Officials of the Democratic National Committee helped a foreign businessman closely tied to Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha attend a White House holiday dinner with President Clinton last year, a few months after he contributed $460,000 to a voter registration group that won support from the DNC.
Gilbert Chagoury, a foreign citizen with extensive family business interests in Nigeria, was included in the dinner for 250 top DNC donors last Dec. 21 although he is not a party contributor and could not legally give to the Democrats.
He also had a meeting on U.S.-Nigeria relations -- strained since the 1995 hangings of nine Abacha political opponents -- with high level administration officials at the White House in July. Those officials said they were unaware of the donations or the dinner.
Chagoury was solicited by a DNC fund-raiser last fall to give to a Miami-based nonprofit voter registration group, Vote Now 96, that has come under scrutiny from Congressional investigators because of its connections to the DNC and indications that in some cases, at least, donors ineligible to give to the party were steered to the voters group. DNC officials attempted to divert one of Vote Now 96's large contributors to the reelection campaign of Teamsters President Ron Carey.
As a tax-exempt group, Vote Now 96 is supposed to be nonpartisan. Records show that much of the money it raised last year was directed to other nonprofits and voter registration groups. A lawyer for Vote Now 96 said its officials had never heard of Chagoury when he made three contributions in amounts of $200,000, $10,000 and $250,000 in September and October 1996. Though foreigners are barred from contributing to political parties, they may legally contribute to nonprofit groups. Efforts to reach Chagoury at his Paris home and through relatives in this country were unsuccessful.
DNC spokesman Steve Langdon said Chagoury was invited to the dinner with Clinton because "he was a supporter of Vote Now 96, a voter participation project of importance to the DNC." He said this group was important "because of its effort to increase participation in traditional disenfranchised, low income and minority communities."
"We have no knowledge about whether anyone at the White House or the DNC was involved in directing a donation to Vote Now 96," said White House spokesman Lanny J. Davis.
A source familiar with DNC fund-raising said Chagoury's donations were solicited by Mark Weiner, a longtime Democratic fund-raiser from Rhode Island. Weiner's office said he was vacationing in the Caribbean and unreachable. Weiner, the treasurer of the Democratic Governors Association, owns a company, Financial Innovations Inc., that markets merchandise and souvenirs at Democratic Party and union conventions.
Sources knowledgeable about the White House dinner said then-Deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes and chief Clinton campaign fund-raiser Terence R. McAuliffe were listed as sponsors of the dinner invitation to Chagoury, his wife and three children. Ickes and McAuliffe could not be reached for comment, but sources said they routinely sponsored invitations for donors recommended by the party.
Vote Now 96 has surfaced in connection with congressional investigations of DNC fund-raising because Democratic officials were steering donations its way. DNC officials arranged for Judith Vasquez, a Filipino businesswoman, to give $100,000 to Vote Now in August 1996, after first trying to steer her contribution to Carey's Teamster reelection campaign. Ickes referred Warren Medoff, a Miami businessman courting a potential Texas donor, to the group just before the election.
Vote Now 96 and its parent, Citizen Vote Inc., a New York nonprofit, raised more than $3 million last year. It channeled the money to other groups, including Citizens Fund, an affiliate of Citizen Action, a nonprofit that became involved in the Teamsters' fund-raising scandal.
Robert F. Bauer, an attorney for Citizen Vote Inc., said organization officials relied on experienced fund-raisers to find donors but didn't know who had solicited the Chagoury donations.
Vote Now 96 supporters, including the heads of several foundations and other DNC donors, also were feted at a July 12, 1996, White House dinner paid for by the voters group. It was attended by the Clintons, Alexis M. Herman, now secretary of labor, Henry Cisneros, then-secretary of housing and urban development, and Hugh Westbrook, a Florida health care executive and Democratic fund-raiser who was chairman of Vote Now 96.
State Department and National Security Council officials described Chagoury, a Lebanese whose family has lived in Nigeria for decades, as extremely close to Abacha, whose relations with the United States have soured because of human rights abuses and failure to stop heroin trafficking. After the 1995 hangings, there were unsuccessful efforts in Congress to strengthen U.S. sanctions that have been in effect since 1993. The State Department placed Nigeria on a list of nations deemed uncooperative in the war on drugs in 1994.
Chagoury, who has homes in Lebanon, France and Nigeria, has vast international business interests, according to acquaintences and Nigeria experts in the U.S., as well as foreign news reports. His enterprises include oil production equipment, furniture manufacturing, food production and construction. Chagoury's construction companies also have built much of the new capital city of Abuja in central Nigeria.
At the request of Jesse L. Jackson, James B. Steinberg, Clinton's deputy national security adviser, and Susan Rice, now assistant secretary of state for Africa, met with Chagoury to discuss Abacha's policies on human rights, drugs and democracy initiatives, officials said. Jackson has since has been named a special envoy to Africa.
Steinberg said in an interview that he and Rice agreed to meet with Chagoury because "this was an ideal way to get a clear message" to Abacha about the U.S. government's displeasure with Nigeria's policies on human rights, drugs and moving toward democracy.
Steinberg said Nigeria's embassy "has been a notoriously bad conduit for information." When Chagoury suggested opening a dialogue between the two governments, Steinberg said he declined until the Nigerians took concrete action, such as releasing high level political prisoners. No prisoners have been released and both Steinberg and Jackson said they have not talked to Chagoury since July.
Jackson, who took a letter to Abacha from Clinton in 1994, said that he was introduced to Chagoury in Washington eight or 10 months ago, but could not recall how they had met. "We shared our concerns" about U.S.-Nigeria relations, said Jackson, who said he was unaware of Chagoury's contributions to Vote Now 96.
Chagoury showed up on the fringes of another Clinton administration effort at dialogue with the Nigerians shortly afterward, in September 1995. Rice, then the NSC Africa director, joined George Moose, assistant secretary of state for African affairs and special envoy Donald McHenry at a secret meeting with Nigerian officials in Geneva, officials said. An NSC spokeswoman said Chagoury joined the delegation for drinks. The U.S. tried private diplomacy again in August 1996, sending then-Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) to meet with Abacha. After the midnight meeting, according to an NSC official, a Nigerian aide took Richardson to Chagoury's home for pizza and a beer.
Staff researchers Mary Lou White and Nathan Abse contributed to this report.