Henry (Randy) Coleman, Billy Carter's close friend and associate, strongly defended the president's brother yesterday, portraying him as an apolitical man who merely wanted to show a group of Libyans some "Southern hospitality" and then accepted favors from them because he got "pissed off" at the negative publicity.
Testifying before an obviously skeptical Senate investigative subcommittee, Coleman said that when Billy Carter first visited Libya in late September 1978 with a group of Georgians, "he got to be pretty good friends" with Libyan officials.
Three months later, Coleman said, "it took us by surprise" when the Libyans, on a visit to Georgia, invited Billy Carter to do business with them because they knew he faced "hard times" financially. Negative publicity about his Libyan relationship had dried up his income from public appearances. a
The day-long testimony in the Senate Caucus Room turned up no startling evidence of illegal behavior on the part of the president's brother or White House officials, but it offered a fascinating insight into the complicated and occasionally comical financial adventures of Billy Carter and his associates.
A few new pieces of the puzzle emerged:
Former Budget Director Bert Lance, President Carter's close friend, became marginally involved in the Libyan dealings by arranging a meeting for Coleman with a London banker to advise him on oil deals with the Libyans.
A State Department officer, Leonard Scensny of the Libya desk, wrote Coleman on Dec. 12, 1978, that the Libyans' motives for visiting Georgia were "basically political." He warned that they hoped to use contacts with Billy Carter and others "to influence U.S. policy toward their country and the Arab world."
Coleman was told on a visit to Libya in March of this year that the oil minister had approved Billy Carter's deal to get 100,000 barrels of Libyan oil for the Florida-based Charter Oil Co. However, the oil minister was soon forced from office in an unrelated incident, Coleman testified.He said the new minister also approved the deal, but that a policy change required that a large Libyan "subcommittee" approve it. The deal never went through.
Colman, who worked for Billy Carter at the Carter family peanut warehouse in Plains, Ga., and who said that the president's brother is like a father to him, told the Seanate subcommittee after several hours of grilling under hot television lights: "If I've done anthing wrong, I'd like you to tell me right now. I feel like I've been persecuted."
Subcommittee Chairman Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) replied: "I don't know whether you've done anything wrong. I assume you haven't . . . . But don't you have any qualms about negotiating a deal . . with a regime which has a policy of assassinating dissident citizens, which attacked our embassy and attacked two cities in neighboring countries?"
Coleman said he had no quaims since the United States gets 10 percent of its imported oil from Libya. "If they're all that bad, why do we buy oil from them?" he asked.
Bayh responded that "we need their oil, But that doesn't mean we need to get in bed with them." He added that Billy Carter was "naive" if he didn't realized that his dealings with "a terrorist regime" would cause his brother "serious embarrassment."
Occasionally conferring with his two lawyers during six hours of questioning, Coleman related how Billy Carter got mixed up with the Libyans -- a process that Coleman portrayed as being more haphazard than sinister.
Georgia state Sen. Floyd Hudgins, a close friend of Billy Carter, first approached him about a visit to Libya. Billy Carter did not tell anyone that he was going, Coleman said, because he was afraid that if he did, his passport would be revoked.
Coleman said Billy Carter invited him to go to Libya with him while they were playing softball one afternoon in Plains, and that they left the next day. Coleman said he did not ask Carter why he was going. Georgia realtor Don Carter, a friend of Billy who is no relation, backed out of the trip after being told that Libya was "dangerous" and "a radical country," but, Coleman said. "I was sorta looking forward to it. I'd never been overseas."
Coleman said that on the trip "Billy was very plain to those people [the Georgians] that he was a private citizen and had no political bearing."
Asked whether Billy Carter's Libyan relationship had any influence on U.S. foreign policy, Coleman said, "I'm not familiar enough to know what foreign policy is or isn't." Later, he added that it would be "a joke" to assume that Billy Carter had influenced foreign policy.
While some critics think that Billy Carter was being used to lobby for delivery to Libya of C130 planes that have been held up by the U.S.government, Coleman said he remembers the subject coming up only once. A Libyan businessman, whose name he does not remember, mentioned the planes to former U.S. senator David Gambrell, who was helping to arrange the Libyans' Georgia visit. Gambrell, according to Coleman, referred the Libyan to the State Department.
Although Ahmed Shahati, Libya's equivalent of a foreign minister, spoke little English, Coleman, said, he and Billy Carter became very friendly. "Billy is a very likable person," Coleman said. "They talked about their family and children. They enjoyed each other's company." Carter invited Shahati to visit Georgia after he learned that the Libyan came to the United States once a year for a medical checkup.
The Libyan delegation's January visit to Georgia was intended to drum up Libyan investment in the state, Coleman said, and Billy Carter tried to involve industrial development officials.
However, Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.), ranking Republican on the subcommittee hearing Committee hearing Coleman's testimony, charged that the visit resulted mostly in favorable publicity for the Libyans. Billy Carter hosted a large reception for them in Atlanta and arranged for Shahati to appear on the ABC television program "Good Morning America."
The publicity did not help Billy Carter, Coleman said in response, and the furor that resulted from some antiZionist remarks that he made during the visit resulted in the cancellation of a TV contract and evaporation of the lucrative public speaking invitations that Billy Carter had been living on since his peanut business went sour. Coleman said the president's brother also received numerous threats against his life as a result of his remarks.
As Coleman told the story, the Libyans regretted the troubles they had caused Billy Carter. On the last day of the trip, one of the visiting Libyans, Mohammed Burki, told Billy: "It we can be of any help, we will be glad to do so. Are there any commodities you would like to sell?"
Coleman and Billy Carter then called Lance to ask for advice, Coleman testified, and Lance suggested several contacts. At first Coleman and Billy Carter did not know what commodity they wanted to sell. "We talked about soybeans, peanuts, chickpeas, tomato paste," he told the committee.
in March 1979, Colman traveled to Rome with Arthur Cheokas, an export-import businessman, to follow up on the Libyans' offer. "I had a sack of all different items," he said, but was advised by a Libyan businessman upon arrival that "all that stuff we brought might confuse them. So I asked for oil."
Soon after the March trip, Carter, through his friend Jack McGregor, a consultant to Charter Oil Co., began negotiating with the firm and, last August, obtained an agreement that Charter would pay him a commission on any oil he obtained for a refinery it had recently acquired in the Bahamas. o
Coleman and Carter, anticipating a large income from the deal, contacted an accountant to discuss tax shelters. "We had the possibility of making a good deal of money," Coleman said. "A good businessman tries to hold onto that money as much as possible."
In addition to the oil deal, Billy Carter had asked the Libyans to lend his $500,000 and, Coleman testified, they agreed to his request. But Coleman said he had to repeatedly prod them to come up with the money.
Late last year Billy Carter arranged a meeting between a Libyan diplomat and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the president's national security affairs adviser. It was after this that Billy Carter received two checks from the Libyans totaling $220,000.