None of the former officials who have signed up to lobby the U.S. government for foreign interests–a list that includes presidential nominees (Bob Dole) and congressional leaders (Richard Gephardt, Dick Armey)–has a resume as offbeat as that of Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli spy who later tried to implicate the opponent of the president of Zimbabwe in an assassination attempt and now considers himself a “man without a country.” He also had one of the richest contracts to lobby for a foreign client–though he apparently had no contacts with U.S. government officials whatsoever.
According to data in the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker, Paul Calder LeRoux, a 35-year-old citizen of Australia and South Africa, hired the spy-turned-political consultant who now operates out of Canada and paid him more than $6.5 million in 2007 and 2008. Dickens and Madson Canada, the firm that employs Ben-Menashe, disclosed that LeRoux hired them to facilitate an overseas real estate deal for vast swaths of farmland in Zimbabwe.
As is often the case with those who hire lobbyists, LeRoux was essentially paying for access–in this case to the controversial president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, whose government seized white-owned farms, a practice that has continued even after Mugabe was forced to share power with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai following a disputed election in 2008.
“I happen to know people,” Ben-Menashe said.
It’s not unusual for lobbyists to make that claim, but few backroom deals in Washington can compare to the intrigues of the former spy.
Cloak and dagger
In 1989 Ben-Menashe was arrested near Los Angeles for allegedly smuggling Lockheed planes into Iran, but was acquitted after testifying that the deal had been approved by the United States and Israel. Israel refused to let him re-enter the country after the trial because of his testimony, he said.
In 1991, Ben-Menashe alleged that Robert Gates, then in the process of being confirmed to head the CIA, was involved in selling weapons to Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. The Senate Intelligence Committee considered the allegations, but in the end did not give them credence.
That same year, the former spy claimed to have witnessed Republicans, including vice presidential candidate George H.W. Bush, meet with Iranian officials in 1980 to arrange for the American hostages in Iran to be held until after Jimmy Carter had left office.
In 1992, he authored a book, “Profits of War: Inside the Secret US-Israeli Arms Network,” that reprised some of the charges he made against Gates and the elder Bush. “Since 1990 he has been a man without a country, dividing his time between England, the United States and Australia,” the dust jacket says of the book’s author. “He cannot for obvious reasons return to Israel.”
The man without a country then moved to Canada and married a woman there, thereby gaining citizenship (they later divorced), and set up an export business that ran into trouble of its own.
Customers complained that goods never arrived after his firm had received money, and in October 2008 Alexander Legault–his partner in the export business and at Dickens and Madson as well–was deported to the United States.
In July 2009, Legault pleaded guilty in a Louisiana court to decades-old allegations that he defrauded the Egyptian government of $7 million. Prosecutors said the country wired him the money in exchange for a shipment of frozen chicken, and Legault transferred some of the money to a bank account in the Cayman Islands and sent forged paperwork indicating the chickens were aboard a Swedish ship.
A player in Zimbabwe
Lobbyists often involve themselves in political campaigns, but Ben-Menashe’s role in Zimbabwe’s disputed 2002 presidential election went far beyond bundling contributions or serving as a strategic adviser.
Mugabe defeated Tsvangirai by the narrowest of margins in what was widely decried as a rigged election. At the time, Tsvangirai spoke with Ben-Menashe about a plan to “eliminate” Mugabe. Ben-Menashe turned over a videotape of the conversation to Mugabe’s administration, and Tsvangirai was charged with treason.
Tsvangiria claimed he was approached by Ben-Menashe, but in an interview, the Montreal-based lobbyist said it was the other way around. “The head of the opposition of the government you’re representing says, ‘Can you help us do a coup and kill the guy?'”
Tsvangiria was acquited in 2004 when it became clear that he may have been asking for Ben-Menashe’s help as a political consultant–not an assassin–and after Ben-Menashe made an impression on the court as an unreliable witness trying to manipulate politicians’ public images.
In a statement, Tsvangiria said the two met four times. “At the fourth meeting, Mr. Menashe kept on deviating from the issues discussed previously. He and his team raised the issue of elimination and kept on asking strange questions. It was this stage that I became suspicious of the motives of the Dickens and Madson representatives and walked out of the meeting.”
Even as Dickens and Madson appeared to court Tsvangiria, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, it was working on behalf of Mugabe’s government. A list of press releases it put out that election season includes headlines like “MDC demands that polls stay open until they win” and “MDC leaders head for the hills.”
Tsvangirai appeared to defeat Mugabe in the 2008 rematch, but an insufficiently large plurality triggered a runoff election that degenerated into violence. Mugabe was sworn in again, but faced sanctions from the United States and European governments. Pressured at home and abroad, Mugabe agreed to a power sharing agreement brokered shortly thereafter. Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister, with Mugabe retaining the title of president.
Between January 2007 and January 2009, Paul Calder LeRoux, a wealthy white man born in Zimbabwe, transferred to Dickens and Madson nearly $13 million, with the stated purpose being to “generate policies favorable to [his] business interests,” FARA forms show. Ben-Manashe said he never actually made contacts with Congress or the White House, and it’s unclear how those bodies could have influenced the land deal.
“In this case we had nothing to do with the U.S. Sometimes we register just as a caution,” Ben-Menashe said.
LeRoux sought to acquire 99-year leases on farmland, which was taken from whites and distributed to blacks early in Mugabe’s regime. LeRoux could not be reached for comment.
Registration forms show that in the past, in addition to the government of Zimbabwe, Ben-Menashe has represented Ghana and Vanuatu, a South Pacific island nation.
But the political consultant’s worldwide connections don’t end there, and he seems perpetually in search of new adventure.
“Right now we’re doing work on the other side of the world, in Russia,” he said. “The U.S. isn’t the only place people want to talk to.”