09/16/2001 Archived Entry: "Bank of Credit and Commerce International"
Bank of Credit and Commerce International - Very Weird Stuff
BCCI Oil Money
The Wall Street Journal - Page A1 Thomas Petzinger Jr., Peter Truell and Jill Abramson December 6, 1991
Two years ago, Talat Othman didn't have the president's ear. But since August 1990, the Palestinian-born Chicago investor has attended three White House meetings with President Bush to discuss Middle East policy.
Mr. Othman's political access coincides with the remarkable ascendance of a little Texas oil company on whose board he serves alongside George W. Bush, the president's oldest son. That company, Harken Energy Corp. -- though it had never drilled a single well overseas or in water -- recently won the rights to drill potentially lucrative offshore wildcat wells in a contract bestowed by the government of Bahrain.
When the Harken deal was announced in January 1990, it attracted only perfunctory notice. More recently, a number of publications have written about the case, raising questions about whether Bahrain might have chosen Harken in part because a presidential son sat on its board.
Now, George W. Bush is emerging as a principal adviser to his father. He was a lead player in the campaign to oust White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, and was cited by his father yesterday as among those who will play "key roles in the reelection effort." Thus, the issues surrounding the Harken deal take on fresh importance.
The White House says there is nothing questionable in this story of petroleum, politics and the presidential son. "There is no conflict of interest, or even the appearance of conflict, in these business arrangements," says spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. The matters had been reviewed and disclosed, he said, adding, "They are legitimate business undertakings."
Indeed, an investigation by this paper has not revealed evidence of wrongdoing or influence-peddling by George W. Bush or anyone else connected to Harken. Yet what does emerge is a complex pattern of personal and financial relationships behind Harken's sudden good fortune in the Middle East, raising the question of whether Bahrainis or others in the Middle East may have hoped to ingratiate themselves with the White House. Even more intriguing, there are numerous links among Harken, Bahrain and individuals close to the discredited Bank of Credit & Commerce International, a banking empire that used Mideast oil money to seek ties to political leaders in several countries.
The mosaic of BCCI connections surrounding Harken Energy may prove nothing more than how ubiquitous the rogue bank's ties were. But the number of BCCI-connected people who had dealings with Harken -- all since George W. Bush came on board -- likewise raises the question of whether they mask an effort to cozy up to a presi- dential son.
Among those relationships:
-- Sheik Khalifah bin-Salman al-Khalifah, the prime minister of Bahrain and a brother of the country's ruling emir, is identified on an October 1990 shareholder list as one of the 45 investors who own parent company BCCI Holdings (Luxembourg) S.A. The emir played a role in approving the Harken transaction.
-- Sheik Abdullah Bakhsh, a major Harken shareholder represented by Mr. Othman on the company's board, has been a co-investor in Saudi Arabia with alleged BCCI front man Ghaith Pharaon, and used Khalid bin-Mahfouz, until recently a principal BCCI shareholder, as his banker.
-- Harken's investment bankers helped BCCI gain its foothold in U.S. banking, and they also arranged for a Swiss bank to help rescue Harken from its debt woes in 1987 -- a Swiss bank that was at the time a joint-venture partner with BCCI.
-- Harken's consultant on the Bahrain deal counts Kamal Adham, a principal owner of BCCI, as a close friend and has had a long acquaintance with BCCI's Mr. Pharaon.
As a candidate and later in the White House, President Bush vowed to avoid even the appearance of any conflicts of interest in his administration. He instructed Secretary of State James Baker to cable all U.S. embassies to warn against the appearance of preferential treatment for Bush family investments overseas. The president has also moved to distance himself from the BCCI scandal, denouncing a former aide who recently went to work as a lawyer for BCCI's Mr. Adham, and who resigned in the ensuing furor.
George W. Bush, a managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, declined to be interviewed. He did provide brief responses to written questions through an intermediary. Asked whether his involvement with the Dallas energy company lent it added credibility in the Arab world, he said to "ask the Bahrainis."
Every individual involved denies any influence peddling. Mr. Othman, George W. Bush and people involved in setting up the White House meetings on the Mideast say the president's son had nothing to do with Mr. Othman's being included among the Arab-Americans invited. "Not by any stretch of the imagination," Mr. Othman says.
And Harken investor Mr. Bakhsh rejects any suggestion that his links, past and present, to Messrs. Pharaon and binMahfouz mean he is in any way associated with BCCI. He says through his New York lawyer that he bought Harken stock (in 1987) because it looked like a good investment in a depressed industry.
Harken officials say they resent any suggestion their company somehow has ties to BCCI. They dismiss the circumstantial links to it as purely random and say they were shocked to learn of them. And, in fact, BCCI has proved adept at insinuating itself into centers of influence without the knowledge of those occupying the seats of power.
Harken says it won the Bahrain drilling deal purely on merit, through painstaking geological research and deft negotiating. It says Mr. Bush played no role in clinching the deal.
As for Bahrain, it says it chose tiny Harken partly because it didn't believe a large company would be so fully committed to the project. Other Harken officials, while denying that the Bush name played any specific role, acknowledge that having him on their board is an asset. "You'd have to be an idiot not to say it's impressive," says Alan Quasha, former Harken chairman and its second-largest shareholder. (The largest, with 24.5%, is a Harvard University investment fund.)
Mr. Bush's affiliation with Harken came at the end of a failed attempt to follow in the footsteps of his father. Like him, George W. launched a career in the oil business in Midland, Texas, and like his father he chose a Spanish name for it: Arbusto Energy Inc. "Arbusto" is Spanish for " bush"; the president's company was Zapata Petroleum Co.
Among George W.'s investors was James R. Bath, a Houston aircraft broker who had a flourishing aviation business with sheiks of the Saudi peninsula. Mr. Bath owned a piece of a Houston bank in which Mr. Pharaon, the BCCI front man, had been a controlling shareholder.
Mr. Bath also invested money in the U.S. for Mr. bin-Mahfouz, the Saudi banker who would go on to become a leading shareholder in BCCI. According to Mr. Bath's personal financial statements, produced in unrelated litigation, Mr. Bath invested $50,000 with George W. Bush, becoming a 5% partner in Arbusto. Mr. Bush says he was aware Mr. Bath was representing Saudi investors but that at the time "had never heard of BCCI."
In the oil-patch depression of the mid1980s, Mr. Bush's company merged with another concern, becoming Spectrum 7 Energy Corp. But its fortunes didn't improve. "We lost a lot of money in the oil business," says Philip Uzielli, a director of Spectrum 7 and friend of Mr. Bush . "We had a lot of dry wells. . . . Things were terrible. It was dreadful."
Finding a buyer wasn't easy. But in September 1986, Harken Energy swapped some of its own shares for the shares of Spectrum 7. Mr. Bush's cut was worth roughly $600,000. "Getting Harken stock at that point turned out to be very good," Mr. Uzielli recalls. In addition to becoming a Harken stockholder, Mr. Bush became a director and a consultant at $120,000 a year, later reduced to $50,000. (In mid-1990, Mr. Bush sold two-thirds of his Harken holdings at a significant profit; his remaining stake could still be worth millions if Harken hits a gusher in Bahrain.)
What looked like a dull investment soon looked brighter. The company needed a cash infusion, and Mr. Bush, whose consulting contract listed "equity placements" among his duties, was there when Harken officials got together with Little Rock's Stephens Inc., one of the largest U.S. investment banks outside of Wall Street.
He needed no introduction to Jackson Stephens, having known him since the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign. Mr. Stephens's wife, Mary Anne, would soon become Arkansas co-chairman of the Bush for President campaign, while Mr. Stephens would donate $100,000 to Team 100, a GOP group that collected money for the campaign. Stephens Inc. kicked in another $100,000 to the Bush dinner committee last May.
But on that spring day in Little Rock, cash for Harken was the topic. Ultimately, Stephens put a rescue plan in motion: Union Bank of Switzerland, which ordinarily didn't invest in small U.S. firms, would make an exception, giving Harken $25 million in exchange for a stock interest.
At the time, UBS was a joint-venture partner with BCCI in a Geneva-based bank. And although Harken officials, including Messrs. Bush and Quasha, say they were unaware of it, Mr. Stephens was also well acquainted with BCCI. In fact, he suggested to BCCI in the late 1970s that it try to take over what is now Washington, D.C.'s biggest bank company, First American Bankshares Inc., according to court records produced in connection with the takeover attempt. Mr. Stephens was among the defendants in that suit, aimed at preventing a First American takeover by BCCI founder Agha Hasan Abedi, BCCI principal Kamal Adham and Abdullah Darwaish, chief financier for the royal family of Abu Dhabi. Mr. Stephens declined to be interviewed for this article.
The Harken financing Stephens was arranging hit a last-minute snag. To comply with U.S. banking laws, the deal assumed a complex new structure, and UBS decided to unload its shares to a third party at the first chance, according to Mr. Quasha. UBS says it planned to sell the shares all along. In any case, Stephens brought in a new patron: a real-estate magnate from Jedda, Saudi Arabia, who bought most of Union Bank's Harken shares. He was Abdullah Bakhsh.
Mr. Bakhsh for several years was chairman of Saudi Finance Co., a Luxembourg-based holding company for Swiss and French financial enterprises. He sold his interest in 1983. Who bought it isn't clear, but corporation records in Geneva show that by 1989 it had come partly under the control of the Gokal family, Pakistani shipping magnates who were early BCCI shareholders and who, according to BCCI's auditors, have failed to service more than $700 million of borrowings from BCCI.
Mr. Bakhsh has had business dealings with some of the most prominent people in Saudi Arabia, including, according to a friend, former Saudi oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani and current oil minister Hisham Nazer. One of his co-investors in the U.S. says he believes the sheik has also invested with members of the Saudi royal family.
But Mr. Bush, Mr. Quasha and other Harken officials evidently knew little about their new partner. Mr. Quasha did a background check and says he found that Mr. Bakhsh was a very private person of great integrity who had already received regulatory approval for other U.S. investments.
Mr. Bakhsh, though listed as Harken's third largest stockholder with a 17.6% stake, has met with company officials on only a few occasions, and George W. Bush says through his intermediary he has never spoken to him. Instead, Harken officials deal with him through Mr. Othman, who sits on the Harken board.
In the wake of the company's new Persian Gulf backing came a much bigger Gulf breakthrough. It might be called the Dream Deal.
Bahrain, a small emirate with strong ties to Saudi Arabia, hadn't made a significant new oil find since 1932. But high-tech seismic surveys detailed a large geological formation under the sea, between two of the greatest oil and gas fields on the planet. The company picked to drill exploratory wells would have to put up a lot of cash -- $12.7 million just for the first of several wells. But it would get a lucrative share of any oil found. The payoff could total in the billions.
Amoco, vitally interested, started negotiating with the Bahrainis in 1987. (Three other companies also entered into talks, according to Bahrain, which didn't identify them.) As negotiations advanced, Amoco grew hopeful of a contract. Then, in January 1990, it heard startling news: The contract had just been awarded to tiny Harken. "We were disappointed," says Patricia Wright, an Amoco spokesman. "We thought we might get this one."
Why did Harken get it instead? "It was not some sort of fix," says Mr. Quasha, the former Harken chairman.
Harken says George W. Bush didn't play any role in clinching the deal, and even expressed doubts that Harken had the financial resources for it. Mr. Quasha also points out that all the connections in the world won't help Harken find oil in Bahrain, which the Bahrainis know as well as anyone. "I don't see where they gain from dealing with a relative of George Bush's who futzes up."
Bahrain says the Bush connection couldn't have been a factor. "We were not aware when Harken was chosen of any prominent American or Arab who was connected with the company," says Bahrain's oil minister, Yousuf Shirawi.
However, Monte Swetnam, Harken's exploration chief, says, "I'm sure they were aware" of Mr. Bush's involvement with the company. "I talked about our exploration advisory board and our board of directors. George's name comes up twice. It wasn't a secret."
So, then, why Harken?
Harken officials, in extensive interviews, maintain that Bahrain wanted a small company that would devote full attention to the project, a point Bahraini Oil Minister Shirawi confirms. To find one, he turned to a longtime friend, Michael Ameen, a Houston oil consultant who had worked in the Mideast for Mobil Corp. and Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco).
Mr. Ameen represents yet another BCCI notation in the Harken story. As the head of government relations for Aramco, he says he had close-up dealings for years with the Saudi royal family and its advisers, including Mr. Adham, the BCCI principal, who is also a former Saudi intelligence chief. Mr. Ameen was close enough to the Pharaon family that he recalls meeting a young Ghaith on his graduation from college.
Mr. Ameen had been a friend for 25 years of Mr. Bakhsh, the large Harken shareholder. But he says that when faced with having to recommend to Bahrain one small oil company out of the hundreds to choose from, he chose Harken out of pure serendipity. Within 10 minutes of discussing the matter by phone with Bahrain's oil minister, Mr. Ameen says, he got a call from one of Harken's investment bankers at Stephens in Little Rock.
Before long, Mr. Ameen was leading Harken delegations to London and Bahrain, where, according to the company, Harken officials displayed keen knowledge of the region's geology and disarmed the Bahrainis with their open negotiating style.
In the midst of Harken's talks with Bahrain, Mr. Ameen -- simultaneously working as a State Department consultant -- briefed the incoming U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, Charles Hostler. Mr. Ameen ultimately received a fee of about $100,000 from Harken.
Ambassador Hostler, a San Diego real-estate investor who is a $100,000 Republican contributor, says through an embassy official that he never discussed the Harken deal with authorities in Bahrain. Harken officials say they met with him only after their contract was secured. Mr. Hostler does say that he has long known, and from time to time given financial counsel to, Mohammad Hammoud, who was described in recent Senate testimony as a "flexible front for BCCI." Mr. Hammoud is also listed as a significant BCCI shareholder.
Once negotiated, the Harken contract was reviewed and approved by several Bahraini officials, including, lastly, Sheik Isa bin-Sulman al-Khalifah, the ruling emir. His younger brother, Prime Minister Sheik Khalifah bin-Sulman al-Khalifah, appears in BCCI records as a shareholder, along with Mr. Adham, several members of Persian Gulf royalty, and others.
"His highness the emir has no personal opinions" about Harken or anyone else associated with the transaction, says Mr. Shirawi, the oil minister. "There is a possibility he's a shareholder, but we never heard of it," a Bahrain embassy spokesman says. If the prime minister does have BCCI holdings, the spokesman points out, the shareholding isn't large.
The drilling deal went through even though Harken admitted it couldn't begin to finance the exploration on its own. Bahrain agreed to let Harken bring in a partner. It was the hottest ticket in town; two dozen oil companies expressed interest in coming into the deal. Harken chose Bass Enterprises Production Co. of Fort Worth, Texas, a company controlled the politically active billionaire Bass family. Members of the Bass family have contributed more than $200,000 to the GOP in recent years. A Bass company official declines comment.
At the signing ceremony in January 1990, a celebratory delegation from Harken traveled to Bahrain, including Mr. Quasha, Mr. Othman and another Harken executive. The first well broke ground last month and is scheduled for completion by the end of January.
Within six months Mr. Othman saw his political status, as well as his company's position, enhanced. His name was added by the White House to a select list of 15 Arab-Americans chosen to meet with President Bush, Mr. Sununu and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft in the White House two days after Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Mr. Othman and others involved in setting up the White House meeting say his three invitations are explained by his membership in the Arab-American Council on the Middle East, a group of business and political leaders who are close to ousted Chief of Staff Sununu. "Talat was recommended to us by many people in the Arab-American community," says one administration official. Mr. Othman was most recently present at a White House gathering last month of President Bush and Arab-American leaders.
"George W. Bush has nothing to do with it," Mr. Othman says of the White House meetings. "This is an invitation from the White House."
--- Who's Who in the Harken Deal
ABDULLAH TAHA BAKHSH -- A Saudi investor who controls about 17% of HArken's stock, he has extensive business interests in Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
GEORGE W. BUSH -- The President's eldest son, he is a director, consultant and shareholder in Harken Energy. Runs the Texas Rangers baseball club and may play a role in father's re-election campaign.
TALAT OTHMAN -- Middle Eastern-born director and shareholder in Harken, he helps manage investments for Sheik Abdullah Bakhsh, a major Harken shareholder, and is a member of the Arab-American Council on the Middle East.
ALAN QUASHA -- A Harvard-educated lawyer and corporate restructuring expert, he controls about 20% of Harken's stock and served as chairman from 1983 until last February.
MONTE SWETNAM -- Harken's exploration chief, he led the team that developed the winning drilling program for Bahrain.
MICHAEL AMEEN -- A Houston oil consultant, he forged close associations with wealthy Arabs while serving as top Mideast official for Mobil Corp. and Aramco. Received a $100,000 fee from Harken.
JACKSON STEPHENS -- Arkansas-based investor whose Stephens Inc. played a critical role in fund raising for Harken. Former Stephens staffers also represented Harken in Bahrain deal, earning a $100,000 fee.
CHARLES HOSTLER -- The U.S. ambassador, he met with Harken officials after they clinched the drilling contract.
YOUSUF SHIRAWI -- Minister of industry and development for the island nation, he has responsibility for Bahrain's oil industry.
KHALIFAH BIN-SULMAN AL-KHALIFAH -- Prime minister of Bahrain and younger brother to the island's ruling emir, he is a BCCI shareholder.
SAUDI MONEY MEN
KAMAL ADHAM -- A shareholder in BCCI and former Saudi intelligence chief, he is also listed as a borrower from BCCI.
KHALID BIN-MAHFOUZ -- A bank owner in Saudi Arabia who previously held a significant stake in BCCI.
GHAITH PHARAON -- Alleged BCCI front man in secret dealings in U.S. and elsewhere.
Copyright (c) 1991, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.