Public justice for US billionaire

2:15 PM - By JOSIE CLARKE

The American billionaire drug-smuggler who fought for eight months to keep his name a secret in New Zealand is Ohio insurance magnate Peter Benjamin Lewis.

The 66-year-old is regarded as a business phenomenon in his home country where he is the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Progressive Corporation, the United States' fourth-largest vehicle insurer.

Lewis took over the company from his father in 1965 when staff numbered 100. Today Progressive employs 14,000 people and and has annual sales of $US4.8 billion ($NZ11 billion).

Lewis owns 15 per cent of the company and his wealth is estimated at $US1.3 billion.

Although unknown in New Zealand - until now - he has
cultivated a reputation in the United States as an
eccentric but highly respected business leader and an extraordinarily generous philanthropist.

He has donated $50 million to the Guggenheim Museum in New York and $55 million to Princeton University in honour of his graduating class of 1955.

He has also donated heavily to campaigns urging voters to legalise the medicinal use of marijuana.

He is a divorced father of three grown children - two sons and a daughter.

Lewis was discharged without conviction after smuggling cannabis into New Zealand for his personal use last January.

The Court of Appeal yesterday lifted name suppression, which was granted by Judge David Harvey in the Otahuhu District Court after the billionaire made a $50,000 donation to the drug rehabilitation centre Odyssey House.

The New Zealand Herald waged an eight-month legal battle to have the name suppression overturned. Herald editor Stephen Davis said the lengthy and expensive court battle was about an important principle of freedom.

"The public needs to have an open and accountable system of justice," said Davis.

"They can't go and sit in the courts themselves, so they rely on the newspapers and the media to do it for them. And if justice is done behind closed doors, and if there is a suspicion that the prominent or successful or rich or powerful get special treatment, then that's not a good system."

Mr Davis said he believes judges have become too liberal in granting name suppression.

Herald Online feature: Naming the billionaire

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