McDermott Finds New Controversy
Following an eyebrow-raising trip he made to Baghdad last September, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) received a $5,000 contribution from a controversial Iraqi-American businessman who accompanied him and two other lawmakers on the fact-finding mission.
The Oct. 25 contribution — which was deposited in McDermott’s legal expense fund and listed in recent disclosure documents — came from Shakir Wadi Alkhafaji. Alkhafaji is an Iraqi-American real estate mogul who has come under some scrutiny for his various political and business activities.
“He’s a friend and he gives me money,” said McDermott, who confirmed that he forged a relationship with the Southfield, Mich.-based businessman on the trip to Baghdad after they were introduced through a mutual friend, then-Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.).
Bonior, who left the House in January following his failed gubernatorial bid last year, did not return calls seeking comment last week.
McDermott created the defense fund to help pay the hefty legal bills resulting from the lengthy, ongoing lawsuit that Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) filed against him. The suit stemmed from McDermott’s release of a tape recording of an intercepted telephone call between Boehner and other Republican leaders back in 1996.
But it may have been McDermott’s stance on international issues, rather than the Seattle Congressman’s dispute with Boehner, that attracted Alkhafaji’s attention and contribution.
A vocal opponent of U.S.-led military action against Iraq, McDermott traveled alongside Bonior and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) to Baghdad last fall. They met with various Iraqi officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and toured a children’s hospital.
But Republicans, and some Democrats, were highly critical of the trip and complained that McDermott in particular had expressed pro-Iraqi and anti-American sentiment in media interviews during the trip. The trio of lawmakers, however, defended their travel as a valuable fact-finding endeavor and a humanitarian mission.
Their voyage was financed by the Interfaith Network of Concern for the People of Iraq, an offshoot of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, and a Southfield, Mich.-based charity called Life for Relief and Development. But other individuals like Alkhafaji traveled with lawmakers and charity representatives.
A spokesman for Life for Relief and Development confirmed that Alkhafaji had participated in the trip with the Members of Congress, but said he is not officially associated with the charity and made the trip on his own.
In a brief phone interview, McDermott confirmed that he first met Alkhafaji on that trip but he seemed aggravated with questions about his relationship with the businessman and the subsequent donation.
McDermott said he knew very little about Alkhafaji other than that he is an Iraqi-American from the Detroit area and a philanthropist.
“I know he’s involved in a foundation that gives money to various charities and sort of good works … but I don’t know any more than that,” McDermott said. “That’s the long and short of it.”
Recent press accounts, however, paint a more vivid portrait of Alkhafaji. The businessman did not return calls to his home and office seeking comment for this article.
A Washington Post article last October revealed that the 47-year-old Iraqi-born businessman, who immigrated to the United States from Iraq in 1976, ran into trouble with the law shortly thereafter. In 1982, he was indicted for attempting to illegally transport guns to Iraq.
Although a jury eventually cleared him of that charge, Alkhafaji was convicted of failing to provide the U.S. Customs Service with written notice of several hunting rifles and handguns he was carrying in his airline baggage. He served several months in a federal prison.
In the Post’s story, Alkhafaji called his conviction a “technical violation” and said the guns were presents a friend had purchased and he was only “delivering them.”
Alkhafaji also defended his reputation, stating that he is “not a sympathizer of Saddam Hussein nor a supporter of Saddam Hussein.”
Since the arrest more than 20 years ago, Alkhafaji become a real estate developer in Southfield, Mich., under the banner of his company, Falcon Management Group Inc.
Alkhafaji co-owns and manages another business venture, Falcon Trading Group, with a Cape Town, South Africa, businessman. The company trades products such as sugar, powdered milk, detergent and soap with the Iraqi government.
According to a November 2002 article in the South African Sun Times newspaper, Alkhafaji’s company has traded about $500 million worth of commodities in Iraq since the business’ inception in 1993.
But it was a failed business venture that perhaps earned Alkhafaji the most attention.
In 1999, Alkhafaji gave former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter $400,000 to travel to Baghdad and film a 92-minute documentary about the weapons-inspection process.
While Alkhafaji “did not have any control over the editorial content,” according to a New York Times magazine article last November, he did supply “his connections as well as his money, easing Ritter’s way back into Iraq.”
Alkhafaji was ultimately listed as an executive producer in the credits of “In Shifting Sands: The Truth About UNSCOM and the Disarming of Iraq,” and accompanied Ritter to Baghdad. He also helped to arrange meetings between Ritter and key officials like Aziz.
The two men had first met several years ago at a Congressional hearing, when Ritter testified that he believed Hussein was incapable of perpetrating any sort of “world or regional domination.”
During that hearing, in response to a question from Bonior about how he planned to get his message out, Ritter said he hoped to make a film about the weapons-inspection process in Iraq.
“Shakir Alkhafaji came up afterwards and said, ‘What are you doing about this movie,’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s really tough. You know, because I’ve taken this idea, and I’ve pitched it to the network, and no one wants to fund it. It’s too controversial,’” Ritter said in October at the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.
After telling Alkhafaji that he needed $500,000, the businessman agreed to underwrite $400,000 of the costs. “So I flew to Michigan, and I met with him,” Ritter told the audience. “I sat down with his lawyers, and I said, ‘where’s this money coming from?’”
Ritter said Alkhafaji demonstrated he was liquidating his own personal assets for the film project, and Ritter made him sign an agreement that nothing about the transaction would violate U.S. law.
Ritter said he was so concerned that there be “no quid pro quo arrangement with the Iraqi government” that he went to the FBI and asked them to investigate the arrangement.
Ritter added, “I went to the FBI and opened up my books to the FBI, and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and I want you to investigate. And if you find any inkling of wrongdoing, shut it down. Shut it down.’ They never found any inkling of wrongdoing.”
But the film itself ended up being more than just a financial disaster — it was a public relations fiasco.
The film traces Ritter’s career with UNSCOM, but comes to a broadly different conclusion than Ritter himself made in 1998, when he said that Hussein remained a serious threat. He concluded instead that Iraq is a “defanged tiger” that the United States is abusing.
Mainstream media branded the film as propaganda that did little more than benefit Hussein by painting the United States as manipulating the weapons inspection process to provoke a war with Iraq.