A prominent Obama administration trade advisor is one of the central players in a series of scandals and ethical rows that have reportedly placed him in cahoots with corrupt Congolese warlords and other questionable figures.
Kase Lawal, an oil mogul with longstanding ties to the Clinton family, was appointed in 2010 as a member of Obama’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations.
Since his selection to the trade board, Lawal has become enmeshed in a pact to purchase large quantities of illegal gold from a violent Congolese warlord, according to a U.N. investigation and various reports.
The crooked gold deal—as well as several other past scandals—raise concerns that the Nigerian-born Lawal is unfit to advise the White House about an issue as sensitive as global trade.
Lawal—founder of the oil and gas conglomerate CAMAC International—stands accused of transferring millions of dollars to Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, a rebel commander who has been linked by the International Criminal Court to a series of ethnic massacres and rapes. The deal, if verified, violates a U.N. ban on doing business with rogue Congolese warlords.
The arrangement began innocently enough.
Mutombo approached Lawal in 2010 with an offer to purchase a lump of Kenyan gold valued at nearly $10 million. It soon became apparent that the true owner of the gold was the warlord Ntaganda.
The U.N. obtained a copy of the Powerpoint presentation that Lawal associates used to tout the deal.
"We will play the role of buyer initially in partnership with lead contact," one presentation slide states. "Using the highest discretion and confidentiality is a priority."
A series of text messages between Lawal and his confidant Carlos St. Mary, who played a principal role in the deal, reveal that Lawal was well aware that the gold originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Lawal wasn’t deterred by that striking revelation.
After being informed by business associates "about [Ntaganda’s] ownership … Lawal was concerned only to the extent that this presented another twist in the already convoluted deal," the U.N. reports, adding that he "also appeared relieved to finally be engaging directly with the true owner of the gold."
Lawal soon sent his half-brother and CAMAC co-worker, Mukaila Lawal, to seal the deal in a lawless region of eastern Congo, the report states. The U.N report includes pictures of the CAMAC-owned jet that flew from the Nigerian capital of Abuja to the Congolese city of Goma, where CAMAC representatives were to meet with Ntaganda.
Once the cash was counted and the gold loaded onto a CAMAC jet, Congolese authorities descended on the group. The individuals involved were charged with money laundering and other crimes.
For its part, CAMAC denies any wrongdoing, referring to itself as a "law-abiding company" in a statement recently issued to the Houston Chronicle.
Lawal is regarded as a longtime supporter of the Democratic party and has opened up his wallet to the party on numerous occasions in the past.
In 1998, he escorted then-President Bill Clinton on a trip to Africa; nearly a year later, he was appointed to a presidential advisory committee on Africa. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Lawal was celebrated for being one of 250 "Hillraisers," or those who help to collect $100,000 or more in donations.
Even then, Lawal’s shady business dealings were well documented.
At the time, he had been accused of swindling the Nigerian government out of its own oil profits.
Between 1999 and 2000, a Nigerian company affiliated with CAMAC allegedly pumped more than 10 million barrels of crude oil, pocketing an estimated $1.9 million that rightfully belonged to the Nigerians.
Just a few years later, Lawal brokered another deal to supply the South African government with oil. Instead, he reportedly siphoned the crude to a CAMAC-affiliated shell company based in the Cayman Islands.
McClatchy reported on the incident:
Neither of two companies that CAMAC set up ever provided any oil to South Africa, however. Instead, the oil went to one of them in the Cayman Islands that was 75 percent owned by CAMAC, the [Mail & Guardian newspaper] said. Its minority owners remain secret.
The other firm, which apparently got no oil, was the South Africa Oil Co., established in Pretoria. CAMAC owned 49 percent of its shares. The remaining shareholders were a "who's who" of relatives of leaders of the country's ruling African National Congress, the newspaper said.
Each of these cases remains either stalled or unresolved. Lawal has kept a relatively low profile, either declining to comment on the cases or categorically proclaiming his innocence.