevalier’s story.

Browne and his lawyers obtained an interim injunction stopping publication, but within a week of the paper’s disclosure of its intent, and before the scandal hit the press, BP announced that Browne would be moving up his planned retirement to July 2007.

But events moved faster, and Browne resigned on May 1, six hours after his final appeal to prevent publication was rejected.

Last year wasn’t good for BP and Browne. There were repercussions from a lethal refinery explosion in Texas, a leak in the Alaska pipeline and pressure as Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to reassert domestic control over Russian oil and gas.

Also there was shareholder discontent over the money BP lavished on its star CEO. All this and a politically embarrassing relationship coming apart at the seams.

It has been rumoured that Browne hoped to have one final business coup. A takeover of another oil giant, Shell, to leap over Exxon-Mobil and become the undisputed giant of the industry. It was not to be.

“Silly Old Fuel” read the Daily Mirror headline over the picture of Browne and Chevalier.

The Times was more sympathetic: “This sad and silly story is not about… wrongdoing — or not on any scale deserving the fuss.”

Dozens of influential people immediately went on record in Browne’s support, joined by BP employees and stockholders, particularly gay ones.

The Mail follow-up piece ran more wide-eyed recollections and gossip about Chevalier’s former life and lover, with petulant complaints: “Virtually every aspect of my life was managed by other people. I felt like a puppet.”

Browne’s enjoyment of £20 cigars and his expensive taste in wine were obviously meant to scandalize readers.

The Guardian added to a sense of tawdriness and claimed that The Mail had spent more than £40,000 to become Chevalier’s new keeper.

On British papers’ talkback pages, most on-line readers’ comments were sympathetic. People wondered if oil company executives could be openly gay if they dealt with the leaders of countries, particularly in Arab societies, where open homosexuality in the western mode was “so abhorrent.”

The Mail seemed more defensive, claiming it was only protecting the interests of pensioner stockholders and of British workers (Chevalier had said Browne threatened to move BP headquarters out of London). It also sputtered about perjury charges, but no one else seemed to care too much about “this white lie,” of which Eady had been so unforgiving, or an alleged tax dodge in Venice.

The Mail was particularly upset to be barred from printing the comments of Tony Blair at a Chevalier-attended dinner, revealing perhaps its greater interest in the story’s political potential.

The Financial Times used the occasion to raise the need for more stringent privacy laws, “since the British remain unwilling to give up their fascination with the personal lives of the rich and famous.”

Throughout, Browne has calmly attended to his social and business calendar, candidly taking questions from audiences, keeping his trademark humour and bearing up. “The last few days have been testing,” he admitted to one audience, who took his side and shouted down a belligerent journalist.

Browne resigned from the board of Goldman Sachs in New York, but has been encouraged to stay on by the board of Apax equity group.

The story has now left the headlines. The “Sun King” as he was once dubbed, may do quite well in private equity, and in his pursuit of culture and the arts — hopefully with a more compatible lover.

BP appointed Tony Hayward as chief executive. Jeff Chevalier has gone underground, reputedly somewhere in Canada. The London escort agency pulled its ads and shuttered its website, for now at least, fearing their escorts would be harassed.