A yearlong investigation of televangelist Pat Robertson's activities in Africa is now over, but state officials are sitting on the final report pending a review by attorneys, reports the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. The probe focused on possible inappropriate activities involving Robertson's Operation Blessing outreach, and a private corporation he operated known as the African Development Co. Based in Zaire, the firm was established by Robertson during the rule of the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The two men established close ties, and Mobutu wined and dined Robertson during one visit to the country; ADC also received vast forestry and mineral concessions, but the diamond mining operation eventually went bankrupt. Mobutu, after a quarter-century of iron fisted rule, died last year in exile from cancer. He left Zaire bankrupt and impoverished, and since 1994 had even been considered persona non grata in the United States.

In April, 1997 two pilots who worked for Operation Blessing charged that planes linked to Robertson and his ministry flew mostly to haul equipment for ADC's private diamond operation. Robert Hinkle, the chief pilot told reporter Bill Sizemore that of about 40 flights within Zaire during the half-year period he was there, "Only one or at most two" were related to the humanitarian mission of Operation Blessing. The rest were "mining-related."

"We got over there and we had 'Operation Blessing' painted on the tails of the airplanes, Hinkle told the Virginian-Pilot, "but we were doing no humanitarian relief at all. We were just supplying the miners and flying the dredges from Kinshasa out to Tdshikapa."

If so, that activity could jeopardize Operation Blessing's special tax exempt status. It also highlights Robertson's network of projects and corporations mixing religion, politics and private business.

The story in the Pilot prompted complaints by Virginia State Senator Janet Howell (D-Reston) and an investigation by the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs. At issue is Operation Blessings charity exemption from the 4.5% retail sales tax, as well as a break from the 3% motor vehicle tax and the 2% aircraft sales tax.

Conflict of Interest?

Another aspect of the Robertson probe is the role of Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, and Governor Jim Gilmore. Both men received campaign contributions from Robertson during the 1997 statewide elections; in addition, Robertson was a member of Gilmore's transition-advisory team. Earley received $35,000 from Mr. Robertson, and Gilmore $50,000. Contributions to the Gilmore campaign from other associates of Robertson also attracted public concern.

According to the Pilot newspaper, the Attorney General's office is keeping the report on Robertson and Operation blessing sealed, insisting that while the investigation is over the contents still remain as "working paper" which are shielded by attorney-client privileges. Sen. Howell, expressing irritation by the continued secrecy, said that the investigatory process has dragged on "long enough," and noted that the tax exemption status for Operation Blessing is up for renewal again next year. "We need to have the facts," Howell added.

Another official, State delegate Barnie K. Day said that the "working papers" seal being used by the Attorney General was a ploy widely employed in Virginia. "There's nothing that says you can't be open," said Day, adding that the present laws permit "officials (to) hide things if they want to, but people who want to be open can still do it." The Pilot added that Del. Day suggested that the Attorney General should make public the results of the Operation Blessing investigation "to avoid any suggestion of favoritism toward Robertson."

Unanswered Questions: Evangelism or Just Doing Business?

Robertson was President and sole stock holder of African Development Co. which was chartered in Bermuda (a center for offshore banking-corporate activity) in June, 1992. In the summer and early fall of 1994, Robertson began soliciting support for the Operation Blessing outreach in Africa on his Christian Broadcasting Network, and eventually dispatched six volunteer teams of medical personnel to treat refugees from Rwanda. Donations were asked from viewers in order to fund a "Flying Hospital" plane.

In August, 1996, the Operation Blessing ministry purchased three DeHaviland Caribou planes. The ministry retained ownership of two of the cargo transports, while a third was transferred to another Robertson corporation known as Africa Air. What happened next has prompted considerable speculation. A month after purchasing the airplanes, all three (painted with the Operation Blessing name) were flown to Zaire, and reportedly put up for sale. From September, 1994 until February, 1995, the three planes were allegedly then used mostly in in-country flights ferrying mining equipment and support materials used by African Development Corp. According to the chief pilot, only two flights were related to any humanitarian enterprise; they consisted of a medicine delivery, and retrieval of stranded missionaries.

In October, 1994, Operation Blessing purchased a Lockheed L-1011 and began outfitting that plane as its "flying hospital." But the two Caribou planes, unsold and still linked to Operation Blessing, reportedly continued working mostly on behalf of ADC.

What was going on during this time period with Robertson and Mobutu? The African strongman had been in charge since 1964 when, with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency, he emerged successfully in the civil war which had torn apart the nation, formerly Republic of the Congo. In 1971, Mobutu renamed the country Zaire, and turned it into a base of operations for efforts to fuel the civil war in neighboring Angola. He quickly developed a reputation for ruthlessness and megalomania, renaming himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga, "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his enduring and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake." For twenty years, his domestic policy outraged human rights advocates, and by 1993 his shoddy record resulted in the withdrawal of economic assistance from France, Belgium and even the U.S. In 1994, the U.S. Department of State charged that Mobutu was behind massive violations of human rights including torture, murder, censorship and religious persecution.

During this time, Mobutu also systematically drained Zaire of its money and natural resources, embezzling up to $6 billion dollars which he transferred to accounts in Switzerland and Belgium. In one year alone according to the World Bank, $400 million-- a quarter of the nation's entire export revenues -- mysteriously vanished off the books of the government run mining conglomerate. Mobutu was even dubbed the "President of Kleptocracy" for his thieving and predatory manners.

That didn't stop Robertson, though, from either defending the dictator or seeking financial gain in Zaire. Robertson continually tried to portray Mobutu as a loyal US ally in the war against international communism. He also emerged as Mobutu's close friend, and probably his most valuable asset in a deceptive campaign to maintain his stature with some ruling circles in the United States. Robertson was wined-and-dined by Mobutu on the dictator's presidential yacht, and entertained at one of his lavish estates. Robertson received extensive lumber and mining concessions along the upper Zaire River. He also operated a 50,000 acre farm outside of the capital city, Kinshasa.

Even with this, African Development Corp. lost money and had to be shut down. Robertson nonetheless maintained close ties with Mobutu, orchestrating a public relations effort in the United States to rehabilitate the dictator's image and obtain a Visa permit. In 1996, as rebels under the command of Laurent Kabila were closing in on Mobutu's last strongholds, Robertson reportedly dispatched a personal representative "offering his assistance and cooperation," according to the Pilot.

Robertson: Mobutu Groupie, "Schmoozing With Dictators"

This latest probe into Robertson's blending of politics, evangelism and business should also call into the question the televangelist's newly found commitment to human rights, especially as an ardent spokesperson for the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act.

Robertson has been using his "700 Club" program to constantly hit what he terms "religious persecution of Christians," particularly in Islamic countries -- an obstacle to his goal of a vast, worldwide evangelism effort by the year 2000. And Robertson's Christian Coalition has been an adamant supporter of FFRPA on Capitol Hill as well.

But does his enthusiastic boosting of FFRPA translate into a general commitment for human rights? Critics say no, especially in light of Robertson's close relationship in Africa, Asia and elsewhere with despotic ruling elites and dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko. It seems that, at least in Zaire, the lure of diamonds outshone the prospect of supporting human rights and political democracy.


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