On December 26, Boxing Day, I received an email with the subject line “JOHN CARTER RISLEY given his outrageous behaviour and bringing others to book in a huge scandal.” I quickly scanned the text of the email, and saw that, like the subject line, it contained lots of all caps, run-on sentences, and nonlinear thoughts.
I get a lot of such emails and assumed this was from just another crank or attention-seeker. Besides, I had family visiting for the holidays and was taking a bit of time off work, so I set the email aside.
My family left later that week. Then, on New Years Day, it snowed. I shovelled the walk, made a fire, and settled in, catching up on old email, including that odd email I’d set aside.
I read it over three or four times, parsed the sentences, and tried to work through to understanding. It was from someone named William Humphreys, who claimed to have been a lawyer and a personal friend and advisor to John Risley, the Nova Scotia billionaire.
With a distinctive style I’ve since come to recognize — heavy on all caps and winding asides — Humphreys told me about a complex arrangement involving an apartheid-era arms sales, and the subsequent involvement by Risley and others respecting an outstanding debt an arms dealer named Jorge Pinhol says is owed him.
Frankly, I didn’t believe it. But there was something about the tale that tweaked my interest and kept me wondering: could this story actually be true?
So I spent the next few weeks investigating Humphreys’ claims.
Jorge Pinhol and Project Adenia
One of my first finds was a 1997 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists headlined “Stiffed Arms Merchant Sues.”
A Portuguese reporter named Jose Vegar had interviewed Jorge Pinhol. Pinhol, a Formula 1 race car driver of some renown in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had become an arms dealer after his racing career ended. Pinhol was also associated with the CIA and other government security agencies and appears to have been involved in arms shipments to Madagascar before landing what Vegar called “the deal of his life.”
“It all started in 1986 when Pinhol was contacted by a representative of Armscor, the state owned South African arms manufacturer, who wanted to make a very big — and very secret — deal,” wrote Vegar.
The South Africans called it the “Adenia Project,” a scheme to buy 50 kits — engines and rotors — from a French government-owned company called Aérospatiale. The sale, Aérospatiale was told, would allow South Africa to upgrade its Puma helicopters into SuperPuma helicopters.
Everyone involved in the deal maintained secrecy. There are two ways to read the secrecy. One is that secrecy was needed because under United Nations sanctions in place at the time, no country was permitted to sell arms to the South African government. A less sinister read on the secrecy — and one maintained by Pinhol and his lawyers — is that the deal wasn’t actually illegal, but merely embarrassing. I’ll explore those competing views in more detail in a bit.
Regardless, once in the hands of Armscor, the SuperPuma kits were used to build a brand new helicopter called the Oryx, which is still considered one of the best military helicopters in the world.
Under the complicated scheme, four Portuguese military generals — Gen. Shares Carneiro, Gen. Brochado Miranda, Gen. Rui Espadinha, and Gen. Casimiro Proenca — agreed to act as intermediaries for the transaction, but only if the French company would also agree to upgrade 10 of Portugal’s own Puma helicopters.
For his part in negotiating and navigating the multi-party transaction, Pinhol was supposed to get 10 per cent of the deal, which Vegar reported was worth $3 million on the $30-million transaction.
“The South Africans got everything they wanted and the French modernized the Portuguese helicopters,” wrote Vegar. “Then, the last thing that anybody would have expected to happen, happened. After months of excuses, the South Africans failed to pay the usual 10 percent fee to Jorge Pinhol for arranging the deal.”
Frustrated, Pinhol “broke the sacred rule of the arms dealer. He decided to take Armscor to court.”
I’ve since learned that while Vegar got the broad outlines of the deal correct, he woefully underreported the value of it, and therefore of Pinhol’s promised commission. The deal was actually worth $3 billion, making Pinhol’s commission a whopping $300 million.
How can 50 helicopters cost $3 billion — $60 million each? The short answer is that this was a very sophisticated deal, involving the transfer not just of the helicopters, but also design, service, spare parts, and, as well, a substantial cut for the Portuguese.
That sophistication is spelled out in Pinhol’s 2010 claim filed with the Portuguese court:
a) The delivery of 50 new S2 helicopters in kit form
The project was thus related the delivery in kit form of 50 new helicopters including a front Puma fuselage of Romanian origin fabricated by the company I.A.R. (the Romanian company I.A.R. still manufactured the Puma at that time) and a S2 kit including the essential other components of the AS332 Super Puma (rotor, tail rotor, avionic, controls, etc.)
These new helicopters which the protagonists initially called “S2 kits” or “Super Pumas” were not properly speaking AS 332 Super Pumas, but a hybrid aircraft later named “Oryx” and assembled in South Africa by the company Atlas (which became Denel), an affiliate of Armscor. The aircraft is thus named Atlas or Denel Oryx. As well,
b) Engineering and Conception
Included engineering and conception services rendered by Aérospatiale to the Defendant Armscor, since Aérospatiale engineers were sent to South Africa at the beginning of the 1980’s, who have been affected by the original concept of the hybrid aircraft Oryx, which combined elements of the Puma and the Super Puma.
c) Transfer of Technology to the Defendant Armscor in South Africa
All operations included in Project Adenia were accompanied by a transfer of technology to South Africa relating to sophisticated helicopters. Part of the transferred technology (radios, avionic and transponders) have however been purchased by Aérospatiale from the American company Rockwell Collins.
The assembly of the Oryx took place partially at OGMA in Portugal and in South Africa. The Aérospatiale Engineers sent to South Africa at the beginning of the 1980’s have been used for this purpose.
e) Spare Parts and Maintenance
As for the putting into service of an aeroplane or a helicopter, an important part of the transaction relates to the delivery of spare parts and the regular maintenance of the aircrafts. For this purpose, the Aérospatiale Engineers have been sent to South Africa. This situation remains in effect so long as the aircraft are still in service.
The 50 aircraft have been transported in various states of completion from France to South Africa, transiting Portugal.
In this respect, the details of the transportation have been described in an agreement entered into on 3 and 7 June 1988 between OGMA, Aérospatiale, Armscor and two intermediary companies, Zandumec and Reigosa representing Aerofrete (according to information to be subsequently attached).
This agreement was deliberately designed to mask the link between the principal parties to the sale/purchase agreement.
Besides the costs related to the sophistication of the deal with Armscor, there’s the Portuguese side of it. The claim goes on to explain that the Portuguese military wanted 10 of its Puma helicopters upgraded at no cost to them in return for their assistance in Project Adenia:
Having been informed of said fact by the Plaintiffs, after a period of internal discussions, the Defendant Armscor gave its express acceptance of the proposal for commission demanded by the Portuguese Air Force.
Pinhol says that he is entitled to 10 per cent of every aspect of the deal, which totalled $3 billion:
[The lawsuit] has the aim of condemning the defendants, in conjunction or in solidum, to pay the plaintiff the sum of USD 300 000 000, plus interest owed since the average date of the embezzlements, which is 1-1-1991, as well as the legal costs this process gave rise to.
The claim does not say what interest rate should apply, but with inflation, that $300 million in 1991 dollars amounts to $553 million in 2018 dollars, plus costs, which were outlined in the opening statement to the court.
In total, should Pinhol be successful, he stands to receive a payout of $600 million or more.
So where does John Risley fit into all this?
Enter John Risley
It turns out Risley became Pinhol’s financial backer.
A simple search of the U.S. court Pacer database turned up a 2011 lawsuit that names John Risley as a defendant. Also named as defendants are Jorge Pinhol and two companies Pinhol owns, Panamanian-registered Beverly Securities Inc. and British-registered Beverly Securities Ltd. (both companies are owned by something called Establissement Europeen de Financement, a Liechtenstein “anstalt” controlled by the Pinhol family).
The gist of the lawsuit’s allegation is that Risley and others stiffed a Boston law firm named Mintz Levin. I’ll get to that momentarily, but first, let’s consider the “factual background” section of the lawsuit, which basically restates the story told in Vegar’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article, but then brings John Risley into the equation:
During the 1980s, Pinhol allegedly facilitated a $3 billion helicopter acquisition (the “Transaction”) by a state-owned South African defense company, Armscor, Ltd. (“Armscor”), from the state-owned French helicopter manufacturer, Eurocopter, S.A. (“Eurocopter”), via a Portuguese military intermediary. Armscor and Eurocopter allegedly reneged on their promises to pay Pinhol a 10% commission (the “Commission”) for his involvement in the Transaction. In 2006, Pinhol and Risley assembled a “Working Group” of legal advisors to pursue strategies by which to recoup the Commission.
The lead counsel of the Working Group was David Lawson, of Bonnard Lawson, Geneva, Switzerland. The Working Group also included an English solicitor (or former solicitor), William Humphries [sic], who was an advisor to Risley. Risley provided all or virtually all of the funding for the Working Group members, including litigation.
The Mintz Levin lawsuit goes on to explain that lead lawyer David Lawson hired Gilbert Samberg, a lawyer with Mintz Levin, to investigate possible “legal claims in the U.S. against government entities and certain European banks that allegedly had been involved in connection with the Transaction.”
According to a sworn affidavit signed by Samberg, Samberg did that research and even flew to Geneva for a four-day meeting of the Working Group in late August and early September 2006, at which Risley was present. But Mintz Levin wasn’t paid in full for that legal counsel, claims the lawsuit. Mintz Levin sought a judgment for $150,661.81, plus interest.
Also swearing under oath, Risley denied all the claims in the Mintz Levin lawsuit.
In a January 18, 2012 Declaration to Dismiss the lawsuit, Risley claimed that while David Lawson had hired Mintz Levin, Risley was never a client of Mintz Levin, and Mintz Levin never did any work for Risley. Moreover, “this Court lacks personal jurisdiction over me,” wrote Risley. “I am a Canadian citizen, and I live in Chester, Nova Scotia and work in Bedford, Nova Scotia. I have no ongoing contractual relationship with New York and do not transact any business individually in New York.”
Humphreys told me in January it was he who advised Risley to not pay Mintz Levin.
What happened with the Mintz Levin claim? It’s not clear. On April 5, 2012, there was a procedural hearing on Risley’s Motion to Dismiss in the Mintz Levin case. District judge Katherine Forrest seemed skeptical that Risley would prevail, but made no ruling pending discovery and a proper hearing on the motion. But soon after, the lawsuit was dropped, suggesting the parties came to a settlement.
This month, I asked Risley about the Mintz Levin lawsuit. He said he couldn’t recall it at all, and asked me to explain it to him. I explained what I had found on the U.S. court database.
“I can’t help you there,” said Risley. “I don’t really know what that was about. So we’ve got a sort of chief counsel in Switzerland, lawyers in London, lawyers in Brussels, and other lawyers in Switzerland, and lawyers in South Africa and Portugal, so I don’t know who they are. I mean I know sort of roughly who they are but David Lawson in Geneva is the guy who runs the show, so he would be the guy that could elaborate on that for you. Maybe these are people who did some work for us at one point, I guess.”
All those lawyers, Risley confirmed, were working on the Beverly Securities lawsuit against Armscor. “He [Pinhol] went chasing the commission and eventually in large part extinguished his own resources and trying to chase these guys [Armscor] down. And he happened to be a very good friend of a very good friend of mine. And that’s how I was introduced to him; this friend of mine called me up and said, ‘Could you help this guy?’ And this is not what we do. We don’t do this kind of thing. This is a profession that’s called litigation funding and there’s lots of people that do this sort of thing. I didn’t even know that this kind of activity existed. I knew that people sort of provided funding to help other people who couldn’t afford to pursue their cases actually do so.”
William Humphreys, Risley’s friend and lawyer who originally alerted me to this story, had told me Risley had spent as much as $20 million on the lawsuit, but Risley told me that figure was grossly overstated. “That’s significantly more than we’ve spent, which is not to say we haven’t spent a lot of money,” said Risley. “We have spent a lot of money but it’s not as much as that.” Risley declined to put a dollar figure on how much he has spent on the lawsuit.
I asked Risley about the potential payoff, should his financial backing of the Pinhol claim be successful. “The deal that we have is that we get our money back, i.e., all our costs, and then I think we get 25 per cent of the next, you know, something, and I don’t know what that is,” he replied. “And as I say, there’s some kind of a staged formula that entitles us to a certain amount of the proceeds.”
If Pinhol wins — and gets interest on the $300 million commission that brings the total to $600 million — Risley’s group’s 25 per cent of the claim would translate into $150 million.
I didn’t know it when I started this investigation, but I wasn’t the only one looking into Pinhol’s lawsuit and Risley’s involvement in it.
South African researcher Hennie van Vuuren has long been interested in apartheid-era arms deals. In 2012, he landed a grant from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation for South Africa to research apartheid-era economic crimes. That project has grown and is now a stand-alone nonprofit organization called Open Secrets, which consists of van Vuuren and four other researchers.
“Between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, in almost a decade, South Africa went from being a net importer of weapons, having a very small domestic arms industry, to being the tenth largest exporter of weapons,” says van Vuuren. “We wanted to know: How did this come about?”
Common lore in South Africa and around the world has been that all the apartheid-era records were destroyed.
“In the early 1990s, F.W. de Klerk, the last white president of the racist regime, had ordered the mass destruction of documents,” says van Vuuren. “Trucks would roll out from the police and intelligence agencies in the outskirts of Pretoria to the big steel furnaces. We spoke to the agents who were working there [who] described how secret documents were fed into the furnaces. Tonnes of documents effectively destroyed.”
Van Vuuren relates that some 40,000 truckloads of documents were fed to the furnaces.
Most people had assumed all the archival records of the apartheid regime had been destroyed, and so no one went looking for them.
“But we discovered there’s a massive body of information in South Africa, and to a lesser extent in places like the U.K.,” says van Vuuren. The Armscor corporate archive still exists, for example, as do the personal records of past presidents, bank records, and some government records that survived the record purge. Additionally, “we examined 25 archives in seven or eight countries over five years,” he says.
From the beginning, Open Secrets’ work was aimed at telling the stories of the villains. “This is a story of profiteers,” says van Vuuren. “I have not tried to describe the role of the anti-apartheid movement, and the resistance to apartheid. Those are incredibly important stories, but an important element of our work is to talk about the perpetrators. While the narratives of those who have suffered needs to be in the forefront of our minds in doing this work, what is very clear is that it is the narrative of the perpetrators — who they are in the world and how they’ve escaped any accountability — which is incredibly hard to tell. People are litigious, they’ve got vast resources available to them, but they also have incredibly fragile egos. They don’t like people writing about them.”
In 2014, van Vuuren and his team were alerted to the Pinhol lawsuit, and therefore to John Risley.
“Through some whistleblowers we gained some access to documents,” van Vuuren explained during an academic talk at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] University of London. Those documents were “produced in part by court cases [brought] by a very greedy arms dealer who’s been claiming money for the last 25 years from the South African government by the name of Jorge Pinhol.”
“Very greedy arms dealer” is van Vuuren’s term. Risley told me that in his view Pinhol isn’t an arms dealer at all. “His [Pinhol’s] father happened to be a senior military figure, if not the most senior military veteran in the Portuguese government,” said Risley. “And that was the whole connection.” Still, I think by definition facilitating an arms deal makes one an arms dealer. I’ll let the reader decide about the “very greedy” part.
In any event, van Vuuren continued his lecture:
He [Pinhol] promised to move, and he did effectively move, helicopters from France to South Africa using his contacts in the Portuguese military. Pinhol has worked for the CIA, and we assume he’s worked for Mossad and many others in the past, and he’s spent the last 25, 30 years trying to claim $300 million from the South African government, from French arms companies, and others. At the moment, he has a court case on the go in Portugal, funded by a very wealthy and I would argue very greedy Canadian billionaire, John Risley, who is funding this to make money from the process.
But this process has generated paperwork, and the paperwork was used to support [Pinhol’s] claim. And in order to show that in fact he did do this deal with the apartheid regime, he had to show that he had used various banks and bank accounts. And in doing so, in those court documents we started to understand that he basically laid out the whole money-laundering trail he utilized.
A word about money-laundering. Usually we think of “money-laundering” as the means to take illegally obtained cash — from drug sales or mafia operations or whatever — and turn it into “legit” cash that can be used for otherwise legal purchases. In this case, however, “money-laundering” refers to hiding purchases, whether legal or illegal.
Van Vuuren’s team’s discovery of the Pinhol lawsuit was pivotal in their research. Because the lawsuit named the intermediary front companies and banks used to launder the payments for the arms purchase, the researchers were able to unravel much of the complex web of financial and government malfeasance that underlaid the sanctions-busting.
The researchers have described a “global money-laundering network” and have been able to account for 70 per cent of the almost $35 billion that the apartheid regime shifted across the world to bust sanctions, much of which was funnelled through two banks — a Belgium bank called Kredietbank (KBC) and its Luxembourg subsidiary, Kredietbank Luxembourg (KBL).
The banks “not only opened the vaults,” says van Vuuren, “they were the co-creators of a system of front companies across the globe in Panama and Liberia. We’ve tracked down about 125 of the front companies. We have a few hundred of the bank accounts that were utilized, and we have expert witness [statements] from officials who were working at Armscor at the time, which go to show exactly how this operated.”
That information in hand, van Vuuren spent five years writing a book, Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, which was published in South Africa in 2017, and in Britain by Hurst Publications in November 2018. It will be published in North America by Oxford University Press in March 2019.
Since the book is not yet available in North America, I purchased it through Hurst and had it airmailed to me. It’s a massive tome — 611 pages, and meticulously detailed with 84 pages of footnotes. Chapter 5, “The Arms Money Machine,” details the networks of banks and front companies that were used to skirt the sanctions, and Chapter 13, “The Long Shadow,” is devoted in large part to Pinhol’s lawsuit and Risley’s involvement in it.
“Who will stump up the cash for this apartheid-era sanctions-busting claim?” writes van Vuuren. “The state-owned arms procurement corporation, Armscor. This means that the claim, if successful, will have to be authorized and financed by the Treasury. Effectively, the apartheid sanctions buster is trying to force a payment out of the pockets of every South African citizen. This is a deeply unjust proposition, an additional apartheid tax to fund an avaricious adventurer.”
Risley says there is nothing unjust about trying to get a settlement from Armscor. “This is either a legitimate claim or not,” Risley told me. “And ultimately some court will determine whether it is or not.
Was the Pinhol-Armscor deal illegal?
I need to address the elephant in the room: Was Project Adenia illegal? Throughout their court efforts, Pinhol and his lawyers have said it was not.
Mark Pieth is an expert in money laundering and corruption; he is perhaps best known for being hired by FIFA to oversee its anti-corruption reforms. Pieth was also hired by Pinhol’s lawyers, and wrote an opinion for the Working Group in order to help advance Pinhol’s claim in the courts. He explained that the SuperPuma kits were purchased by Armscor “for upgrading and expanding South Africa’s fleet of Puma Search and Rescue (SAR) Helicopters acquired from Aérospatiale of France.” Pieth continued:
Project Adenia, involving sale to South Africa of unarmed SAR helicopters and related parts and services, was not such an “arms” acquisition programme and hence was not precluded by the U.N. or other Sanctions Resolutions or otherwise illegal.
Pieth footnoted that statement as follows:
The intended function and use of these SAR supplied under Project Adenia has been described as follows:
“These functions include the monitoring of commercial shipping activities and assisting Marine and Coastal Management in detecting red tide, oil pollution, abalone smuggling, as well as monitoring illegal fishing activities in the RSA’s 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone. The Squadron also assists the South African Search-and-Rescue Organization (SASAR) by supplying a 24-hour around the clock Land and Sea Search-and-Rescue service to the country. One of their more notable contributions in this arena was their rescue of 587 people from the Greek liner Oceanos near the East London coast in August 1991 using some 16 helicopters.”
The website www.sasar.gov.za provides a clear picture of the scope of responsibility for such “search and rescue missions” in South Africa. Portugal’s fleet of search and rescue helicopters can be found at the website www.emfa.pt/wee/esquadras/equadrasdetalhe.php?lang=ing&key=e751
Nevertheless, Armscor and Aérospatiale and their respective state-owner were conscious of the political sensitivity of any commercial activity with South Africa which led them to conduct Project Adenia, as with all of Armscor’s programmes, under a strict “top secret” regime.
Likewise, Pinhol’s claim filed with the Brussels Tribunal of Commerce states that:
Indeed, even if the South African regime had undergone a notable evolution at that time, towards the end of the 1980’s, in engaging in preliminary discussions with the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela in order to end Apartheid, the delivery of the Search and Rescue helicopters remained delicate on the political level, particularly as a result of French political tensions, which were reflected within the heart of Aérospatiale.
At the time, there existed a situation in which the President of the French Republic was from the left (François Mitterrand), but the government was of the right (Jacques Chirac — 1986 to 1988), and important internal pressures were felt at the top management levels of Aérospatiale.
The President of Aêrospatiale at the time, General Henri Martre, did not wish to negotiate with Armscor, whereas Mr Phillipe Barbe, the “number 2” of Aérospatiale, and eager to obtain the position of President, was of the contrary opinion.
The negotiations were thus led by Aérospatiale’s management in favour of Project Adenia, without the President of Aérospatiale being informed.
Moreover, the way in which world opinion had moved against the Apartheid Regime of South Africa had given rise to serious levels of high profiled public protest with the media constantly seeking to expose the consequences of supporting the South African Apartheid Regime.
For those reasons, Armscor and Aêrospatiale have preferred that the project in question retain a strictly confidential character, which required an indirect delivery and assembling channel for the material to be established through a neutral country.
Enjoying such confidentiality, the Defendant Armscor also included in Project Adenia, without informing the Plaintiffs [i.e., Pinhol’s Beverly companies], the acquisition of 50 new Search and Rescue hybrid helicopters close to Super Pumas from Aerospatiale in kit form which would be assembled by the Defendant in the Republic of South Africa.
Such information, maliciously concealed by the Defendant from the Plaintiffs was only revealed in later proceedings before the South African and French courts.
In short, the argument is that Pinhol didn’t know that the SuperPuma helicopter kits were to be used to build the Oryx, so therefore as far as he was concerned, the deal was not a violation of U.N. sanctions.
That argument is echoed by Risley.
“This is one of the situations where it’s a bit like people running around calling the oil sands tar sands,” Risley told me. “I’m the first to admit that oil sands, the substance called oil sands looks like tar but it’s actually a wood fibre-based substance, a hydrocarbon-based substance and people who call oil sands tar sands do so because they think they want to label oil sands as being dirty — and absolutely, oil sands are dirty and you know emit a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions and their capture and all that sort of stuff.
“And I think the same kind, of you, know that’s a metaphor if you like for what’s going on here,” continued Risley. “I think it’s convenient for people to say ‘this was an arms deal’ and ‘all these people are bad guys because it’s an arms deal.’ In fact, this was not an arms deal. This was a deal for search and rescue helicopters and I think that the reason that it is sort of coloured is because these helicopters were ordered by a regime which was not in favour with the rest of the world. And so nobody, I don’t think, wanted to be seen to be doing business with it.
“And you had a situation where Aérospatiale, which in those days was owned by the French government, didn’t want to be seen to be trading directly with South Africa but very much wanted to sell the helicopters. And as you know, Portugal agreed to serve as a conduit for these helicopters and was paid by Armscor and Aérospatiale by virtue of an upgrade of their existing helicopters. That was their compensation. And that whole sort of deal was put together by Beverly Securities. So you know that as I say, the regime was in disrepute. I think the method here was being seen by many as to be coloured, if you like.”
I pressed Risley on the point, pointing out that at the time, the apartheid government of South Africa was at war in Namibia and Angola, and so while the helicopters certainly were — and continue to be — used for domestic search and rescue purposes, they could serve a dual use in the wars as military vehicles.
“I think you’re absolutely right, Tim,” he replied. “At the time that the helicopters were ordered, South Africa was engaged in as you say wars or, you know, aggressive border skirmishes, whatever you want to call them. And I think that they had all been resolved. Now I don’t have any insight into the minds of Armscor, of the South African government at the time, and was it their view that we were going to order these search and rescue helicopters and once we get them then we’re gonna put machine guns on them? You know, that may well have been their agenda. I can’t know that. But the facts of the case is that they were search and rescue helicopters and as it turned out they were only ever used as search and rescue helicopters.”
But there is another view.
In 1996, Pinhol lost his initial claim in the French court. As Jose Vegar, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists writer, described it, “the judge ruled that Aérospatiale owed Pinhol nothing, and further, that Pinhol had hurt Aérospatiale’s good name just by mentioning the company to the press.” That ruling was appealed to the Paris Appeals Court.
I’ve been unable to obtain the Paris Appeals Court ruling, but it is referenced in a later court ruling I have obtained.
In 2006, Pinhol had Risley’s financial backing and the Working Group’s legal support. Soon after, the Pinhol/Beverly Securities’ claim was taken to the Brussels Commercial Court. In 2010, that court dismissed Pinhol’s actions against Belgium bank KBC because the court lacked jurisdiction, but nevertheless addressed the issue of the legality of the deal head-on. The unanimous four-judge decision reads:
The plaintiff [Pinhol] maintains his position, stating that the helicopters delivered to Armscor were to be used exclusively for humanitarian missions and did not fall within the scope of the embargo decreed by the UN.
This statement cannot fail to surprise us:
The plaintiff, the company BSI and Mr. Pinhol openly acknowledged in the allegations presented to the Paris Appeals Court (p. 4, subparagraph 1.3) to have contributed to the undertaking of a transaction that deceived the UN-decreed arms supply embargo; The Appeals Court recorded this fact in its Judgement of 5-2-1999;
They mentioned the delivery of sophisticated combat helicopters, in breach of the embargo, which required their intervention with the Portuguese military authorities;
It is difficult to be more explicit:
The different witness statements of the former managers of Armscor confirmed that the helicopters were to be used for military purposes and the breach of the embargo.
The Adenia project was classified as “top secret” and highly confidential owing to the fact that it involved an illicit activity — deceiving the embargo that prohibited transactions involving military material destined for South Africa — carried out to satisfy the Defence needs of the country, made up of combat helicopters that Mr. Pinhol and the companies that he managed described as sophisticated;
They were not ignorant, obviously, of the fact that they were breaching resolution 418 by performing the role of intermediaries in the sale of this military material;
Under these circumstances, the reason behind this legal action should be qualified as illicit;
A judicial action of this kind should be declared inadmissible.
“The intended use of the weapons was to prop-up apartheid,” van Vuuren told the Daily Maverick, a newspaper in South Africa. “This was a violation of the United Nations sanctions and Mr Pinhol, by his own admission sought to profit from this secretive criminal conspiracy.”
In late January, Pinhol and his lawyers filed a court action in South Africa, seeking documents from the South African Auditor-General.
After the filing, Michael Marchant, one of van Vuuren’s colleagues at Open Secrets, explained it thusly in the pages of the Daily Maverick:
If this attempt to obtain the documents from the Auditor-General is successful, Pinhol’s team plans to present them in a Lisbon civil court where the litigation against Armscor began in 2008. Their legal papers also reveal their strategy in both jurisdictions to avoid difficult questions about the nature of the deal and Pinhol’s complicity with a regime that constituted a crime against humanity. They argue that the highly secretive deal was simply for “search and rescue helicopters” with no military purpose, and thus did not violate the UN embargo.
The evidence, however, shows that the large shipment of 50 “Super Puma” helicopter “kits”, sent from French arms company Aerospatiale via Portugal, was typical of the covert sanctions-busting deals of the time. For one, the method of payment through Armscor’s secret Luxembourg bank accounts (including apparently lucrative commissions to middlemen) and the insistence on obscuring the trade by sending the helicopters via Portugal are quintessential of Armscor’s modus operandi in this period.
Further, the procurement was part of the South African Air Force’s attempts from the mid-1980s to develop their combat helicopters. The Pumas ultimately became the Oryx, and the SANDF still uses these for troop transport today.
Pinhol and the Working Group continue to maintain that the arms deal was legal.
Of course, this is an ongoing and expensive legal battle, and as Risley said, ultimately some court will decide.
William Humphreys, the author of the odd email I received on Boxing Day, tells me he met John Risley in London in 1985, and from that meeting evolved a long and fruitful friendship: Humphreys helped find financial backers for Risley’s ever-growing empire, Risley hired Humphreys for special projects, and Humphreys and his wife Miriam vacationed in Chester with Risley and his then-wife Judy.
He and Risley had a parting of ways over the Pinhol lawsuit, says Humphreys.
According to Humphreys, Risley had become interested in what is called “third party investment in litigation,” and learned about the unsettled Pinhol claim.
After Humphreys’ wife died, Risley told him he needed to get back to work or he’d be lost in depression. “I’ve decided to fund this interesting case,” Risley told him. “It seems a serious chance to make a good turn.”
Risley bought Humphreys a ticket and asked him to fly to Cape Town, South Africa, “to see what this case is all about.”
After a year, “I came back [from Cape Town] and told John Risley ‘you’re going to have to be very, very careful, this is political dynamite.’”
“John Risley said, ‘this is an amazing scenario. I take note of your advice but I’d like to get on with it.’”
So Humphreys contacted David Lawson, the American lawyer practicing in Switzerland, and they began forming the Working Group. Humphreys says he worked on a contingency basis, but Lawson and the rest of the lawyers worked “on the clock,” which is why they billed Risley for their work.
“The team suddenly sprouted with somebody in New York, who Risley tried not to pay,” Humphreys tells me. “In my opinion he was right not to pay them because I think they were completely negligent in their advice on the case. In the end, Risley decided to settle that case, against my advice.”
The Working Group had appealed the French court ruling to the Brussels Tribunal of Commerce, but it also took a new legal action, this one in Portugal.
Humphreys claims he was the one who realized that the 20-year statute of limitations for such a case had not yet expired in Portugal, and so in 2008 the Working Group filed a claim there. (The claim dates to 1989.)
In Portugal, says Humphreys, Risley’s team has won an evidentiary hearing that requires Armscor to turn over documents, but the claim itself remains unsettled, and is before Portugal’s Supreme Court. The Portuguese court order for Armscor documents is now before South African courts.
Even with that understanding of the Pinhol lawsuit, Humphreys says he didn’t comprehend until three years ago the very nature of the lawsuit — that it is, in Humphreys’ word, “outrageous.”
And even that understanding of the lawsuit wasn’t what caused the breakdown between himself and Risley. Rather, it was two other revelations involving the lawsuit.
The first was that Jorge Pinhol is a “bigamist.” Humphreys claims Jorge Pinhol has one wife, Fiona, who lives in England and has five children with Pinhol, and a second wife — Humphreys couldn’t remember her name — who lives in South Africa and has two sons with Pinhol.
“When I discovered this, I said, ‘this guy is the prime #1 witness; we have to tell the court!’” says Humphreys. “You can go to prison for bigamy in this country [Britain].”
The second revelation was that two Armscor officials — Martin Steynberg and Daniel Loubser — who are to testify for Pinhol have some financial stake in a potential settlement in Pinhol’s favour.
Humphreys tells me he insisted that Risley and David Lawson, the lead lawyer in the Working Group, notify the court about Pinhol’s bigamy and about the Armscor officials’ conflict of interest. Risley and Lawson refused, and they removed Humphreys from the legal effort.
None of this makes much sense to me. Other than to note that it was “political dynamite,” Humphreys had not previously much objected to involvement in the Pinhol-Armscor arms deal, so to hang his hat on the relatively minor (in global terms) crime of bigamy seems ridiculous. Likewise, everybody who had ever even remotely touched one of the apartheid-era arms deals, including Pinhol, did so in hope of financial gain, so why get upset that the Armscor officials were doing the same?
Still, removed from the case, Humphreys has moved on to greater aims: he now intends to use the Pinhol lawsuit as a jumping-off point to unravel not just the entire sanctions-busting networks (as to large degree, van Vuuren already has) but to expose the financial chicanery that led to the global financial collapse in 2008. Humphreys tells me that the potential claims against banks and financial institutions are valued at $700 billion, maybe $1 trillion, “if you include Australia.”
He sees this enterprise as a moral crusade, one that will right the wrongs of past decades and return wealth to people around the globe it has been stolen from.
“But we’ve got to get people excited about it,” he tells me. And so he wants to make a movie. He’s contacted a production company, and he’s willing to fund it.
And Humphreys wanted to bring Risley into the cause. “He needs to think about his brand.”
To that end, Humphreys wanted Risley to become involved with his prospective film. He sent me an email exchange he had with Risley on New Year’s Eve.
“Why not involve your Son Michael given his exceptional experience as an Actor and Producer and as for investment Finance for this [film],” wrote Humphreys to Risley. “[T]he solution which I have proposed is indeed a seriously meaningful one as opposed to alternative options in hand and which I can reverse in the same way as Barney Curley did when he invested money in an African Charity as described at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Sam_betting_coup such move saving and enhancing his brand reputation.”
Risley responded seemingly dismissively:
I think a movie about the whole intrigue around how the RSA [Republic of South Africa] managed to circumnavigate the embargo applied by many of it’s [sic] trading partners would find an engaged audience. The story probably needs to be a bit larger than just our BSI/BSL case [Beverly Securities Inc./ Beverly Securities Ltd — that is, the Pinhol case]. You need to find someone who has relevant experience in the area to actually write a script. That script then becomes the ‘prospectus’ for raising money and securing the right people to bring it all together.
Your movie friend should be able to steer you in the right direction.
Oh, and Humphreys also wanted me to be involved in the film, playing an intrepid reporter helping to discover the crimes of the global financial industry.
“Why don’t you come to London and we can meet and talk about it?”
The corruption beast
Having read his book, I also asked Hennie van Vuuren for an interview. We were trying to coordinate our calendars for a Skype interview from South Africa, but then he mentioned that he was going to London for a week-long book promotion tour.
Three days later, I was at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] University of London with 70 other people in a classroom designed for half that number, listening to Hennie van Vuuren discuss his book.
The talk was hosted by SOAS’s Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice, and van Vuuren was joined by fellow panelists Andrew Feinstein and Paul Holden of the London-based NGO Corruption Watch U.K.
After the talk, I joined van Vuuren, Holder, and Feinstein for dinner, and the next day I spent several hours alone with van Vuuren for an extended interview at the Corruption Watch office at Cavendish Square. Since my visit to London, van Vuuren has continued to share documents with me, some of which have been used for this article.
Van Vuuren explains that he is countering a racist argument that arose in 1999, when the Mandela government entered into a series of corrupt arms deals totalling more than $10 billion. “This was when the government said it didn’t have the money to buy anti-viral medication to treat AIDS. Three-hundred thousand people died during that period, and instead we entered into a corrupt arms deal.”
The racist argument, he says, is that “corruption is intrinsic in the way in which African states are governed, that corruption is in the DNA of politicians, and in fact in the DNA of the people.”
“How so soon after democracy [was introduced] could political corruption seep into government?” he continues. “And the question we kept asking ourselves was, What proceeded this? You know, things don’t change from one moment to the next. That’s the story of power in any place — there’s fluidity, but there’s always continuities in elite networks. And the answer lay in the late-apartheid period, the period of heightened sanctions.”
This is when what van Vuuren calls “the beast” took hold in South Africa. “The beast is fundamental to the nature of corruption — the role of the global arms trade, the role of intelligence agencies, of banks, who did, and continued, and do today subvert democratic processes, at every turn.”
The beast was created during apartheid, and it easily survived the transition to democracy, continuing on as strong as ever.
In fact, the recent government of Jacob Zuma was bedevilled with corruption, and van Vuuren has uncovered what he suspects was Zuma’s corrupt attempt to profit personally from the Pinhol lawsuit against Armscor. That discovery leads to the next chapter in this already complex story, but bear with me.
Van Vuuren obtained leaked minutes from a September 2010 meeting between the Working Group John Risley had assembled (including Humphreys) and lawyers for Armscor. But also present at the meeting was a South African “media consultant” named Liesl Göttert, who had a long association with Jacob Zuma. According to the minutes, Göttert was there as a consultant for Beverly Securities — that is, in support of Risley’s efforts to recoup Pinhol’s commission.
Writes van Vuuren in his book:
What was Göttert doing at that meeting? Her appearance is concerning for the following reasons: Firstly, why was she as the only non-lawyer present in a meeting with lawyers to discuss a possible settlement? Secondly, why was a self-proclaimed representative of Zuma sitting on the side of an apartheid-era sanctions buster when negotiating with the South African state? If true, this could suggest that President Zuma, allegedly acting through an emissary, has attempted to insert himself in the deal.
The minutes, continues van Vuuren, say that “Humphreys went further with a surprising claim: ‘Ms. Göttert had been asked to attend the meeting, and noted that prior to accepting to do so, she had sought and received the agreement of the RSA [Republic of South Africa] President [Zuma] for whom she also acts’.”
This is an obvious conflict of interest: Göttert was representing both sides in the potential lawsuit — Pinhol through his Beverly companies, and arguably, the state-owned arms company Armscor through the state president, Zuma.
It’s an open question as to what Zuma’s aim was, but van Vuuren spells out what the potential deal between Pinhol and Armscor entailed:
This proposed settlement sought from Armscor appears at that stage to have been but a little piece in a bigger puzzle. Pinhol’s lawyers described the Armscor issue as a “small commercial matter” which would enable them to launch a far bigger reparations case against the Luxembourg-based KBL [the bank that facilitated the helicopter deal] for its role in apartheid-era sanctions busting. For this to succeed, they wanted Armscor’s support, including access to its archives, as the size of the claim would no doubt be significantly higher as a result. In return for its co-operation they offered Armscor a “discounted settlement arrangement.”
Specifically, the leaked minutes state:
Av Andrade [a Portuguese lawyer with the Working Group] stressed that what is really in dispute is not the ‘small commercial matter’ between BSL/BSI and Armscor as to the unpaid commission, but the very important dispute with the financial institutions, in particular those involved with the BSL/BSI matter, who were involved in the diversion of millions of dollars (and more) not only from BSL/BSI, whose account was opened at KBL to receive the commission never paid, but also from the South African state itself. This money went in many directions, some of which included corrupt former Armscor executives, which the current management should not want to be seen to be protecting.
In short, Av Andrade suggested that Armscor should carefully consider participating in the proper fight, not in the smaller and less important commercial dispute with BSL/BSI.
Humphreys, who was at the meeting, said the “proper fight” with KBL could result in “South African State reparation claims” worth “hundreds of billions of dollars which could benefit the South African State and its people dramatically,” according to the minutes.
It turns out that Armscor turned down the offer to cooperate.
But if the foregoing is true, understand what we’re talking about here: Risley’s lawyers are working on a potential claim that is much larger than the already humungous $600 million they’re asking the Portuguese court to award them for the Pinhol deal. And in 2010, they were willing to “discount” that $600 million claim if Armscor would pony up documents in pursuit of the larger claim.
Another claim: CIEX and reparations
After I bought my plane ticket but before I arrived in London, two things happened.
First, William Humphreys told me a close family member had died. As is typical with Humphreys, there were all sorts of complications and longwinded explanations, but the bottom line is he didn’t know if he’d be able to meet with me.
Second, van Vuuren alerted me to something called CIEX (pronounced see-ex).
The CIEX part of the story dates back to the Mandela government, soon after the apartheid-era documents were burned in the furnaces in the suburbs of Pretoria, and after the coming of democracy.
In 1997, in pursuit of public money allegedly looted by officials of the outgoing apartheid government, a Mandela government agency paid £1 million to a London-based company called CIEX to investigate the matter. CIEX is owned by former British spy Michael Oatley.
CIEX issued a report, but the matter was dropped by the Mandela government and has since languished.
Van Vuuren sees the CIEX report as weak tea — vague allegations with no concrete foundations.
However, besides the £1 million payment to Oatley, there was an additional carrot dangled: CIEX would get a commission for any successful return of stolen state government monies to South Africa.
This is where the really big money comes in.
According to documents filed with the South African court, in the years since the CIEX report was issued, the potential CIEX commission has landed… in John Risley’s lap.
The court records include a CIEX timeline compiled by Michael Oatley. The timeline states: “6.06 [Jine 2006]: International group of experts sponsored by Canadian philanthropist John Risley inherits CIEX archive and legal rights and commences research into apartheid corruption and the responsibility of European and other financial and other institutions.”
Risley’s ownership of CIEX’s legal rights was reiterated in a 2014 letter from Michael Oatley to Billy Masetlha, who had formerly been head of the South African Secret Service. In the letter, Oatley wrote: “I have advised John Risley, who controls the entity which has inherited the rights of CIEX Ltd under its contract with the South African Government dated 6 October 1997…”
This month, I asked Risley how his group inherited the CIEX legal rights, and he flatly denied owning those rights.
“I don’t have anything to do with that,” said Risley. “Michael Oatley, who is a good guy and he was introduced to me by William Humphreys in London, and Michael had served as a member of the sort of intelligence unit of the British government and he had been asked after he had retired to go and do some sort of investigation in South Africa on behalf of the South African government of the time into some activity of the apartheid government. And I’m not really clear as to what that was all about. But we thought at some point, at one point in time, that there might have been sort of some overlap between what Michael was able to unearth in the course of his investigation and what we were trying to sort of get at. And I don’t have anything to do with that. I don’t think there’s any active action there by Michael against the South African government, or at least if there is I’m not aware of it, and I certainly have no participation or involvement in it.”
I told Risley there were documents written by Oatley and filed in the South African court that say Risley owns the CIEX rights.
“Yeah, no no no,” replied Risley. “I think I paid for a couple of trips to South Africa for Michael when he went down there with Humphreys and one or two of our other lawyers. But that was the extent of my participation and maybe in that context Michael had agreed to, if he ever got any money out of CIEX, to reimburse me or something. But we never did anything about that. We never pursued that. Michael may have, but I’m pretty sure he hasn’t, he’s in his 80s, he’s just sort of let that go.
“All I can tell you, Risley continued, “is we’re not doing anything. Zero. We are doing nothing. There are no lawyers engaged on any file with respect to the CIEX matter that I’m aware of and none of the businesses which I have any association or share in are doing anything with respect to the CIEX file whatsoever. Absolutely nothing. Just no participation in it at all.”
Risley said I should ask Oatley about it, so I sent Oatley an email including the CIEX timeline and his 2014 letter to Masetlha. Oatley responded almost immediately, as follows:
The arrangement you refer to was provisional and not pursued. The rights to this claim remain with me.
I don’t know what to make of this. Oatley’s email to me appears to contradict both the CIEX timeline he created and the letter to Masetlha. Moreover, although CIEX is not named in the leaked minutes from the meeting between Armscor lawyers and Working Group lawyers in 2010, the broad outlines of a proposed deal in pursuit of potential South African reparations worth “hundreds of billions of dollars” look like the same goal CIEX had in mind.
I asked van Vuuren what he thinks of Oatley’s response to me. Van Vuuren wrote back:
The letter which you provided [to Oatley] from 2014, from Oatley to Masetlha, indicates that Risley controls the entity with the legal rights to CIEX. Based on that, Oatley was either misleading Masetlha in 2014, or he is obfuscating now in his correspondence with you. The latter seems more likely and I do not know the motive if that’s the case.
Just to be clear: Risley says he does not own the CIEX rights.
In early January, in a phone interview from Halifax, I had asked Humphreys about Hennie van Vuuren and his book. “The only problem with that author [van Vuuren] is that he’s not a very mature human being,” responded Humphreys. “And he never understood what the real end game really was — South Africa is entitled to $100 billion in reparations. It’s going to be the biggest reparations case in history, much bigger than the Holocaust reparations.” This was before I knew about CIEX.
From my London hotel room later in January, I tried to make one more attempt to meet with Humphreys, and so dialled him up. He couldn’t meet, but we had a half-hour phone conversation.
I asked Humphreys about CIEX. He told me that Oatley was paid “one million pounds sterling” and was to receive a 12.5 per cent commission on all money recovered by the government of South Africa.
Van Vuuren says the total value of sanctions-busting arms deals is in the ballpark of $35 billion; 12.5 per cent on that would be $4.375 billion. But if, as Humphreys claims, the total “reparations” due the government of South Africa is $100 billion, the CIEX commission would be $12.5 billion.
If Risley owned the CIEX rights, I could understand why the Working Group was willing to let Armscor off on the cheap in return for its help in pursuit of the larger claim. But if, as he says, Risley doesn’t own the CIEX rights, why would the Working Group make such a deal with Armscor? Especially if, as Oatley says, he still owns the CIEX rights? There’s no indication that the Working Group is representing Oatley.
Still on the phone with Humphreys, I have the following exchange with him:
TB: As I understand the story as you’re explaining it, and tell me if I have this wrong, you had a falling out with Mr. Risley over the Pinhol case, both because of the problems with Pinhol, his bigamy and so forth, and because of what was at stake in the case, the morality of profiting off sanctions. But now, you see Risley as redeeming himself in the moral sense, because he’s being instrumental in addressing the larger issues of reparations for South Africa for the wrongs done to it during the apartheid years.
WH: That sums it up exactly.
TB: But is this really a redemption story? If Risley still has a piece in the CIEX matter — if he now has claim to that 12 and a half per cent commission — isn’t this just a business proposition for him?
WH: You can take it from me, that all of that will be put in a foundation for Black South Africans.
That would indeed be a remarkable redemption story.
I tell van Vuuren about my exchange with Humpheys and he laughs.
As van Vuuren sees it, Risley and the Working Group are “bounty hunters” hoping to personally profit off an illegal apartheid-era arms deal. Why should a group of lawyers get any cut in justice for South Africa?
And even if in the highly unlikely case of the CIEX commission money somehow being redistributed to the people of South Africa via a foundation or some other mechanism, that’s not how this should work out, says van Vuuren.
Rather, the people and government institutions of South Africa should be taking the lead on righting the wrongs of the apartheid era.
I asked Risley about van Vuuren’s characterization of him.
“Look, I don’t know the man,” said Risley. “I know nothing about him. I don’t know that he knows anything about me other than what he’s read or heard. I doubt very much whether he knows the background of how we became involved in all of this. So, I’m not saying he’s a bad guy. I don’t know the man. I don’t really know what he said about me and I don’t particularly care what he said about me — it’s nothing to do with me or any of my businesses. This is either a legitimate claim or not, and ultimately some court will will determine whether it is or not.”
I followed up: “So the whole idea that the Working Group or you are trying to get money out of Armscor, which therefore means money out of the people of South Africa, how do you respond to that view?”
“Well I mean, they either owe money or they don’t,” responded Risley. “You know, it’s just a matter of fact, right? And the court will determine whether they do or they don’t.
“So, you know,” he continued, “I think one of the things that you say in your note to me is why shouldn’t the South African government or the people in South Africa sort of pursue this and I quite agree with you. They should. But I think that this is something that happened way back in the 1990s. And I think very much the government has tried to sort of put that era behind it and move on and I understand that and it’s not like they don’t have a host of other problems with which they’re trying to deal — most recently the corruption of the previous regime to the one that’s in power now.
“Is the South African government going to pick up this action in our absence? No, not a chance. This thing would die on the vine if it wasn’t for our [efforts]. And I think it would be very, very illuminating if they pick up the action because I think that the money is traceable; you could ultimately be able to find out where this money went. That’s not our schtick. We don’t have to put it back to prove our case. That’s nothing to do with us. But somebody should — this is a lot of money and somebody should take an interest in who got that money.”
I had interviewed Risley on the phone; the next day, Risley sent me a short email:
I was reflecting on our conversation of yesterday and your questions around “why” together with the reputational issues being generated. I am thinking we should commit to donate any profit from this exercise, should we be successful, to a charity in South Africa. It seems to me one focused on education would be the most appropriate.
I am going to raise this with our legal team this week.
Thanks for stimulating this thinking.
The Halifax Examiner is an advertising-free, subscriber-supported news site. Your subscription makes this work possible; please subscribe.