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Wealthy film producer paid for N. Korea flight

A wealthy Hollywood producer and a major corporation paid for the flight that carried former President Bill Clinton and two American journalists home from North Korea.
Image: Former U.S. President Clinton speaks to film producer Stephen Bing during welcome home ceremonies for journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in Burbank
Film producer Stephen Bing, left, and former President Bill Clinton talk during welcome home ceremonies for journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in Burbank, Calif, on Wednesday. The American journalists returned were freed by North Korea after months of detention. Danny Moloshok / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

A wealthy Hollywood producer and a major corporation paid for the flight that carried former President Bill Clinton and two American journalists home from North Korea, prompting a word of thanks Wednesday from former Vice President Al Gore and the freed reporters during an emotional airport reunion.

Stephen Bing, a close Clinton friend and longtime Democratic fundraiser, is the plane's owner, confirmed Marc Foulkrod of Burbank, Calif., chairman of Avjet Corp., the company that manages the aircraft.

Gore, who runs Current TV, which employs the two journalists, gave a shout-out to Bing during remarks after the plane landed early Wednesday in Burbank.

"To Steve Bing and all the folks who have made the flight possible, we say a word of thanks, deep thanks as well," Gore said.

The journalists themselves offered gratitude to another apparent patron: Dow Chemical Co. and its CEO, Andrew Liveris.

The connection between the chemical company and the Current TV journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, was not readily apparent. Liveris issued a statement that explained that a plane owned by the Midland, Mich.-based company was used "in different parts of the mission in recent days."

Final bill hasn't been tallied
The surprise humanitarian mission required swift approvals for diplomatic and flight plan exemptions at the highest levels of the Federal Aviation Administration and State Department, according to Foulkrod. U.S. planes generally are not allowed to fly to North Korea.

Foulkrod said Bing will pick up the bill for the flight. The total has not yet been tallied but will be significant, he said. Fuel alone is likely to cost $100,000 for the 26 hours of flying, he said, and additional costs such as catering and satellite phones could pile another $50,000 to $100,000 onto the price tag.

The effort to set up and clear the flight only started four to five days ago, Foulkrod said, adding that officials in Washington worked on it through the weekend.

Heir to a New York real estate fortune, Bing raised at least $100,000 for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, in addition to giving the maximum $2,300. He also donated at least $10 million to Bill Clinton's presidential library and charitable foundation.

Major pro-Democratic donor
Bing was a multimillion-dollar donor to pro-Democratic groups that ran ads against Republican President George W. Bush in the 2004 campaign. He also donated at least $5 million to pay for a new Democratic National Committee headquarters in 2002, when Clinton loyalist Terry McAuliffe headed the party.

Bing has a stake in the Obama administration's actions on the environment. His Shangri-La Construction builds energy-efficient buildings and aircraft hangars — in line with Obama's goal of cleaning up the environment and creating "green" jobs.

Its parent company, Bing's Shangri-La Industries, LLC., hired a Washington lobbying firm this year and has spent at least $100,000 lobbying Congress and the Defense Department on energy efficiency in buildings and airplane hangars.

Bing's Shangri-La Entertainment also was the conduit for a contribution that provided $40.1 million of the total $45.7 million raised to support a failed 2006 California ballot initiative that sought to tax companies drilling for oil in California.

As a producer, Bing's projects included "Shine A Light," a 2008 Martin Scorsese documentary of a Rolling Stones performance filmed at Bill Clinton's 60th birthday party in New York. He also produced the film "Beowulf" (2007) and financed the film "The Polar Express" (2004).

Bing's love life has periodically drawn as much attention as his political causes. Tabloids had a field day with a dispute over whether Bing fathered a child with British actress Elizabeth Hurley. It ultimately was confirmed that he had.

Bing's spokesman Paul Bloch declined to comment for this story, citing Bing's blanket refusal to speak to the media.

The plane flew from Burbank to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, then to Misawa Air Base in Japan — refueling in both places — and then went on to North Korea, Foulkrod said. On the way back it had enough fuel to skip Elmendorf, flying from Misawa directly to Burbank.