Not All That Glitters Is Good!
By Al Lewis Denver, Post Staff Columnist
Life is good for Wayne Murdy.
In 6½ years, he built Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp. into one of the world's largest gold producers. During his tenure as CEO, gold soared from about $250 to $665 an ounce.
On June 30, Murdy, 63, retired with a pension valued at $19 million, plus stock and options worth millions more.
Ripping open the earth and extracting its gold is a messy business. It sometimes means dealing with corrupt governments, accidentally spilling cyanide and mercury, destroying traditional livelihoods and displacing the little people from their native lands.
Yet after leading these activities on a global scale, Murdy is about to be honored as a humanitarian.
Murdy has been chosen to receive the University of Denver International Bridge Builders Award at the 10th annual Korbel Dinner, a glitzy fundraiser for DU's Graduate School of International Studies at the Denver Marriott City Center on Aug. 30.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will give the keynote address. The dinner, after all, is named after her father, Czech diplomat Josef Korbel, who founded the international-studies school and became its first dean. Albright was unavailable for comment for this column.
Philanthropists Robert and Judi Newman - whose names are on DU's $72 million performing-arts center - will receive DU's Josef Korbel Humanitarian Award. The award Murdy will receive isn't exactly for humanitarianism. It's for building relationships between Denver and the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, the Korbel Dinner awards and DU's international-studies program are so inextricably linked to the humanitarian ideals they profess that many people don't see the difference.
Kara Martinez, a 2003 graduate, says she's insulted that her alma mater would whitewash a gold-mining company.
"I went to DU for a degree in international human rights," she said. "DU giving this award to Newmont is completely contradictory to that value. ... It's a revictimization of the communities Newmont has harmed."
Newmont routinely battles protests, lawsuits, sanctions and even criminal charges. The Western Shoshone of Nevada, for example, have been pressing claims against Newmont that sound remarkably like what cowboys have been doing to Indians for centuries. And claims from groups in Indonesia, Ghana and Peru are so horrible and strikingly similar that Newmont's own shareholders have passed a resolution demanding that the company address them.
To be sure, Newmont is perpetually under attack from activists. Not all of the mud sticks. In April, an Indonesian court acquitted the company and one executive on criminal charges for allegedly dumping arsenic and mercury into a bay where villagers ate fish that made them sick. Prosecutors are appealing the verdict.
"At best it's ironic and at worst it's hypocritical for a human-rights program to give an award to Wayne Murdy," said Glenn Morris, a professor at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Morris, who is also an attorney and sits on the leadership council of the American Indian Movement of Colorado, said he will help organize protests outside the Marriott on Aug. 30. Other groups say they will help organize protests as well.
"During Wayne Murdy's tenure, we have not seen Newmont take significant steps to address the needs and rights of local communities," said Paula Palmer, executive director of Global Response, a Boulder-based group that aids people impacted by Newmont's activities. "I think most of the changes have been on paper."
I think Newmont does what it can to mitigate the consequences of its activities - but in the end, it's a giant corporation on a mission to get the gold. People affected by this naturally fail to appreciate this sort of enterprise.
"The cost is too high for these communities," Palmer said. "It's not as if we all desperately need gold. ... Most gold is just used for ornamentation and is enjoyed by wealthy people."
Murdy was not available for comment, said Newmont spokesman Omar Jabara.
"It's unfortunate that an opportunity to help the University of Denver is being used to advance a bizarre agenda," Jabara said. "Like most people, Wayne Murdy believes business success and economic development are only sustainable through the protection of human rights. In addition, it's a well-established fact that economic development, like the kind we bring to many underdeveloped areas, is a catalyst for improved human rights."
In the past, the Bridge Builders award has gone to less controversial executives such as former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and Ralph Peterson, the affable CEO of engineering giant CH2M Hill.
I asked Tom Farer, dean of the international-studies school, if he regretted choosing Murdy.
"Most of my colleagues wish that I hadn't recommended Murdy ... for the award," he said. "I've taken a fair amount of abuse for it."
Many professors in his department signed a letter asking him to reconsider. But he says he's willing to take the heat.
Farer is no stranger to humanitarianism. He once served as president of the human- rights commission of the Organization of American States.
He said he chose Murdy because - believe it or not - under Murdy, Newmont has improved. Farer offers the award as a carrot, instead of using a stick, and hopes it will inspire Newmont to hold itself to higher standards.
Already, DU's Daniels College of Business works as a consultant to Newmont, teaching its top executives such subjects as corporate strategy, social responsibility and environmental sustainability.
Bruce Hutton, dean of the business school, said he believes it's better to involve a company like Newmont in this sort of education than to simply beat on it as so many activists do.
"There are no perfect companies out there," he said. "Our job is to bring them in, work with them and move forward."
But do you really have to give a gold miner a humanitarian award?
"Wayne Murdy has to be responsive to 1,000 voices," Hutton said. "Sometimes, things good happen. Sometimes, things bad happen. We think we should give him credit when things good happen."
DU's business school is well-known for its work in corporate ethics and responsibility. Hutton and Farer hope to launch this fall a project called the Global Institute for Sustainable Development.
I asked Farer if he had sought funding from Murdy or Newmont for this effort.
"I certainly plan to," he said.
So the institute will ask corporations for money, which it will then use to investigate corporate abuses. Is this really going to work?
"Corporations that give us money will have to believe that if we research them objectively, they'll look better than they would if they're simply subjected to attacks from militant groups," Farer said.
But what if you research them and the facts are damning? I asked.
"Well, then they may regret it," he said. "Universities are committed to honest research. We pull no punches."
But you do give prizes.
Al Lewis' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Respond to him at:
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