How to Launder Foreign Aid

In early 2008, the company for which I was working won a small contract to manage the airport in Monrovia, Liberia.  Before the Liberian civil war, Roberts Field had a storied history. Along with being Pan American Airlines’ main African station for many decades, aircraft from the U.S. Army Air Corps harassed and attacked the southern flank of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.  The PanAm station chief ran the remote 5,000-acre airport and a Motel 6-like facility on the Farmington River, adjacent to the Firestone Plantation.  For their transient aircrew, Pan Am had a two-story hotel on the beach with a bar and grille where fresh lobster, fish, and shrimp were caught daily.  PanAm’s Boeing 707s and 747s stopped for fuel, food prepared by French chefs, or engine changes before traveling to South Africa or the Middle East.  Roberts Field had the longest runway in Africa and served as a Space Shuttle emergency landing strip.

Fifteen years of civil war destroyed Monrovia’s infrastructure and Roberts Field.  In 2008 Monrovia was the only capital city in the world without electricity.  Roberts Field received some electricity from the small hydroelectric plant on the Firestone Plantation.  All the former government buildings in and around Monrovia were shells, as destitute Liberians had stripped bombed buildings for whatever they could use or sell to scrapyards.  The two-story airport terminal structure had been bombed and gutted down to the concrete floors and columns during the war.  The Liberian Customs office at the airport was a two-car garage-sized structure with a single 25-watt lightbulb barely illuminating the area.  There were three desks, two with signs that read: No bribes taken at this desk.  There was a single customs official present but she wasn’t sitting at a desk with a sign. 

At the Ritz-Carlton in Washington D.C., Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and our executive vice president signed the three-year contract.  We had an unusual working arrangement, for us, the service provider, to be “totally open and transparent” with the Liberian government required a very close relationship between President Johnson-Sirleaf and our airport management team.  I saw President Johnson-Sirleaf whenever I was in town and our airport manager met with her weekly in her office at the Presidential Palace. 

Over time, we became very close with the airline station chiefs as well with the U.S. Embassy, especially the Econ Chief.  He managed U.S. aid.  One day he asked what we needed -- we actually needed everything necessary to service airliners, passengers, and transport their baggage.  We provided him with a list.  He explained that the U.S. State Department had a vendor that they had on contract that would provide us with the airport equipment we needed. 

In very short order, baggage carts, tugs, jet stairs -- with “Gifts from the People of the United States of America” stenciled on the sides -- arrived.  It was an emotional time; the pendulum at Roberts Field had begun to swing the other way.  We received everything we had ordered that day but a bus to transport passengers from a jet to the makeshift terminal at Roberts Field.  The State Department contractor demanded my airport manager sign for the bus, which was sitting on the dock at the Port of Monrovia.  The bus had been pilfered for parts and my airport manager explained he wasn’t signing for an incomplete bus, especially when there was no place to get it running.

We were making an incredible difference at Roberts Field.  On our first day of operation, our uniformed Liberian security personnel stopped 19 Chinese nationals from getting on a jet when they presented stolen passports.  My American Association of Airport Executives-trained and certified airport manager worked closely with the Transportation Security Administration to train our Liberian workforce for the ultimate goal of conducting nonstop flights from the U.S. to Monrovia, a return to the good old days when PanAm dominated aviation in Africa. 

The U.S. Embassy Econ Chief had made several visits to the airport, as an airline passenger and as the Econ Chief, and reported through his chain that great things were happening in Liberia.  In a speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned what my company was doing in Liberia and her comments made the front page of the New York Times, below the fold.  We eventually got a new bus that worked and other essential airport servicing equipment.  During these times, the Econ Chief would come out to the airport and take some pictures as we celebrated the improvements made to Roberts Field. 

I was visiting the U.S. Embassy when the Econ Chief said something that virtually knocked me over.  He said we were very good stewards of American taxpayer money and that their vendor wasn’t the best solution for all USAID cases.  USAID monies do go directly to the foreign governments but are managed through his office.  But because of what we were doing and how we were going about it, he could bypass the U.S. State Department’s goods and services vendor and drop USAID funds directly into the airport’s operational account for the things we needed at the airport. 

While my airport manager was ecstatic, I was dumbfounded.  The Econ Chief, obviously unwittingly, was articulating how freely U.S. foreign aid can be handled by U.S. Embassies.  In our case, once those funds were in the airport’s operational account, they could be used for other things unrelated to airport operations. 

When a country is called “corrupt” it is essentially meaningless unless you know how corruption works.  Before we took over the airport, passengers could present stolen passports to “get inside the airport transportation network” and travel between airports.  Customs agents don’t take bribes at those desks with signs but it is apparently perfectly fine to take bribes at desks without signs.  And if an American Embassy dumps taxpayer funds into a foreign company’s operational account, isn’t that how you launder money? 

Shifting capitals, Monrovia to Kiev, the State Department was going to give the Ukraine a billion dollars in foreign aid.  Was it the job of the U.S. Embassy to drop millions of American dollars into the operating funds of State Department vendors or State-Department-approved foundations? 

President Obama’s money laundering State Department sent billions to compliant countries including Ukraine and Iran.  Democrat politicians leveraged their positions to place their relatives in positions of authority when the USAID monies were disbursed to those vendors or “charitable” foundations.

After the three-year airport management contract expired, Liberia lost its TSA airport accreditation, Delta Airlines no longer flies nonstop from JFK to Monrovia, and corruption is back in vogue at Roberts Field.

If you experience technical problems, please write to