Politics & Government

Another Clinton fundraiser has a suspect past

Fundraiser Kase Lawal, of Houston, in October 2003.
Fundraiser Kase Lawal, of Houston, in October 2003. Josh Merwin / Houston Chronicle / MCT

HOUSTON — A Texas oilman who's accused of defrauding the Nigerian government by illegally pumping and exporting 10 million barrels of oil is a major fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Kase Lawal of Houston is at least the fourth person accused or convicted of criminal wrongdoing to help finance Clinton's political ambitions since 2000 and the second in her quest for the White House. The list also includes Chinese and Pakistani fugitives and a former Miami lawyer who was convicted of defrauding Cuba.

There's no indication that Clinton's campaign was aware of Lawal's legal problems when it accepted his help in raising more than $100,000, but a McClatchy investigation in the U.S. and Nigeria suggests that her campaign did little to scrutinize the background of one of its top fundraisers.

Jay Carson, a campaign spokesman, brushed off such criticism.

"While no vetting process is perfect, our vetting department does extensive vetting in order to catch any issues with donors," he said. "And to our knowledge, Mr. Lawal is an upstanding member of his community in Houston."

However, a simple Google search by McClatchy produced reports of serious allegations about some of Lawal's business dealings in Nigeria and South Africa.

Clinton's campaign lists Lawal among about 250 "Hillraisers" who pledged to collect at least $100,000 in donations. Clinton attended a fundraising luncheon at Lawal's home in Houston last Aug. 11 that generated more than $100,000, and she spoke to about 250 guests gathered around Lawal's indoor swimming pool, including two former Houston mayors and Shell Oil President John Hofmeister.

Lawal, 53, who holds dual U.S.-Nigerian citizenship and whose energy company has become one of the nation's largest black-owned businesses, said in interviews that he "unequivocally and vigorously" denies the Nigerian charges. The African case was initiated by the top financial crime-fighter in Nigeria, a country that's rich in oil but also rampant with corruption.

Lawal, a commissioner of the Houston Port Authority since 1999, a community leader and a philanthropist, said he didn't know of the charges against him until McClatchy contacted him last week. Saying he was "stunned," Lawal said he's traveled at least 70 times to Nigeria since 1999, is often greeted by police and has never been served with legal papers.

Lawal said he suspects that a now-deceased partner in a Niger Delta drilling venture "trumped up" the accusations as part of a scheme to blackmail subsidiaries of his company, CAMAC International Corp.

The criminal complaint in Nigeria against Lawal, two of his affiliated companies, five other individuals and the Irish firm Tuskar Resources Ltd. was filed in a legal system that's fraught with allegations of graft and phony, politically driven prosecutions.

But the case against Lawal was brought by Nuhu Ribadu, an assistant police commissioner who later rose to become the country's top anti-corruption crusader.

During Ribadu's four years as head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the agency recovered $5 billion in stolen government funds and prosecuted 250 individuals, including a top police officer, eight former governors and a former vice president who allegedly was bribed by Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana.

Jefferson has been charged with bribing an unidentified Nigerian official, and his case is ongoing in a federal court in Virginia.

The case against Lawal has received little attention in Nigeria and none in the U.S. media until now.

The separate South Africa controversy unfolded after the Commerce Department named Lawal to a business development committee of the U.S.-South African Binational Commission, and President Bill Clinton appointed him to a Trade Advisory Committee on Africa in 1999.

From 2003 to 2005, the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg, South Africa, reported in several stories that Lawal had engineered a deal between the South African government and Nigeria that ultimately promised to bring South Africa 120,000 barrels of oil a day at wholesale prices.

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 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.

No one has been charged with a crime in connection with the incident.

The case against Lawal stalled for five years due to a legal challenge after CAMAC's Nigerian affiliates and employees challenged the federal police's authority to prosecute cases that normally are handled by Nigeria's attorney general. The Supreme Court of Nigeria ruled in favor of the police in 2006.

Lawal said he was told last week that three national police chiefs have looked at the case since the court ruling, and each concluded that it "has no merit." Others blamed the inaction on Ribadu's departure from the federal police.

Ribadu, who's now studying at a rural institute, was replaced as crime commission chairman in February. He declined comment.

But in Nigeria's capital city of Abuja, Columbus Okaro, the commissioner of the federation police's legal section, said the criminal complaint is pending. He also expressed irritation at hearing that Lawal had visited Nigeria without being served legal papers. While he couldn't explain the inaction since 2006, Okaro said: "I'm the man who should be charging him. I want to go ahead with the case."

Lawal didn't respond to requests for comment about the South Africa deal, but in an extensive interview on the Nigerian charges, he said he's neither a fugitive nor a convict.

Sitting in his 22nd-floor office overlooking Houston's upscale Galleria neighborhood, he said: "My company, my actions and everything that we have done has always been aboveboard."

He urged a reporter to check with Nigeria's attorney general to see whether the charges remain valid and said he'd ask Nigerian police "to make a decision one way or the other" on the criminal charge "to close the chapter or to go forward with it, so that we can have a logical conclusion."

In an interview in Nigeria, Taye Akiyemi, a spokesman for Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa, said: "There are many rich and powerful Nigerians out there. If he's innocent, he should come here and defend himself. The Nigerian courts are waiting for him. Nigeria is practicing the rule of law now."

Lawal said he supports Clinton because she and her husband are "just an intelligent couple, and we are fascinated by what they have done for America."

Lawal, who attended U.S. colleges, founded CAMAC in 1986 and built it into a $1.6 billion enterprise that ranked No. 296 on Forbes Magazine's 2007 list of the top 400 privately held companies.

He's also the vice chairman of the Houston Airport System Development Corp. and a co-owner of Texas' first black-owned bank, the Unity Bank.

(Connors, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria. Tish Wells contributed.)

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