Cloud of suspicion hangs over Saudi prince's Cowboys-colored airplane

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON — When the Dallas Cowboys play their first home game Sunday night and unveil their new stadium to a national television audience, the best seats in the house will be in the ultra-exclusive Owners Club.

The suites in that area sold for $500,000 a year, feature an upscale bar, personal guards and private elevator that whisks suite holders from underground parking directly to their section on the Hall of Fame level.

One of the big-money suite holders is a prince who finds himself mired in controversy over his private jet, which is painted in the colors of his beloved Cowboys.

Team owner Jerry Jones will preside over Sunday's game from his suite on the 50-yard line. A suite nearby has been bought by one of the Cowboys’ most ardent fans, Jones’ close friend, Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world.

Bandar, a national security advisor to the Saudi king, son of the crown prince, and the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, has a fanatical love of the Cowboys that dates to his days as a fighter pilot instructor in Texas in the 1970s.

The Saudi Embassy tells the Star-Telegram that Bandar, who is observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, now lives in Saudi Arabia and will not be at the game against the New York Giants.

During his time as ambassador, Bandar attended games in Jones' box at Texas Stadium and in Washington, visited the Cowboys' Valley Ranch training facility, gave Jones a silver-and-platinum life-size Cowboys helmet after Super Bowl XXVII, accompanied Jones during at least one critical game down to the sidelines with a large entourage, and hung out post-game in the locker room so many times that many Cowboys players know him simply as "the prince."

Bandar flies around the world in a jet painted in the Cowboys' silver-and-blue colors.

But it's the story behind his jet — an Airbus A-340 usually flown by airliners — that is drawing attention today.

Anti-bribery government investigators in the United Kingdom and the U.S. Justice Department are looking into a massive arms deal between the Saudis and British-based BAE Systems that dates back to the 1980s. The deal allegedly included the gift of the Airbus to Bandar on his birthday in 1998 and $2 billion that BAE deposited in Saudi accounts in a Washington bank.

Bandar representatives, including former FBI director Louis Freeh, have denied the bribery allegations. Freeh said on the PBS Frontline program "Black Money" earlier this year that the money was part of an oil-for-jets barter deal, and that the A-340 is a military aircraft registered to the Saudi Air Force and assigned for Bandar’s use.

The U.S. government is looking at the flow of funds under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which gives law enforcement broad jurisdiction over questionable payments of funds and goods to government officials.

Justice Department spokesperson Laura Sweeney said that "the department has not confirmed that investigation," but BAE itself has confirmed that it is being investigated by U.S. and British officials.

"BAE Systems' view is that the interests of the company as well as all of its stakeholders, including the general public, are best served by allowing the ongoing investigations to run their course," spokesman John Neilson told the Star-Telegram in a prepared statement. "The company is working with regulators towards that end and is providing access to people, information and premises whenever requested."

The British investigation into BAE payments to the Saudis was quashed by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in December 2006 after Bandar complained to him that the corruption probe would damage relations, especially on counterterrorism.

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