From Waterville Valley To A Gold Mine: Sununu Family Interests Built On Political Clout

Jan 3, 2017

When Chris Sununu takes office Thursday, he’ll be the youngest governor in the country. But his arrival will also be a restoration of sorts for his family.

The Sununus have been New Hampshire’s first family before, back in the 1980’s, when Chris Sununu’s father, John H. Sununu, was Governor.

But plenty has changed since then, including the family’s business interests.

One measure of how the Sununu family's fortunes have changed since the last time a Sununu sat in the corner office can be seen in John H. Sununu’s official portrait, hanging in the State House. A detail in that portrait is a family picture, showing the Sununus, including all eight children, posing at a ski area. 

Back then, Waterville Valley was the family's favored vacation spot. Now the Sununus own the resort. They bought it in 2010, and made Chris CEO.

The portrait of former Governor John H. Sununu on display at the New Hampshire State House

“It’s a whole different world than when I was growing up skiing," Chris Sununu said during his gubernatorial campaign. "Skiing is just a great family activity, and we were just fans and season pass holders for a long time.”

Other things have changed too. When John H. Sununu decided not to seek a fourth term as governor - he would soon become President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff - one reason he gave was low pay.

And the governor’s salary was fairly modest, as Sununu explained to C-Span in 1984: "$56 (thousand) and change."

An engineer and academic before he entered politics, John H. Sununu wasn’t exactly poor. But with a big family to support, he wasn’t rich either.

Three decades after leaving the State House, he appears to be doing pretty well. He’s worked in finance and consulting, and sat on boards of a metal fabricator, an international Telecom company, and a Canadian investment concern. 

And then there’s the gold mine. In Azerbaijan.

Former N.H. Governor John H. Sununu at the Gedebek gold mine opening in Azerbaijan.
Credit A portion of a video uploaded by YouTube user mehrdad etemad

In 2009, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev was speaking at the opening of Anglo-Asian mining’s Gedebek mine. John H. Sununu was there, posing for pictures and looking proprietary.

As well he might; he’s a company director.

Based on an Anglo-Asian Mining investor prospectus from September, former Gov. Sununu owns close to ten percent of the company, which extracts gold and copper and silver, a stake that translates to more than $3 million.

Asia isn’t the only far-flung place where the Sununu family does business these days. The former governor also chairs the board of Rift Energy, a Canadian company that won the right to drill for oil in Kenya and is vying to do the same in Uganda.

Meanwhile, two of the governor-elect’s brothers, Michael, a Newfields selectman, and James, chairman of the North Hampton School Board, brokered a reported multi-million dollar deal in 2015 year to install 240 km of water pipe for a Kenyan provincial government.

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev with former Governor John H. Sununu. The two are pictured during a meeting in Washington, D.C. in March of 2016.
Credit Via en.trend.az / http://ow.ly/Hkzs307DWL9

By now, John H. Sununu and several of his sons are experienced businessmen with backgrounds in finance and degrees from top schools. But Dave Levinthal with the Washington D.C.-based Center for Public integrity says the political capital that comes with the Sununu name also helps.

“People want to do business with folks who have been in power, or have had extreme access to power," Levinthal says. "People want to hire folks because of their connections, because of their knowledge of the system, whether it be regulatory or otherwise.”

That certainly goes for the eldest Sununu brother.

(Left to right) James and Michael Sununu, with Vihiga province governor Moses Akaranga, signing a reported multi-million dollar water pipeline deal in Kenya.
Credit Via Kenya News 24

In 2011, former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu gave a 2011 TED Talk called "Reinventing Political Life."

"In the Senate I served on the commerce committee and I spent a lot of time working on telecommunications policy...spectrum management, broadband, internet deployment, internet security and privacy," he explained. "So I know as I made the transition this was now an opportunity I now had to continue this work, now in the private sector."

And he has, working for an industry-backed broadband advocacy group, sitting on the boards of Time Warner and Boston Scientific, and advising clients at D.C. lobbying firm Akin Gump.

So all told, the Sununu family is active in mining, energy, telecom, finance, real estate, and, of course, running a ski area. Waterville Valley had been Chris Sununu’s purview. He was Waterville’s CEO until last week. When he becomes governor, he’ll take on a job that will bring more responsibility and the opportunity to make the family name even bigger.