Thursday 21 November 2019

Revealed: The blast from the past millionaire now backing Joan Freeman


Des Walsh
Des Walsh
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Forty years ago, they were childhood sweethearts before parting ways and losing contact.

Now Los Angeles-based, marathon-running millionaire Des Walsh is back in presidential hopeful Joan Freeman's life.

He's bankrolling her run for Áras an Uachtaráin with a €120,000 loan, having gone from growing up in Rathmines to climbing to the top of the US corporate ladder.

It's an extraordinary tale, worthy of the Disney films Des used to distribute when he worked for the entertainment giant.

But there's also been controversy as Joan faced tough questions over what checks she did before accepting the loan. Des was the $1.3m-a-year president of Herbalife Nutrition which sells food supplements. The company has previously been accused of operating as a pyramid scheme.

And it risks being dragged into the storm regarding allegations of rape against soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, who has promoted their products.

Earlier this week, Joan told RTÉ Radio she didn't need to do a background check on Des, saying he is "a very good guy". She said her questions were things like "what does he look like 40 years later?" and "is he married?"

Since their romance ended, Joan married postmaster Pat Freeman, founded suicide prevention charity Pieta House, and was appointed to the Seanad.

Des got a law degree from the University of London and later moved to Texas when he got a job as a manager at Commtron Corporation, a US-based electronics products distributor.

He married in Ireland in the 80s when his friend Richard Mulcahy - Joan's presidential campaign manger - was his best man. Des declined to offer details of his family out of respect for their privacy.

Mulcahy helped Des and Joan renew contact. He spotted her on the 'Late Late Show' in January and sent a screen-shot to his pal in LA, asking if it was the same woman he used to date.

It led to Des donating $50,000 to Solace House, the US off-shoot of Pieta House. During his time in America, Des became vice-president of Disney's Buena Vista Home Entertainment company in 1995 before moving to LA to take up a senior role at DMX Music.

The man who recruited him at Disney, Michael Johnson, became Herbalife chief executive in 2003 and Des followed him in 2004.

Des has been an enthusiastic backer of its products, saying in 2015 he drank their shakes every day and ran a marathon once a year "faster than I did 25 years ago". He credited "the power of Herbalife's products".

He was at the forefront of defending the company against allegations it was more interested in recruiting new salespeople than selling products.

It made a $200m settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to avoid a finding that it was operating as a pyramid scheme.

Des told the Irish Independent that Herbalife Nutrition "respectfully disagreed" with many of the positions put forward by the FTC but settled "to avoid the cost and distraction of protracted litigation".

In recent days it emerged football star Ronaldo, who is sponsored by Herbalife was accused of raping a woman in 2009. He has strongly denied the allegations.


Nike, one of his other sponsors, has expressed concern at the allegations and is monitoring the situation.

Herbalife Nutrition did not respond to queries on its sponsorship of Ronaldo last night. The company is the main backer for LA Galaxy, which once boasted David Beckham and Irish football hero Robbie Keane among its ranks.

Des was involved in organising a 2015 visit by Keane to Crumlin children's hospital where LA Galaxy and Herbalife donated €44,000.

The businessman said he decided to back Joan for the presidency due to her "commendable compassion" and "remarkable leadership" in setting up Pieta House. He believes she would have a "huge impact" as President in addressing issues like mental health and homelessness.

It remains to be seen if the loan from her blast from the past ex-boyfriend will help Joan Freeman in achieving her presidential ambitions.

Irish Independent

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