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Africa Last Updated: Apr 30th, 2007 - 13:34:17

Teed Up: Golf, K Street and Nigeria
Apr 30, 2007, 13:33

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WITH the rainy season under way, and the weather sweltering, Nancy Lopez, a former championship golfer, hooked her tee shot into the rough. “That was a jet-lag swing,” she cheerily remarked to onlookers here, most of whom had never seen a golf club — or certainly not a middle-aged woman in shorts who was swinging one.

Ms. Lopez had come here on a late March day with two top golfers, Retief Goosen and Colin Montgomerie, to help inaugurate a new 18-hole course set in a landscape lush with palm trees. The oil-rich heart of the Niger Delta lies west of here, where armed gangs routinely kidnap foreigners for ransom.

Despite the nearby turmoil, this small city, the capital of a Nigerian state called Akwa Ibom, has remained tranquil, a point that the state’s governor, Victor H. Attah, underscored as he described the new golf resort as an attractive destination for tourists and oil industry executives.

“There is another Niger Delta, and I want the world to know that Americans can come here without fear,” Mr. Attah told reporters at a recent news conference.

As it turns out, one group of Americans had already made themselves comfortable: well-connected lobbyists and corporate consultants hunting for fees. Lobbying may bring to mind images of tasseled loafers, limousines and lavish offices on K Street in Washington. But there is another, less-studied side of the business that plays out on remote frontiers like this one, where opportunity, self-interest and money intersect.

In recent years, deal makers of all kinds have come from the United States to Nigeria, drawn by an oil-fueled boom that has underwritten airports, power plants, telecommunications start-ups and other ventures in this country, Africa’s most populous. Despite Nigeria’s abundant resources, most of its citizens remain impoverished. Others have become renowned worldwide as Internet-based hustlers, sending out scam e-mail messages that promise easy fortunes.

But the story of how a luxury golf resort came to a remote corner of a desperately poor nation is part of a larger tale of role reversal in which American wheeler-dealers, rather than Nigerian ones, played leading roles.

Over the past two years, an unlikely cast of characters sought a piece of a multimillion-dollar public spending spree initiated by Mr. Attah, an ambitious politician who wanted to be Nigeria’s next president. The group included a lobbyist who boasted of ties to the Bush White House, a bankrupt Las Vegas businessman who claimed to be a “privatization expert,” a publicly traded consulting firm that has several public luminaries in its ranks, and lesser-known door-openers in Washington and Nigeria whom law enforcement authorities have questioned in the bribery investigation of Representative William J. Jefferson of Louisiana.

Holding center stage was Richard T. Hines, a lobbyist and consultant Mr. Attah hired in 2005 to represent Akwa Ibom in the United States. Mr. Hines, who has a passion for the old Confederacy, brought together a rag-tag band of confederates. Rivals also gathered and, as the golf resort’s opening neared, a showdown ensued, one that produced an unlikely winner.

Nigeria is, of course, no stranger to corporate shell games and quick money schemes. Fraud, in all its varieties, is so common here that those who practice the craft are known as “419ers,” a reference to the section of the country’s penal code that covers the crime. But a nose for opportunity and a taste for money is hardly indigenous to Nigeria.

Kenneth Gross, a lobbying expert in Washington, said that while many lobbyists talk about venturing into developing countries like Nigeria in search of rich rewards, there is a special breed who actually do.

“It takes a real adventuresome spirit to take off their Gucci shoes and put on the hiking boots,” he says.

Then hoe it down and scratch your gravel, to Dixie Land I’m bound to travel.

Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land!

— from “Dixie’s Land”

As musicians dressed in gray Civil War-era uniforms recently performed before a likeness of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Statuary Hall of the Capitol in Washington, a small assembly joined in by singing a rousing version of “Dixie’s Land.”

The ceremony honored the birthday of the Southern military leader, an event that Mr. Hines typically attends as head of a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Although he did not attend the celebration this month, few would have attributed his absence to a lack of zeal.

A decade ago, for instance, Mr. Hines marched down a street in Richmond, Va., rebel battle flag in hand, to protest the unveiling of a statute there to the late black tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr. Mr. Hines said that his grievance was not racial, but that the street was hallowed ground for Confederate monuments.

“The intent of the placement of the statue was to debunk our heritage,” The Associated Press quoted him as saying.

More recently, he helped pay for a stealth mailing campaign during the 2000 Republican presidential primaries that attacked Senator John McCain for criticizing South Carolina for flying the Confederate flag over its capitol. On festive occasions, Mr. Hines, a former South Carolina lawmaker, wears a tie emblazoned with the Stars and Bars, the first flag of the Confederacy.

An African politician allied with a lobbyist who likes to whistle Dixie might seem an odd coupling. But in Mr. Hines, Mr. Attah found a Washington veteran who, while not the biggest lobbyist in town, had apparently carved out an influential niche.

The Web site of his company, RTH Consulting, has boasted that “You Have the Right Connections” in Mr. Hines, and that the firm has “an active voice in the current Bush administration.” In his office, Mr. Hines displays photographs of himself alongside officials like Vice President Dick Cheney, according to visitors there.

Mr. Hines did not respond to repeated interview requests in recent weeks or to a series of written questions.

But over the years, his lobbying and consulting clients have included the government of Cambodia; Philip Morris, the cigarette maker now known as the Altria Group; Schweitzer Aircraft, a manufacturer of helicopters; and the Ashbury International Group, a producer of military sniper equipment, according to public records and interviews.

If Mr. Hines secured such high-profile clients through cultivated political connections or careful courting, he apparently stumbled into working for Mr. Attah through a random meeting in a neighborhood drugstore. Three years ago, Aisha Buhari, a middle-aged Nigerian woman, stood at a perfume counter inside a Washington pharmacy and, according to an African immigrant named Joshua Assiba who said he was also there, bought thousands of dollars of merchandise.

“You must be a rich woman, looking at the way you dress and spend money,” Mr. Assiba recalls telling Ms. Buhari.

As the pair struck up a conversation and subsequently became friends, Mr. Assiba, then a security guard, said she told him that her father was the former military ruler of Nigeria, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, and that her American friends included politicians like Mr. Jefferson of Louisiana.

Mr. Assiba also said that she told him that Mr. Attah, the governor of Akwa Ibom, had asked her to look for consultants and lawyers who could help him pressure oil companies like Exxon Mobil to clean up pollution in the Nigerian state.

Mr. Assiba, who was scouting investors for his own African projects, had been introduced earlier to Mr. Hines. The lobbyist, Mr. Assiba told Ms. Buhari, was just the man Mr. Attah needed.

EVEN by Nigerian standards, Akwa Ibom is a backwater. The streets of Uyo are lined with low-slung shacks roofed with rusted sheet metal, and the city’s jumbled marketplace smells of food and sewage.

But a few years ago, Mr. Attah, a former architect, started a massive building program. He contracted with the Le Meridien chain to construct and operate a five-star hotel for the golf resort. Not far away, DynCorp International, a multinational concern that offers construction and security services, was working on a new airport to handle jet flights. And elsewhere in Uyo, an industrial park that Mr. Attah hoped would lure high-tech companies was rising.

The boom here, like those elsewhere in Nigeria, is paid for with oil revenues. Each of Nigeria’s 36 states receives a share of the country’s wealth. While some politicians squander that money or steal it, Mr. Attah, a short, affable man of 68, presents himself as an honest broker seeking to modernize his state.

Term limits barred him from running again for governor, and so he cast his eye on becoming Nigeria’s next president. To prepare for that run, he needed to raise his profile at home and abroad. So when he received a telephone call from Ms. Buhari in 2005 endorsing Mr. Hines as someone who could help, he said he agreed to hire him.

“All I needed to do was ask Aisha if she knew him,” Mr. Attah recalls.

Mr. Attah says he knows Ms. Buhari’s father, who is still a powerful Nigerian politician, by reputation. He also met her, he said, in 2001 when she accompanied a group of American politicians that included Mr. Jefferson to Akwa Ibom to see oil-related pollution problems there.

Mr. Attah says that he and Mr. Hines came to terms. The Nigerian official agreed in the late summer of 2005 to pay him $1.2 million for a year’s work, a very large sum by lobbying standards, experts say.

According to the contract and lobbying records, Mr. Hines’s duties included meetings with government officials in Washington seeking aid for Akwa Ibom, finding companies and investors to come to the Nigerian state, and publicizing its economic opportunities.

Ms. Buhari, who declined to be interviewed, did not receive a fee for any role she may have played in connecting Mr. Hines and Mr. Attah, according to the lobbyist’s filings.

But in September 2005, a week after Mr. Attah signed the Akwa Ibom contract, Mr. Hines sent a letter to State Department officials in Nigeria urging them to renew Ms. Buhari’s American visa; the letter stated that his firm had hired her as a “consultant” and that her contract was “available on request” for inspection.

Despite the large amount of money that Mr. Attah paid Mr. Hines, the politician said he never looked into the backgrounds of either the lobbyist or the associates who followed Mr. Hines to Nigeria. If he had, he might have found that some of those associates had interesting backgrounds. In fact, a few of them had already been in Africa the year before — to seek work from another client of Mr. Hines, the government of the nearby nation of Gambia.

Consider C. Edward Creed, a businessman based in Las Vegas. In 2004, Mr. Creed, Mr. Hines and others tried to start an airline with direct flights from the United States to Gambia; that venture, which Mr. Creed financed with money apparently entrusted to him by others, never took off.

Mr. Creed, who later filed for bankruptcy, was still licking his wounds from his Gambian misadventure when Mr. Hines called him with a new plan. The lobbyist suggested that he persuade Mr. Attah to hire him and that the two men would split any money he was paid, Mr. Creed contended.

“He was hired to get some privatization projects going and he said, ‘O.K., you are going to be the face of this,’ ” Mr. Creed said in an interview.

Mr. Hines, meanwhile, also promoted a California telecommunications company, TechnoConcepts Inc., to Mr. Attah as an ideal joint venture partner. According to Mr. Attah, what Mr. Hines did not tell him was that he then had a contract with TechnoConcepts that paid him $10,000 a month. Mr. Hines also held TechnoConcepts stock options and was in line to receive bonuses for bringing new business to the company. He had also sought business for the company in Gambia.

TechnoConcepts, which claims patents to valuable wireless technology, has never made a profit, according to its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Investors are suing the company and its executives, contending fraud — claims that TechnoConcepts and its officials deny.

DISTANCE may be the reason that Mr. Attah did not scrutinize the backgrounds of Mr. Hines and his team; some 5,500 miles separate Uyo and Washington, and Internet access barely exists here. And Mr. Attah was initially delighted with one step that Mr. Hines did take: arranging a series of promotional articles prepared by The Washington Times’s advertising department that described Akwa Ibom and Mr. Attah as Nigerian success stories.

In one article, executives of TechnoConcepts Inc. discussed plans for a factory in Uyo, and a lawyer who apparently consulted with the firm’s top executive praised Mr. Attah. “His actions give potential investors confidence that he will fight for them too if they invest in his state,” said that lawyer, Barry Witz.

Mr. Witz has never been able to see Mr. Attah’s efforts in person. The reason: his ability to travel abroad was restricted after he pleaded guilty in 2004 to his role in a conspiracy to defraud investors in another telecommunications company. His lawyer said that anyone curious about Mr. Witz — like Mr. Hines, for example — could have easily found his criminal plea.

By last summer, Mr. Attah’s enthusiasm for Mr. Hines had waned. Although Mr. Hines’s lobbying filings state that he made numerous efforts on behalf of Akwa Ibom, including contacting a sports management agency, Mr. Attah decided not to renew Mr. Hines’s contract. Mr. Attah complains that the lobbyist had not recruited any outside investors, had made no progress on the pollution issue and had not located celebrity golfers to appear at the resort’s opening.

“We lost because we trusted that he was a credible consultant,” Mr. Attah says.

With the Nigerian elections approaching, Mr. Attah still needed a consultant to arrange for big-name golfers to attend the opening. He said he was willing to pay more than $1 million, a sum that would have also covered the golfers’ appearance fees.

Mr. Creed had tried to get the deal, but it was Ms. Buhari, the Nigerian woman, who suddenly re-emerged to snatch the prize.

Last summer, while Mr. Attah was in Washington, she arranged for him to meet a consultant, Thomas P. Ondeck, an executive at the GlobalOptions Group, a publicly traded consulting firm in New York.

The firm’s advisers and executives include Wesley K. Clark, the retired Army general; R. James Woolsey, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; and William H. Webster, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and later the C.I.A.

Mr. Ondeck heads a GlobalOptions unit that specializes in crisis management and due-diligence work including inquiries related to identity fraud. He says that his firm quickly reached an agreement with Mr. Attah to work on the resort’s opening, including help in recruiting the golfers, and that he was impressed by the easy rapport between Mr. Attah and Ms. Buhari.

“She has a lot of affection for him,” Mr. Ondeck says. “She kept calling him ‘Uncle.’ ”

At Ms. Buhari’s suggestion, Mr. Ondeck said his firm agreed to gather Mr. Creed’s legal records from Nevada. Not long afterward, Mr. Attah confronted Mr. Creed with the information.

“He said, ‘I like you but your company is in bankruptcy,’ ” Mr. Creed recalls. “I’m going to run for president and I don’t need a political scandal.”

WITH Mr. Hines and Mr. Creed out, and GlobalOptions in, the golf resort’s debut proceeded smoothly. But for Mr. Attah, the event last month was also bittersweet. Hundreds of guests filled the hotel lobby, drinking, dining and enjoying the entertainment. Ms. Lopez and the other golf pros were there, all looking a little stunned after a 14-hour trip from Florida aboard a chartered jet. Mr. Ondeck was also at the event.

Mr. Attah’s political days were winding down. His party had passed him over as its presidential candidate. He was leaving office soon with many of his building projects unfinished; while the golf course is complete, the hotel, apart from its lobby, resembles a construction zone.

A day after the gala, Mr. Attah, wearing a blue-and-red golf shirt and a straw hat, presided over a publicity event — the Ibom Classic — organized to christen the course. Teeing off in unison with Ms. Lopez and others, he duffed his shot, the ball dribbling a few yards. “Mine went so far you couldn’t even see it,” he said good-naturedly.

Elsewhere, some of the other players involved here were also moving along.

Mr. Creed has moved away from Las Vegas; after initial interviews, he did not return calls. Last fall, Mr. Assiba, the man who said he met Ms. Buhari in the drugstore, sued Mr. Hines in a Virginia state court.

He contended that Mr. Hines had promised to pay him 20 percent of any money he made working for Mr. Attah in exchange for his aid in getting the contract. In court papers, Mr. Hines has rejected Mr. Assiba’s assertion. Both he and his lawyer declined comment on the lawsuit.

As for Ms. Buhari, who is living in Virginia, it’s not clear who she really is. For one, she is under investigation in Nigeria by its Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, said its head, Nuhu Ribadu.

Mr. Ribadu said he is uncertain if her name is Aisha Buhari, but he added that she is not a daughter of General Buhari. The former Nigerian ruler agrees.

“I don’t have any relationship with that Aisha Buhari,” Mr. Buhari said. “I don’t have any daughter called Aisha Buhari living outside this country. She is not my daughter.”

Mr. Ribadu’s agency has asked American authorities to arrest Ms. Buhari. That has not happened, but the Justice Department has an interest in her. Last summer, she testified before a grand jury investigating Mr. Jefferson, the congressman, who is suspected of soliciting bribes from American companies seeking business in Nigeria.

The Nigerian official said that American authorities suspect that Ms. Buhari may have served as a financial conduit for the politician. Mr. Jefferson has not been charged with any crimes and has denied any wrongdoing; his lawyer declined to comment. Mr. Ondeck, whose experience as a lawyer is highlighted on GlobalOptions’ Web site, accompanied Ms. Buhari to the courthouse on the day of her testimony. But he did not go as her lawyer; several years ago, he was disbarred.

Mr. Ondeck, when told that Ms. Buhari was under investigation in Nigeria, said that he had “no information about the matter.” He also declined to say whether GlobalOptions had any paid her any money.

Mr. Hines recently testified in a deposition in Mr. Assiba’s lawsuit that he had learned last year from Nigerian officials that Ms. Buhari was under investigation. Soon after learning that, he said he wrote a letter to American officials in Nigeria that followed the one in September 2005 that asserted he had a contract with Ms. Buhari. Mr. Hines stated that he told officials in the second letter that he had not hired her.

On a recent day, Ms. Buhari stepped out of her town house in suburban Washington, wearing a long blue patterned dress and a head scarf decorated with strands of colorful threads. She declined to speak with a reporter seeking an interview.

“You have no business here,” she said. “I’ll call the authorities.”

In Nigeria, the golf resort in Uyo is temporarily closed. Its Web states that it is scheduled to open for guests in early July

Source:Ocnus.net 2007

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