Goodbye, Scotland. Hello, Liberia!
You've got to give Pat Robertson credit. He's doesn't let the occasional business setback get him down. As his multi-million-dollar Scottish bank deal collapsed in early June, Robertson quickly rebounded with an African gold-mining venture with Liberian dictator Charles Taylor.
The demise of Robertson's pact with the Bank of Scotland was his greatest business debacle in years. The religious broadcaster and the venerable Edinburgh bank announced in March an American telephone banking venture, reportedly worth $30 million. But the unlikely compact sparked a furor in Scotland where Robertson's record of extreme remarks about women's rights, gays and his fellow Christians did not set well.
At first, the bank hired a public relations firm and emphasized that its relationship was with Robertson Financial Services, not the TV preacher himself.
As protests mounted, however, Robertson's response turned heavy-handed. His Scottish lawyers sent letters to newspapers in Scotland and England warning that their stories -- often assisted by Americans United research -- could lead to libel lawsuits. (Libel laws in the United Kingdom are stacked against the media.)
When the intimidation campaign failed, Robertson and the bank settled on a more cordial approach, flying reporters to the Christian Broadcasting Network's headquarters in Virginia Beach. Meeting Robertson and seeing his formidable religious and business empire, they thought, might win more favorable coverage.
That gambit failed too, with reporters focusing on Robertson's greed, arrogance and eccentric views. James Doran of The Scotsman, Edinburgh's leading daily, wrote about Robertson's "grandiose" 300-acre facility, including his "sprawling mock Georgian mansion, which comes complete with lake and substantial grounds." Doran also recalled straying into a CBN prayer meeting where Robertson followers "in frenetic incantation, [were] ordering armies of angels to descend on Russia and 'drive out Satan.'"
In a personal interview, Robertson defended his enormous wealth by saying "every cent a Christian has belongs to Jesus." The Scotsman observed, "But it seems odd that a man who is called by God to give away all his worldly possessions should devote 40 years of working flat-out to accumulate more wealth than he had in the first place."
Asked which biblical character he identified with, Robertson replied, "I am like David, I guess, or Abraham. They were both leaders of men. But I suppose Jesus is the one."
Reporter Gregory Palast of The Observer was equally critical after his visit. He told his London readers that Neil Volder, president of Robertson Financial Services, said newspapers would be sued if their stories weren't balanced.
Despite the threat, Palast went on to report in detail on Robertson's business and political shenanigans and his bizarre conspiracy theories about Satanic international bankers, a group the TV preacher apparently sought to join.
According to The Observer, a former Robertson business partner who often flew on Robertson's private jet said he never saw the religious broadcaster open a Bible. "Everywhere we were flying," the source recalled, "he had The Wall Street Journal and Investor's [Business] Daily."
Apparently enraged by this reaction, Robertson launched his own media counterattack. On the May 18 "700 Club" television program, he featured a story depicting Scotland as a "rather dark land" that has abandoned its Christian moorings and now, like much of Europe, emphasizes tolerance.
"In Scotland you can't believe how strong the homosexuals are," Robertson said. "It's just simply unbelievable....It could go right back to the darkness very easily."
When reports of Robertson's fusillade appeared in The Scotsman and other papers, a huge uproar ensued and the bank deal quickly died. In a joint statement June 5, the bank announced that it was buying out Robertson's share of the venture (for $5.6 million, according to Dow Jones News).
Robertson remained truculent to the end, blaming the newspapers instead of himself. The joint statement concluded, "Dr. Robertson expressed regret that media comments about him had made it impossible to proceed."
Church leaders in Scotland said that wasn't the problem at all.
"Scotland is a predominantly Christian society," the Rev. Iain Whyte, chaplain of Edinburgh University, told The Washington Post. "And Scottish Christians like to think of themselves as promoting tolerance, peace and openness to everyone. That's not how we view the Christian Right. If you have people with enormous media power spreading an intolerant and exclusive agenda, that is not going to be acceptable to Scots."
When the Scottish protests threatened to spread to England, Robertson also resigned from the board of Laura Ashley Holdings, a prominent British retailer.
Robertson is likely to face no such protests in his latest international gambit -- a gold-mining venture in Liberia. Protestors there often wind up in jail or dead.
The Virginian-Pilot reported June 2 that Robertson has signed an agreement with Liberian dictator Taylor for gold exploration and mining rights in the Bukon Jedeh region.
According to the Norfolk newspaper, Robertson reached the accord through Freedom Gold Ltd., a for-profit company incorporated offshore in the Cayman Islands last December, but based at the Virginia Beach headquarters of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. (Robertson is listed as the company's president and sole director.)
Robertson's new business partner, Liberian strongman Taylor, has a colorful past. He fled to the United States in 1983 after he was accused of embezzling $1 million from the Liberian government. Arrested here, he escaped from jail and returned to Liberia.
Taylor led an armed faction in a brutal seven-year Liberian civil war in which half the country's three million people were killed or displaced. After becoming president in 1997, he created a special security unit that Human Rights Watch has denounced for harassing civilians and looting.
In one incident, Taylor critic Samuel Dokie, his wife and two other people were killed while in custody of the president's security guard. The officers were tried, but acquitted.
Perhaps inspired by his new business associate, Taylor has now taken a religious turn. In May he dismissed virtually his entire cabinet and several heads of public corporations -- a total of two dozen -- for missing a national prayer service.
"Any government official who does not know God will not serve in my government," Taylor reportedly declared. A week later he reinstated the ousted officials, citing the wishes of the Liberian people.
Taylor's critics say he is corrupt and is amassing personal wealth while his people suffer. They compare him to Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled for three decades in Congo (then known as Zaire), a country down the African coast from Liberia.
A few years ago Robertson struck a deal with Mobutu to do diamond-mining there. The venture eventually collapsed, but not before the religious broadcaster was accused of using airplanes from one of his charitable organizations in the for-profit jewel enterprise.
Two pilots told The Virginian-Pilot that planes sent to Zaire by Operation Blessing, a Robertson-founded relief agency, were used almost exclusively for the African Development Corporation (ADC), the Robertson company doing diamond-mining.
In June 1997 State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) demanded that then-Attorney General Jim Gilmore (now governor) conduct an official investigation of the matter, noting that there could be tax and consumer fraud implications.
After a two-year review, Attorney General Mark Earley's office issued a report June 17 finding an "unfortunate blemish on a charitable organization," but "no intent by Robertson or ADC to exploit Operation Blessing."
The report cites a "serious breakdown in bookkeeping and accounting practices." But it says Robertson made large contributions to the charity -- including a $400,000 donation after the Zaire scandal was reported in the newspaper -- that more than compensated for use of the planes.
Investigators found two instances when Operation Blessing's work in Zaire was falsely reported to potential donors on Robertson's "700 Club," but they refused to bring charitable fraud charges. "One unknowingly inaccurate statement -- that one of the Caribou [planes] was shuttling doctors from Goma to Bukavu -- was made and once repeated," the report concedes, but the incident did not in the investigators' opinion constitute a violation of state law.
At the request of the attorney general's office, Operation Blessing has adopted new procedures to prevent misuse of its resources, including a ban on transactions with inside directors or their businesses.
Some observers were dissatisfied with the report and suggested that Robertson's generous campaign donations to Gov. Gilmore ($100,000) and Attorney General Early ($35,000) undermined public confidence in the investigation.
"The attorney general's report confirms my fear about Operation Blessing," Sen. Howell told The Washington Post. "One person's error in accounting is another person's illegality."
Observed Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "Pat Robertson prides himself on being a Christian businessman. As such, he has an obligation to maintain the highest ethical standards. In this episode, he clearly fell far short of that."