Before his name emerged in the news for large political donations, Greg Lindberg was a relatively unknown businessman whose company dabbled in a wide range of industries, from insurance and health care software to publishing data on sports memorabilia cards.
But now, the Durham entrepreneur is charged with bribery and conspiracy in an investigation that has also ensnared the North Carolina Republican Party chairman.
The 48-year-old Lindberg kept a low-profile for most of his career, often declining interviews, but that changed in recent years when he became one of the biggest political donors in North Carolina.
His company, Eli Global, a private-equity firm that owns a complex web of more than 100 companies, spans multiple industries and continents and employs thousands.
According to his own accounts, Lindberg, a California native, started the company from his dorm room at Yale University in 1991. (Eli is a nickname for Yale graduates. It comes from the school’s namesake, Elihu Yale, a wealthy merchant who worked with the East India Company.) The company was at that point just a health care newsletter, according to its website.
Its headquarters is now a nondescript building in southern Durham, where employees manage the company’s conglomeration of subsidiaries and hunt for new companies to acquire and grow. The company says it acquires around 30 new companies a year, ranging in size from $2 million deals to $300 million, and brags that it never sells a company once it has bought it.
“I thought the work environment was excellent,” Ian Lipman, a former mergers and acquisitions specialist at Eli Global, said of working at the firm.
The company’s office was laid back and Lindberg often attended weekly meetings with the staff. He had a sort of Steve Jobs persona, regularly wearing black T-shirts and jeans, Lipman told The News & Observer in a phone interview.
“He is very meticulous, very process-driven,” Lipman added. “He was the type of person who would look at a financial sheet and ... know right away if a company was going down” or would be successful.
But after nearly 30 years of intensely managing Eli Global, the growing scandal has apparently caused him to take a step back from running it.
While still listed as the CEO of Eli Global on the company’s website, Lindberg has not been involved with the day-to-day operations at the company in about a year, a spokesman for the company said. A group of three senior executives now run the company on a day-to-day basis.
A river of money
The growing empire of Eli Global apparently made Lindberg an extremely wealthy man — or at least one capable of owning multiple mansions across the United States, taking million-dollar vacations and buying a Gulfstream jet and leasing another one.
A spokesman has previously given his net worth as $1.7 billion at the end of 2017, which would be a significant increase from his early days in the Triangle. Lindberg’s net worth was around $12.8 million in the early 2000s, when he was living in Chapel Hill, according to a premarital agreement he signed with his now-estranged wife.
On his personal website, Lindberg cites William Randolph Hearst — a newspaper magnate of the early 20th century who inspired the Charles Foster Kane character in the movie “Citizen Kane” — as one of his earliest inspirations.
And like Hearst, Lindberg assembled a range of mansions across the country.
There’s the mansion in north Raleigh on Morning Mountain Road that was the most expensive home ever sold in Wake County. There’s the one in Durham on Stagecoach Road, which was Lindberg’s main residence for many years, and is equipped with both indoor and outdoor tennis courts for year-round use. There’s also the vacation homes in Key West, Fla., and in Idaho, according to court documents.
Lindberg and his wife spent lavishly, once spending $1 million on a yacht vacation, according to court filings from a legal dispute with his wife.
His wife, Tisha, referred to his spending as a “river of money” that “flowed through his more than 300 personal companies.” The couple’s home in Durham was regularly staffed with tennis and martial-arts trainers, nannies and security personnel each making tens of thousands of dollars per year, according to court documents. The couple’s lifestyle was so extravagant that in their separation, Lindberg was ordered to pay $60,000 a month in child support for his three children, according to court documents.
But all those residences are up for sale now — all going on the market around the same time regulators began looking more closely at his businesses.
Lindberg never even occupied the home in Raleigh, which he bought last summer and then re-listed a few months later. “The owner’s plans changed,” Susan Bashford of the real estate company Hodge & Kittrell Sotheby’s International Realty told The N&O at the time. “He was going to move into it, but he changed his mind and is now selling.”
Now the foundation of his business empire (and perhaps the source of his lavish spending) is being questioned, as state regulators pore over his business methods and a federal grand jury has indicted him on charges of bribery and conspiracy. (Lindberg denies the charges and says he’s innocent.)
Eli Global’s performance really began taking off after 2014, according to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, when the company began investing more heavily in acquiring insurance companies. A Lindberg-owned subsidiary called Global Bankers Insurance Group managed the dozens of insurers Eli Global bought.
But in 2017, the N.C. Department of Insurance began to question the financial health of Global Bankers Insurance Group’s companies. “There were loopholes being exploited,” N.C. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey told The Charlotte Observer this week.
For example, the company would take the assets from insurance companies it recently bought — such as burial-policy insurer Southland National Insurance Corp. — and invest it into Eli Global-owned companies, a process that is tightly regulated. According to the Wall Street Journal report, some states set limits that no more than 10% of an insurance company’s money can be invested in affiliated companies. That limit is meant to keep insurance companies solvent and protect policy holders.
But in North Carolina, Lindberg was allowed to invest as much as 40% of assets into his other companies, an allowance made under former Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, who lost an election to Causey in 2016.
The Journal investigation connected some of that money to purchases of things like the north Raleigh mansion and hosts of new businesses, such as a wine wholesaler and a chain of eye-doctor practices. A spokesperson for Lindberg told the Wall Street Journal the homes and yacht were investments.
In a federal indictment unsealed Tuesday, Lindberg was one of four people charged with bribery.
The four, which included N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes and two Lindberg associates, are accused of trying to bribe Causey with $2 million in campaign contributions to get him to take actions favorable to one of Lindberg’s companies — including the removal of an insurance department employee responsible for regulating that firm. (Causey recorded conversations with Lindberg as part of the investigation.)
Millions in donations
Lindberg had developed a reputation for splashy political donations in the past few years.
From 2016 to 2018, Lindberg donated just over $7.5 million to both super PACs and state and federal political committees, according to campaign finance records filed with the NC State Board of Elections and the Federal Election Commission, The News & Observer has reported. That sum made him one of the biggest donors in the state.
Most of the donations went to Republicans, but he also donated to Democrats, including Farad Ali, former Durham City Council member and mayoral candidate, and — notably — Wayne Goodwin, the former insurance commissioner and current chairman of the N.C. Democratic Party. Goodwin also did consulting work with Global Bankers Insurance Group after losing his re-election.
In a statement, Goodwin said: “Any suggestion that I have ever taken any action in return for contributions is categorically false.”
Lindberg made several donations to politicians in Florida and several other national political causes.
Last year, he also pledged $1 million in scholarships over five years to North Carolina students who enroll in the state’s historically black colleges or universities. Lindberg worked with the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus Foundation on that scholarship, which is how State Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham, met him.
“I think he was concerned about their plight” around student debt, McKissick said in an interview about the donation.
There was also talk about Eli Global potentially taking scholarship winners on as employees in the future to increase the diversity of the firm.
McKissick said he met Lindberg only once, but he seemed genuine.
“My impression was he seemed to be someone that was a nice person,” he said. “I didn’t have any reason to believe, in one encounter, that he was involved in something that was nefarious.”