FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. — The tiny bottles of 5-hour Energy that made Manoj Bhargava a billionaire are just about everywhere. But the Princeton dropout and former Hindu monk is nearly invisible.
Bhargava’s investment firm ETC Capital gave $2.5 million to the Republican Governors Association last year, joining conservative billionaires Sheldon Adelson and David Koch on the list of top five donors to the group that works to elect Republican governors.
Yet RGA Chairman and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said, “I don’t know him.”
The 62-year-old Bhargava and several of his Michigan-based companies have given at least $5.3 million to candidates for state office and political groups around the country since 2009, according to state and federal campaign filings. But Bhargava remains a mystery man, even to many of the people who are benefiting from his largesse, including Bobby Schostak, who received a $25,000 donation from ETC Capital in 2010 during his first campaign for Michigan Republican Party chairman.
Schostak, who recently left the job, said, “I would have trouble knowing it was him if he walked in the door, honestly.”
Few people have given as much to politics at the state level as Bhargava and his companies in the past five years, and donors of such generosity are typically well known and aggressively courted by politicians who need their favor and funding to pay for campaigns. Yet Bhargava avoids the spotlight, both in politics and life: he said in a 2012 television interview that fame puts “a bull’s-eye on your forehead.” And he’s gone to great lengths to obscure his political activity, even as his signature product draws more scrutiny from some of the same politicians he’s supporting.
Only a fraction of the donations were made in Bhargava’s name or by the companies that oversee the production and marketing of 5-hour Energy. But an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that he makes donations through several of his more than 70 limited liability companies. As such, the motives for his political giving are as muddy as the circuitous way in which the donations are made.
He gives most heavily to Republicans but has donated to Democrats, too. Many of the donations appear to have ties back to Michigan, where his businesses are based. Nearly a quarter of the donations affiliated with Bhargava went to candidates for state attorney general, who have the power to investigate his business, and the organizations that support their election efforts.
Attorneys general in five states are suing Bhargava’s energy shot business, accusing it of deceptive marketing practices. A federal court in California is considering nine consolidated class-action lawsuits brought against 5-hour Energy in seven states, though the cases have been partially dismissed. And the Food and Drug Administration is investigating the safety of the shot, having received reports of more than 20 deaths potentially linked to its consumption. The political giving tied to Bhargava has only increased as investigations have multiplied.
Bhargava did not return multiple calls and emails sent over the past month seeking comment about his political giving, and a reporter who recently visited the two-story brick-and-glass headquarters of his companies was told Bhargava was not available. Several people who have worked with or live near him declined to comment, citing a fear of legal reprisals, or legal agreements barring them from speaking about Bhargava and 5-hour Energy.
Political operatives in Michigan say the relative anonymity seems to be how Bhargava prefers to do business.
“People are very conscious of the fact that he’s very secretive,” said Mark Brewer, the former chairman of Michigan’s Democratic Party.