One brisk day last fall, globe-trotting oil executive Benjamin R. Pollner was leaving his luxury prewar apartment building on Manhattan's Park Avenue when detectives from Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau's office approached. They began asking him about his alleged involvement in the unfolding U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal. Pollner, a tall, lean sixtysomething who wears European-cut clothes and a world-weary visage, was taken aback, say investigators familiar with the incident.
He snapped that he was in a hurry to make an overseas flight and refused to answer questions. Before hopping into a car that whisked him off to John F. Kennedy International airport, Morgenthau's investigators say Pollner delivered a parting shot: "I did nothing in New York or the U.S. that would be considered illegal." To them, Pollner was admitting he had done something wrong -- just not in their jurisdiction. Pollner, who runs Taurus Petroleum mainly from offices in Geneva and London, hasn't set foot in the U.S. since, investigators believe. He didn't reply to several calls and e-mails.
On the morning of Apr. 14, David Bay Chalmers Jr., 51, who owns privately held oil-trading company Bayoil U.S.A. Inc., emerged handcuffed and bleary-eyed from his high-security mansion in Houston's ritzy River Oaks neighborhood. He had just been indicted by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for conspiracy, wire fraud, and trading with a country that supports terrorism -- Iraq -- during the U.N. program. Chalmers has pleaded not guilty.
Another trader, Patrick Maugein, nonexecutive chairman of London's SOCO International PLC oil-trading company, has been under scrutiny by the U.N. for his alleged role in a complex oil-smuggling scheme during Oil-for-Food, the U.N. program that allowed Iraq to sell oil for humanitarian purposes during a period of strict sanctions. Although many deals were legitimate, Saddam Hussein at times demanded illegal surcharges for the right to buy oil at below-market prices. Friends of Saddam's regime allegedly received sweetheart oil allocations, investigators say. Maugein denies violating sanctions or paying illegal surcharges.
LEARNING FROM EL MATADOR
What do the three men have in common, aside from their dubious deals with Iraq? They all belong to the ultrasecretive informal network of traders who dominate global independent oil trading. They don't necessarily act in concert with each other, but they often chase the same opportunities. They are the Rich Boys. All operate in the world of onetime fugitive billionaire Marc Rich, the most-wanted white-collar criminal in U.S. history until his controversial pardon on President Bill Clinton's last day in office in 2001.
Rich came to prominence in the 1970s, when he worked at Phillips Bros. (later Phibro), then the biggest trader. With veteran partner Pincus "Pinky" Green, he pioneered "combat trading" -- getting trading rights from countries in turmoil. Rich, called El Matador for his killer instinct, did the deals. Pinky, "The Admiral," arranged shipping.
Traders soon learned the art of the Rich deal: Do whatever it takes. After Rich and Green left Phibro in 1973 to form their own company, they bought a house in the South of France and "stocked it with hookers from Paris and flew in oil guys who spent a week at their expense," says a former U.S. oil executive who knows Rich. "They got the oil contracts they wanted." A former Rich partner corroborates this. Green, who retired in 1992 after heart surgery, could not be reached for comment.
Rich is notorious for trading with Iran during the hostage crisis, South Africa during apartheid, and Cuba and Libya during U.S. trade embargoes. In 1983 he fled to Switzerland after being indicted by the Justice Dept. for racketeering, trading with the enemy (Iran), dodging a $48 million corporate tax bill, and other violations that could have resulted in 300 years of jail time. Rich's companies pleaded guilty to some charges and paid about $200 million in fines, penalties, and taxes, but the case remained open until the pardon. "Rich's philosophy is that no law applies to him," says Morris "Sandy" Weinberg Jr., the former U.S. prosecutor who pursued and indicted Rich in 1983.
Over the years, Rich has mentored scores of traders. Although the 70-year-old is past his peak in the business, according to industry experts, his protégés are thriving. "You could call it the University of Marc Rich," says a Senate investigator. As Alaskan and North Sea oil production declines, new supplies increasingly come from some of the most corrupt or politically unstable places on earth, such as Equatorial Guinea and Sudan. These are the new frontiers where major U.S. oil companies fear to tread because of sanctions, embargoes, and antibribery and anti-terrorism laws. But it's where these traders, many like characters out of the James Bond flick Goldfinger, make good money, especially when oil tops $60 a barrel.
Governments and law enforcers have long been suspicious of some Rich Boys. In a six-month investigation, BusinessWeek has pieced together the first comprehensive look at their sprawling and deliberately elusive operations. Our findings:
-- Rich has spawned the most powerful informal network of independent commodities traders on earth. He did it primarily by funding spin-offs and startups around the globe for decades, and by training scores of traders who have set up their own shops. Although Rich no longer maintains stakes in most of these outfits, he has helped create a network that, in sum, is far more formidable than his own company in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was the world's premier commodities trader.
-- The Rich Boys' often controversial activities are on the rise. They buy oil from places where corruption is extensive: Some of the Rich Boys have been named in scandals in Nigeria and Venezuela. They also sell oil from pariah states to U.S. refiners.
-- Although Rich testified in writing in March, 2005, to a House committee investigating the U.N. program that he was not in any way active in the Oil-for-Food program, documents suggest that he bought Iraqi oil in 2001 from various front companies, which BusinessWeek has identified. This took place just one month after his pardon. If so, it seems that Rich may have misled Congress. The CIA, the Senate, and others have concluded that from September, 2000, until September, 2002, buyers in the Oil-for-Food oil program had to pay illegal surcharges that Saddam used in part to buy weapons, though no documents show Rich made such payments. Some investigators believe Iraqi insurgents are now using that money.
-- One company from which Rich bought crude during this period was a front for extremist Russian and Ukrainian organizations. All were pro-Saddam; one was a staunch supporter of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Another company was tied to a major money launderer for Saddam.
To reach these conclusions, BusinessWeek traced crucial connections from a number of official inquiries and documents. Key among these documents: shipping tables from the Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), the preeminent authority on tanker activity in the Middle East. These detail the ports, tankers, destinations, and buyers of Iraqi crude. Other insights came from a 2004 CIA report on Iraq, data from Switzerland's Federal Commercial Registry Office, and the many inquiries launched into Oil-for-Food. The Justice Dept., six congressional committees, a U.N. commission, Morgenthau's office, and several countries, including Switzerland, are all investigating the program. Extensive interviews with dozens of oil traders, government investigators, and energy experts around the globe helped form a clearer picture of how the network operates.
Rich did not respond to numerous requests for interviews. But Thomas Frutig, CEO of his major holding company, Marc Rich + Co. Holding, denied to BusinessWeek involvement in Oil-for-Food. Frutig declined to respond to other allegations, despite repeated phone and e-mail requests. Trader Clyde Meltzer, one of Rich's business partners in the 1970s who remains close to him, says: "Marc is the most upstanding guy you'll ever meet. It's untrue he ever did anything dishonest."
Rich's trading in 2001 sheds a harsh new light on his pardon, which is limited to his 1983 indictment. To revoke it would require a constitutional amendment. Even so, it's possible authorities could levy new criminal charges against Rich, who is worth up to $8 billion by some estimates, for activities not included in the pardon. A federal grand jury in New York is apparently still investigating whether any of the money Rich and other traders allegedly funneled to Saddam was used to fund terrorism. The U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment. In 2001, New York State sued Rich for tax evasion, seeking $137 million they say he owes. But given Rich's clout -- he is a major philanthropist, one of Switzerland's largest taxpayers, and extremely well connected -- he'll likely continue to enjoy the good life abroad.
MAVERICKS IN THE MIDDLE
Like Marc Rich + Co. holding, most of the Rich Boys have offices in the tiny Swiss canton of Zug, with its quaint stores, Gothic architecture, and low tax rates. These maverick middlemen typically don't own or operate oil refineries or wells. Instead, they buy oil from producers, line up buyers to refine it, and charter tankers to ship it. Oil trading is often nebulous and opaque. Title to a tanker's oil, for example, may change a dozen times before the ship reaches port.
Some of the Rich Boys, like Pollner and Chalmers, have never worked for Rich. They've merely done business with him or have connections to him through other traders. Typically, Rich has bankrolled or owned stakes in the traders' companies, or sold them to close associates. Among the mightiest is commodities giant Glencore International, based in a suburb of Zug, which boasts annual turnover of $72 billion, according to its financial disclosures, making it one of the world's largest private companies. Glencore owns scores of other commodities companies from Spain to Australia. Rich sold the firm to its management in 1994, and the company says it now has no connection with Rich. It is run by former Rich lieutenants Ivan Glasenberg and Willy Strothotte, according to its Web site.
Companies run by the Rich Boys span the globe. Consider Netherlands-based Trafigura Group, one of the world's top trading companies. According to industry experts and investigators, it was founded in 1993 by former Rich traders with money from Rich. Experts say he invested in companies like Trafigura to expand his empire, though most contend he no longer has a stake in them. Zug-based Masefield Group was also founded by former Rich traders. In Moscow, there's Milio International Ltd., formed by Rich traders in 1997. Rich's flight to Switzerland in 1983 didn't stop him from financing companies in the U.S., among them Novarco, a White Plains (N.Y.) commodities-trading business he established in 1997. He sold its oil contracts in 2002 to Richmond (Va.)-based Dominion Resources Inc. (D ), according to company reports.
Many of the Rich Boys' tactics may be hyperaggressive, but they're perfectly legal. One way they do business: exploiting opportunity in Eastern European or Third World countries in dire need of funding. Rich taught his disciples -- called Lehrlings, German for apprentices -- to lend cash-strapped companies money and get the right to buy their commodities, industry experts say. Last year, for example, Glencore loaned $40 million to Peru's second-largest zinc miner, Volcan Compañia Minera. Volcan agreed to sell zinc and other minerals to Glencore from 2004 to 2010.
At times, some Rich boys apparently use front companies -- opaque holding entities -- to disguise deals. According to Senate documents, they have set up fronts with innocuous names such as Rescor Inc. or Plasco Shipping. Based in tax havens with strong banking secrecy such as Panama, Liechtenstein, and Gibraltar, they come and go like flickering harbor lights once a deal is done.
David Chalmers found such companies useful in trading Iraqi crude during sanctions, according to the Senate subcommittee on permanent investigations. It alleged he routinely used a company called Italtech to do business in Iraq. The submarine-engine outfit was started in the late '80s by Chilean-Italian arms dealer Augusto Giangrandi, who headed the Bermuda subsidiary of Chalmers' Bayoil. Italtech opportunistically morphed into an oil trader in 1999. Chalmers' lawyer, Bart Dalton, says Italtech "was not a front company."
Ben Pollner, law enforcement officials believe, was behind Fenar Petroleum and Alcon Petroleum, registered in Liechtenstein in 1999, according to corporate registry documents. They were among the largest oil purchasers during Oil-for-Food, together exporting $2.47 billion worth of crude, according to a report by the U.N. Independent Inquiry Committee, chaired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker. Investigators allege they paid tens of millions in illegal surcharges. The companies sold almost exclusively to Pollner's company, Taurus, MEES shows. "We've interviewed more than a dozen traders who claim [that although] Pollner was working on his own deals, he was often acting on behalf of Rich, too," says a senior prosecutor investigating possible Oil-for-Food violations.
THRIVING IN TROUBLE SPOTS
One reason the rich boys are so busy these days is because they thrive in a world of high oil prices and scarce reserves. Big U.S. oil companies are desperate for crude yet don't want to dirty their hands getting it from global trouble spots. Says a former partner of Rich's, who requested anonymity because he routinely trades with Big Oil: "Majors don't want to touch the oil, yet they want to buy it. If you think Pablo Escobar [the Colombian drug king] was guilty, weren't people who used cocaine, too?" In fact, half the crude on which Oil-for-Food surcharges were paid ultimately ended up with U.S. majors, according to the Senate. Says Richard Perkins, former director of worldwide oil trading at Chevron Corp.: "The majors are the bread and butter" of traders like the Rich Boys.
U.S. companies are forbidden from bribing officials. If they do, it can prove damaging. The Securities & Exchange Commission, for example, is probing Marathon Oil (MRO ), ExxonMobil (XOM ), Amerada Hess (AHC ), Chevron (CVX ), and others for allegedly bribing President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea and his relatives for oil rights. The companies say they're cooperating with the SEC and that they acted lawfully.
Oil majors are also under pressure to shun pariah states. For instance, there are tight limits on deals with war-torn Sudan because it backs terrorism and engages in genocide. But companies set up by the Rich Boys, including Trafigura and Glencore, are among those buying crude there, trade reports say. China is a big customer for the Rich Boys there and elsewhere. Still, says Hal C. Eren, principal attorney at Washington's Eren Law Firm and a former U.S. Treasury Dept. official, tighter controls have "created a situation that's definitely helping independent traders."
Because the Rich Boys operate in such secrecy, one of the few ways to see how they work is when they get busted or investigated. For example, in Nigeria last year, Petrodel, a firm run by former top Rich trader Michael Prest, Glencore, Trafigura, and several other firms, were accused by Nigeria's state oil company of inflating shipping costs by doctoring documents. The Nigerians demanded repayments of more than $100 million. Trafigura denies the allegations and says that all past problems have been resolved. A Glencore spokesman "vigorously disputes" the charges. Petrodel officials and Prest could not be reached for comment.
Some Rich Boys also have their hand in oil-rich Venezuela, whose leftist leader, President Hugo Chávez, is at odds with the Bush Administration. After an oil workers' strike in 2003, Glencore and two U.S. traders allegedly paid kickbacks to secure deals with oil monopoly Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), according to The Wall Street Journal. PDVSA denied accepting bribes and Glencore denied making any illegal payments.
THE SADDAM CONNECTION
Some of the most compelling details to emerge from Oil-for-Food probes revolve around Rich himself. BusinessWeek has pieced together information suggesting that, despite his denials, Rich did buy Iraqi crude from several questionable companies during the program. His name appears in shipping records compiled by MEES. These show he bought from four separate companies, starting in February, 2001: Onako Oil Co., a subsidiary of Alfa Group, one of Russia's largest conglomerates; an Egyptian company called International Company for Petroleum & Industrial Services (or INCOME, for short); and a Swiss company, Zerich, with ties to some extremist groups. The fourth, EOTC, remains a mystery. Hesham Sheta, vice-chairman of INCOME's parent company in Cairo, Egypt, International Group for Investments, confirmed that "Marc Rich has been INCOME's 'agent' [oil trader] since 1990" and that Rich bought Iraqi crude from INCOME in 2001. Zerich has since been liquidated. Alfa denies paying surcharges.
Rich tells a different story. In March he acknowledged his company was on the U.N.'s list of "approved" crude buyers but insisted in written answers to House International Relations Committee questions that "nothing ever came of it." A committee spokesman remarked at the time: "We believe [Rich] knows more than he wishes to acknowledge." Marc Rich + Co.'s Frutig reiterated an earlier press statement: "Marc Rich Holdings reject all the allegations relating to its involvement in the U.N.'s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq."
Even with the new information, it may be difficult for the authorities to prove that Rich did anything illegal. At the time, Saddam offered oil at cut-rate prices to his supporters, who would then sell it for a huge profit on the market. For two years leading up to September, 2002, the dictator demanded surcharges of up to 50 cents a barrel that he deposited in secret bank accounts, according to the CIA, the Volcker committee, and Senate documents.
While Rich's company bought crude from companies acting on behalf of those with allocations, no documents show he paid illegal surcharges. However, allocation holders would typically "pass on the cost of that surcharge," according to a recent Senate report. "[Buyers] were informed of the required surcharges, and either paid them directly or reimbursed the allocation holder." Hesham denies that INCOME paid illegal surcharges.
Saddam banked about $10 billion from oil surcharges and smuggling, says the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Initially it enabled him to live large, buying fleets of Mercedes and the finest wine, according to the CIA. But when pressure from the Bush Administration mounted in 2001, Saddam earmarked the money for a war chest that "is likely funding the current insurgents," says John Fawcett, an independent investigator tracking Iraqi funds who recently testified to the House Committee on Energy & Commerce.
Some Rich Boys were heavy hitters in Oil-for-Food. In February, 2001, for example, the U.N. Security Council reported that Glencore bought 1 million barrels of Iraqi crude destined for the U.S. The oil was diverted to Croatia, where it was sold for a $3 million premium, that went into a secret bank account. Glencore was caught by U.N. overseers, and later agreed to refund the money to the U.N. A Glencore spokeswoman says the oil was shipped to Croatia for storage and later shipment to the U.S. A CIA report alleges that Glencore paid more than $3.2 million in surcharges to Iraq, something it denies.
The numerous investigations into the U.N. program paint a complex picture of how Rich Boys allegedly work. In September, 2001, U.S. and U.N. authorities were tipped off by a Greek shipping captain, who feared his tanker chartered by Trafigura was involved in sanctions busting. Trafigura, run by former Rich traders Claude Dauphin and Eric de Turckheim, bought Iraqi oil from a Bermuda company called Ibex Energy, according to a U.N. report. Ibex was owned by another former Rich trader, Jean-Paul Cayré. SOCO's Patrick Maugein, once a top Rich trader, was close to former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. The CIA alleges Maugein received oil allocations that he sold through Trafigura. Maugein denies paying illegal surcharges. Maugein says he knows one of Trafigura's founders. Investigators allege he had a contract with or a stake in Trafigura, something both the company and Maugein deny. Maugein and Trafigura also deny having commercial ties to Ibex.
DEALS WITH EXTREMISTS
Rich and those like him are so successful because they'll do business with virtually anyone if there are big bucks to be made. Both Rich and Pollner's Taurus Petroleum bought Iraqi crude in 2001 through the now-defunct Zerich, according to MEES shipping records. Zerich was a front for various groups that received oil allocations, a CIA report says.
Some of them, BusinessWeek has learned, are extremists, including Ukranian and Russian outfits that strongly supported Saddam -- as well as North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il. One, Russia's Peace & Unity Party, threw a birthday bash in Moscow in January, 2004, in honor of Kim. At it, Peace & Unity Chairwoman Sazhi Zaindinova Umalatova called Kim "an all-powerful treasured sword...when the imperialists are getting more undisguised in their military ambition," according to North Korea's news agency. Zerich also acted for the Ukraine Communist Party and the Ukraine Socialist Party. In all, Zerich bought $422 million worth of oil from Iraq, according to the Volcker committee.
In the early 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, Rich quickly became the most powerful trader there. He was "a coach and sort of a godfather for several of the oligarchs," says Vladimir L. Kvint, a professor at American University's Kogod School of Business. Pollner worked for Chalmers at Bayoil then, and all of them sold Russian crude that they got through the oligarchs.
Rich has long had ties to Mikhail Fridman and his mammoth Alfa Group, says Kvint. In 2001, Rich nearly sold his company to an Alfa division: Zug-based Crown Resources Corp. (now called ERC Trading). During the U.N. program both Rich and Chalmers bought oil from Alfa units, according to MEES: Onako and Tyumen Oil Co., respectively. The CIA report alleges that Alfa paid illegal surcharges to Saddam during Oil-for-Food, which Alfa denies.
Rich is legendary for cultivating people in high places. Traders say he could reach practically any diplomat, oil minister, or dictator in an instant with a phone that some joked seemed surgically attached to his ear. Two of his key Mideast connections were the powerful Bakhtiar brothers, Esfandiar and Bahman. The Bakhtiars -- whose father, investigators believe, headed the Shah of Iran's secret police -- fled to Iraq after the Shah's ouster. Thanks to family ties, Saddam treated them like "adopted sons," says Jules B. Kroll, founder of Kroll Inc., hired by Kuwait to investigate Saddam's finances in 1991.
The Bakhtiar link helped Rich forge links with the Iraqi dictator, says the Kroll report. Kroll says it obtained faxes between Rich and the Bakhtiars describing Rich's intent to trade Iraqi crude through the brothers. Over two decades, Rich traded allegedly through two companies linked with the Bakhtiars: Jaraco and Dynatrade (now owned by INCOME's parent, IGI). The Bakhtiars set up Jaraco in Geneva in 1981. In 2004, the U.S. Treasury identified Jaraco as a major money-laundering conduit for Saddam's billions. Hesham Sheta says, "[One of the] Bakhtiars still acts as a consultant" to IGI, which in turn owns INCOME, from which Rich bought Iraqi crude during Oil-for-Food.
Rich, along with Pollner and Bayoil's Chalmers, were "very trusted by the Iraqi Oil Ministry," says Axel Busch, chief correspondent for industry newsletter Energy Intelligence. A street-smart Staten Island boy, "Pollner is considered a brilliant trader," says Busch. Cultivating relations with small refineries, particularly in the U.S., enabled him to handle big quantities of Iraqi oil by breaking it into smaller cargoes, say industry experts. Pollner, they say, began trading with Iraq before the 1991 Persian Gulf War and continued after a U.N. embargo.
For his part, Chalmers had loaned money to Iraq since the 1980s and received repayment in oil, according to industry experts. The scion of a wealthy Houston oil family, Chalmers, a tight-lipped trader and tennis ace with a taste for fancy cigars, was used to rubbing shoulders with the elite. But he never worked for Rich. Indeed, his lawyer Dalton says they were always "competitors" and "didn't act together in Oil-for-Food." Still, trade reports and CIA documents show they often did deals with the same people in the same places. Chalmers' deep pockets apparently appealed to Iraq's Oil Ministry. After the U.S. lifted its embargo in May, 2003, the ministry said it would sell only to major refiners, but it still allowed two traders to get supplies -- Bayoil and Taurus.
These days rich has opulent digs in several countries. He owns a palatial Moorish villa on Spain's ritzy Costa del Sol and a ski chalet in Saint Moritz, Switzerland. His powerful pals have included opera star Placido Domingo and former hedge-fund guru Michael Steinhardt, who, in a letter backing the pardon, called Rich "my friend...who has been punished enough." Former traders say Rich spends most of his time at Villa Rosa, his compound on Switzerland's glistening Lake Lucerne, surrounded by Picassos, van Goghs, and Mirós.
Rich still keeps offices in Zug. "It's eerie," says a financial executive who recently paid a call. "You go up in an elevator and step into a vestibule where you're asked over an intercom if you have an appointment and whom you're there to see. If you're on the list, a security guard opens a door to another room. There you see a receptionist who scrutinizes you. Then you're escorted into another elevator that takes you to a different floor."
Rich has slowed down since his pardon. He sold Marc Rich Investments in 2003 but still runs Marc Rich + Co. Holding, which has a trading operation and a real estate arm. U.S. authorities -- the Justice Dept., in particular -- are on Rich's case. As for some of the Rich Boys, it's possible that the U.N. or even the Swiss government, which is conducting its own investigation into Oil-for-Food, may act if they can prove wrongdoing.
Maybe Rich will once again elude his pursuers. He is fast becoming a mythic persona: Word is a TV series based on his life may be in the works. And the Rich Boys -- his legacy -- rule.
By Marcia Vickers