The Liberian Connection

Company that paid White House adviser David Plouffe $100k has ties to African warlord

David Plouffe / AP
August 8, 2012

A subsidiary of the South African company that paid senior White House adviser David Plouffe $100,000 in 2010 to deliver two speeches stands accused by the United Nations of enriching the convicted Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, helping him to amass a fortune while hiding in exile, according to reports.

Plouffe has faced mounting criticism in recent days for profiting from a speaking gig with an affiliate of the MTN Group, a telecommunications firm that has friendly ties to a host of controversial regimes and state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan.

Plouffe’s MTN talk occurred in December 2010, just a month before he became a senior White House official but after the appointment had been announced.

While the Obama administration quickly defended Plouffe, explaining that White House lawyers cleared the deal, foreign policy observers maintain that even cursory research would have exposed MTN’s controversial ties.

"It’s quite obvious to everyone but the White House that MTN has no soul, no morals, and will serve any client—war criminals, genocidal maniacs, terror sponsoring regimes, all of the above," said one D.C.-based foreign policy official.

Sources said Plouffe should return the tainted money, just as he did in 2009, after he was awarded $50,000 to speak before a front group for the government of Azerbaijan.

"Even if you didn’t know at the time how bad these guys are, why aren’t you giving the money back or to charity?" asked the foreign policy official.

MTN’s ties to Liberian warlord Taylor extend back several years to when the firm entered the beleaguered African country via its affiliate, Lonestar Cell MTN, according to a report by the South African City Press.

War criminal Taylor is reported to have as much as a 40 percent stake in PLC Investment Limited, which jointly owns Lonestar Cell MTN along with the Investcom group, a Lebanese investment firm now owned by the MTN Group. Lebanon’s prime minister is MTN’s largest individual shareholder.

Taylor’s former vice president, Moses Blah, has alleged in court testimony that the warlord became a "secret part owner in Lonestar," and helped the company maintain a monopoly on the Liberian marketplace, according to a New York Times report on the matter.

It is also suspected that Taylor is the largest shareholder in MTN’s Liberian subsidiary. From 2000 to 2004 alone, Taylor amassed $40 million from Lonestar, according to some estimates.

The U.N. additionally listed PLC Investment Limited’s chairman, Benoni Urey, as a Taylor confidante and accomplice. Urey’s assets have been frozen and he is banned from travelling, City Press reported.

Urey is said to have helped Taylor’s Lonestar Communications group retain control of the Liberian cell phone sector and also assisted him in an illegal purchase weapons from a Russian arms dealer, according to a report by the Coalition for International Justice (CIJ).

PLC shareholder Emmanuel Shaw also has been listed as a Taylor accomplice, though the U.N. recently lifted his travel ban and unfroze his assets, the report stated.

Shaw helped bring weapons into Liberia and invested Taylor’s money, according to the CIJ report.

The partnership between PLC and Lonestar continues to be a source of income for Taylor as he lives in exile in Nigeria, according to U.N. investigators, who have petitioned the Liberian courts for more information about the warlord’s assets, the New York Times reported.

MTN Group became concerned late last year that its Liberian associates may be a liability for the company.

"We would like to express our concern on recent developments which are causing fundamental reputational damage to Lonestar Communications Corporation, or Lonestar Company," MTN officials wrote in a letter dated November 2011. "All directors of Lonestar have a ­fiduciary duty to act in the interests of the company (and accordingly not cause reputational damage to the company)."