Oh, Denny Boy: How The Clintons Helped an Irish Telecom Tycoon Makes Millions in Earthquake Ravaged Haiti

Bill Clinton and Denis O'Brien in Haiti. (AP)
May 7, 2015

On February 24, former President Bill Clinton was in Haiti to celebrate the opening of a luxury Marriott Hotel in Port-au-Prince. Like most foreign-backed projects in Haiti, the Clinton Foundation was a key player in its development. And like most projects involving the Clinton Foundation, a shady Clinton crony is running the show.

The 175-room hotel is owned by Digicel Group, the Caribbean and Central American telecom empire run by Denis O’Brien, an Irish billionaire who officially resides in Malta to avoid taxes and serves chairman of the Clinton Global Initiative’s Haiti Action Network. Digicel, the largest mobile provider in Haiti, invested $45 million in the project, which also benefited from $26.5 million in financing from the World Bank-affiliated International Finance Corporation. But it was Bill Clinton who made it all happen.

"I know lots of people were asking: What on earth is a telecom company doing getting into the hotel business?" O’Brien said at the opening ceremony in February. "The idea of investing in this new Marriott Hotel came from Haiti’s great friend, President Clinton. ... His guiding words to [Marriot International CEO] Arne [Sorenson] and myself on this project was, ‘Let’s do this together for Haiti.’"

The Marriott is one of several luxury hotels built in Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010, ostensibly as part of an effort to revive the country’s tourism industry and create good-paying jobs for Haitians. However, reports indicate that workers were paid significantly less than Marriott and Digicel claimed.

As Clinton explained at the ceremony in February, the project was about "more than the hotel, more than the jobs, more than the training, more than the income." It was about giving Haitians "the chance to show the real Haiti to the world that will come to this hotel." Because what better way to experience "the real Haiti" than by lounging at the poolside cabana at the Marriott? After all, Clinton Foundation employees have to stay somewhere when they come to Haiti to do whatever it is they do there.

The Clintons have been working with Denis O’Brien in Haiti since 2010, in the wake of the disastrous earthquake. Bill Clinton and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been active players in the country before the quake, but would assume almost total managerial control over the recovery effort via the State Department and the Clinton Foundation.

As Peter Schweizer documents in his latest book, Clinton Cash, Digicel received millions in U.S. tax dollars from USAID, an agency overseen by the State Department, as part of the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative. The program was designed to establish a mobile money-transfer system that would allow individuals to send donations directly to friends and relatives in Haiti.

Digicel was also tapped by the USAID Food for Peace program, which was under the direct control of Hillary Clinton’s top aide Cheryl Mills, to administer money transfers over its mobile network. Haitians received cell phones and a free Digicel account; Digicel received grants courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, collected millions in fees from Haitians every time they used the system, and significantly expanded its user base.

By 2012, Digicel had captured nearly 80 percent of the Haitian mobile phone market, and Haiti had surpassed Jamaica as the company’s most profitable market. Revenues were up 14 percent compared to 2011, and Digicel’s subscriber base increased by almost 30 percent during that period. O’Brien, who holds a 94 percent stake in the privately owned firm, continued to rake in cash. In 2014 alone, O’Brien awarded himself $650 million worth of dividends.

Okay, so what? It’s not like Bill Clinton ever got anything out of this arrangement. Right?

It’s complicated.

O’Brien helped arranged a number of speaking gigs for Bill Clinton—three in Ireland and one in Jamaica—between 2010 and 2013. On at least one occasion, Clinton flew to Ireland on O’Brien’s private jet. It’s not known how much the former president was paid for the speeches, but a Clinton spokesman told BuzzFeed that Clinton was not personally compensated for two out of the three speeches in Ireland.

Schweizer points out in Clinton Cash that the timing of the speeches raises questions about a possible quid pro quo. On September 29, 2010—just weeks after Digicel applied to receive millions of dollars worth of grants from a State Department-controlled agency to provide mobile payment services in Haiti—Clinton gave a speech in Dublin sponsored by O’Brien. Clinton was not paid, a Clinton spokesman told BuzzFeed, but acknowledged that the Clinton Foundation did received a donation after the speech. Clinton Foundation records show that O’Brien personally donated between $5 million and $10 million sometime between 2010 and 2011.

A few weeks after the September 2010 speech in Ireland, Clinton was paid $225,000 for a Digicel-sponsored speech in Kingston, Jamaica. Two months later, Digicel received its first installment of USAID grant money.

As Schweizer notes, the mobile money system was likely a worthwhile project, but like most things involving the Clintons, it was tainted by the appearance of corruption and greed. "The trouble was not in the idea itself," he writes. "Rather, it was the fact that it was helping make [Denis] O'Brien lots of money."

But Denis O'Brien seems like a nice guy who's just trying to make a difference in the world. Right?

It's complicated.

In 2011, following a 14-year investigation into political corruption, an Irish judge accused O’Brien and former communications minister Michael Lowry of colluding in the mid-1990s to help O’Brien secure a mobile phone contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the most lucrative contract ever awarded by the Irish government to a private company at the time.

The investigation found that Lowry had provided O’Brien with "substantive information of significant value and assistance to him in securing the licence" and engaged in "irregular interactions with interested parties at its most sensitive stages." In return, O'Brien funneled at least $170,000 to Lowry via "clandestine" transactions, the judge concluded. O'Brien, who denied any wrongdoing, was never formally charged.

The Clintons expect voters to believe that they've never engaged in any "knowingly inappropriate" behavior or quid-pro-quo collusion with Clinton Foundation donors, even when those donors have a history of shady dealing and just happen to make millions off of some Clinton-connected initiative. That's asking a lot, even if we never find a "smoking gun," thanks to Hillary's shrewdly executed email deletion. It would be one thing if the Haiti-O'Brien deal was an outlier—an extreme example on a long list of untainted collaborations with upstanding associates. But it's not.