Firm that paid Obama adviser in business with warlord-tied official
By Richard Cohen
Published August 11, 2012
May 30, 2012: Former Liberian President Charles Taylor listens to the judge at the opening of the sentencing hearing near The Hague. (Reuters)
A South African company in the spotlight for paying $100,000 in speaking fees to White House adviser David Plouffe is also in business with a Liberian official under U.N. sanctions for his ties to convicted war criminal and former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor.
That's among the latest details to emerge on the connections involving MTN Group, a subsidiary of which paid President Obama's former campaign manager for engagements in late 2010, shortly before he joined the White House.
The ties to Liberia's bloody Taylor era center on Benoni Urey, who was commissioner of maritime affairs in Liberia during Taylor's reign. Urey remains on the U.N. assets-freeze and travel-ban list, even though a U.N. committee last month removed more than a dozen other Taylor allies from the list.
Urey is deeply involved with an entity called PLC Investments Limited, which is MTN's business partner in Liberia. MTN confirmed the companies together own Liberia's Lonestar Cell MTN -- MTN owns 60 percent, and PLC Investments owns the rest. MTN has been in Liberia since 2006.
Before MTN got involved, the Lonestar company was suspected of being a "source of funds" for Taylor himself, according to a 2009 U.N. report.
That report also detailed Urey's involvement, saying he and another individual tied to Taylor, Emmanuel Shaw, held positions on the Lonestar board of directors. Urey's current role with PLC is a bit hazy -- according to the U.N. report, one Liberian official reported Urey and Shaw owned PLC Investments, though other documents disputed that. Still, the report showed both officials were being paid by the company, and according to FrontPageAfrica newspaper, Urey and Shaw have been confirmed as current PLC managers.
A 2005 report by the Coalition for International Justice claimed Urey helped Taylor "siphon off" money from a shipping entity to buy arms. Further, the report said he was a "primary liaison for the illegal purchase of weapons" in Liberia from infamous international arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Investigations of MTN by the United Nations and others have revealed not only its connections with war criminals in Liberia, but also "collusion with the Taliban in Afghanistan and providing surveillance technology to governments keen on cracking down on dissent," in Iran and elsewhere, according to ESG Insider, a news and opinion web site on corporate governance. The firm has subsidiaries in more than 20 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
The continuing reports on MTN's shady background are sure to fuel criticisms of Plouffe, whose speaking fees from the firm were initially reported this month by The Washington Post. News reports have revealed the company's broad web of sometimes shady connections, plus MTN's efforts to distance itself from Urey. MTN officials have denied any wrongdoing in the affairs.
In a statement to FoxNews.com, MTN Corporate Affairs Director Paul Norman downplayed Urey's role.
"Mr. Urey has no involvement in the day-to-day management or running of MTN Liberia, nor does MTN have the legal authority to remove Mr. Urey from his relationship with PLC Investments," he said. "MTN has been working to ensure that all parties in this joint company operate to the high standards of ethics and governance that are expected by MTN. Given Liberia's recent history and the process of political reconciliation underway, the restructuring of MTN's interests in Liberia is a long and ongoing process."
Republican sources on Capitol Hill said Plouffe's fees and the MTN activities loom as a combustible issue in Obama's re-election campaign.
"It will be a lingering problem for Plouffe and undercuts the White House's central claim that Obama represents hope and change," said a senior House Republican aide. "This is a fly at the picnic that is not going away."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed Republican attacks on Plouffe following the Post report as "political criticism after the fact."
A White House official told FoxNews.com on Friday it's "worth noting" the heaviest criticism over MTN -- which came from watchdog United Against Nuclear Iran -- about its dealings in the Iran didn't start until 2012.
"Seems like if MTN was a notable public problem in 2010, they might have started their campaign then, given how attuned they are to the issue," the official said in an email, suggesting Plouffe might have had limited knowledge of this controversy when he accepted the speaking fees.
"David Plouffe referred this proposed speech, as he did others, to counsel for further review," the official said. "No other issues of concern were raised in the course of the review he requested."
As for the Liberia connection, Taylor, who resigned in 2003, had long been out of power when Plouffe gave the speeches for MTN. Urey, though, was still out in the open.
Other concerns with MTN mostly center on its business with Iran. A lawsuit filed by a spurned competitor earlier this year in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. claimed the firm engaged in a "premeditated program of corruption" that allegedly included efforts to arm Iran and secure favorable United Nations votes regarding its nuclear program in exchange for a mobile-phone license.
The claims surfaced in U.S. court long after Plouffe accepted the speaking fees. But the suit alleges that the "corruption" was well under way dating back to 2004, though MTN has denied the accusations.
MTN is trying to get the case dismissed, arguing in a court filing last month that it is "nothing more than a commercial dispute" over competition for a license -- a dispute that does not belong in U.S. court, they say.
The White House has noted Plouffe's interaction with MTN in 2010 was confined to speeches and that he did not meet separately with company executives when he gave those speeches in Nigeria.
In 2009, Plouffe donated $50,000 to a public-interest group after he was criticized for taking the fee for a speech in Azerbaijan.