Remembering Laszlo.

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July 31 2002 5:10 PM

Remembering Laszlo

What do you call the federal government's prize slumlord? A philanthropist.

"Laszlo Tauber, a Patron in War and Peace, Dies at 87." Thus read the laudatory obituary in today's New York Times for a wealthy Washington-area surgeon and landlord who emigrated from the Budapest ghetto after World War II and became an important philanthropist.

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Funny—the Times'obit says nothing about the fact that Tauber was also at the center of the General Services Administration scandal during the Carter administration. The Washington Post's obit on Tauber does not mention this either, though the Post broke the GSA scandal story. Nor does either obit mention that Tauber, in my experience at least, liked to call people up and threaten to have them killed.

The Carter GSA scandal was, in a nutshell, that the federal government was spending more to rent many crummy, cut-rate office buildings than it would have cost to buy better structures. A striking number of the crummy, cut-rate office buildings were owned by Tauber or were in the names of close members of his family. Tauber cleverly exploited loopholes in GSA rules to win contracts for undesirable buildings, then would add flourishes such as getting the GSA to take over the utilities payments that the leases called for him to make. True, it was not Tauber's fault that government drove such poor bargains. But much of his wealth—an estimated $1 billion at his death, according to the Post—came from milking taxpayers, not from creative enterprise. And Tauber's excesses, when revealed, seriously harmed the Carter administration.

Wouldn't it be nice if the Times or Post had seen fit to at least mention these things? The Post says only that Tauber won wealth by "zealously pursuing all the profit his no-frills office buildings could provide" and that, through federal building leases, Tauber spent "five percent of his time on an activity that brought him 95 percent of his money." The Times only refers obliquely to Tauber's being "one of the government's largest private landlords."

Oh, and his warm human nature? In the late 1970s, I wrote an article about the GSA scandals for the Washington Monthly, adding some previously unpublished details about Tauber's shenanigans. A few days after publication, I got a message to phone Tauber, who hadn't answered my calls while I was working on the article. When I called back, he screamed into the phone that he was going to have me killed, that I had no idea who I was dealing with, that he was rich and well-connected and I was a nobody and how dare I write anything critical of him. Only death threat I've ever received.

I'm paraphrasing what Tauber said. It was more than 20 years ago, I no longer have my notes of his tirade, and no, I did not file a report with the D.C. police. My impression was that he was just a very weird guy who worshipped money above all else in life and thought his money placed him beyond criticism. I am glad to learn the extent of Tauber's philanthropy; that speaks well of him. But I don't remember him as a "patron in war and peace." I remember him as a high-society slumlord who liked to bully people.

Gregg Easterbrook is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

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