Evangelist Lost Millions In Mines -- How Pat Robertson Abandoned His Diamond Operation In Zaire

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - It was exciting, exotic and potentially lucrative.

It was also risky.

But Pat Robertson had gambled years before on a down-at-the-heels Portsmouth, Va., TV station and transformed it into a multimillion-dollar religious broadcasting empire.

Now there were diamonds - lots of them, waiting to be plucked from the heart of Africa.

Mining concessions in Zaire, the second-biggest diamond-producing country in the world, were being made available to the Virginia Beach-based evangelist by the government of longtime Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

In 1992, Robertson rolled the dice and embarked on an amazing African adventure.

It eventually involved:

-- Whacking out a big patch of jungle deep in the rugged bush while dodging crocs and hippos.

-- The twin plagues of political instability and frustrating equipment failures.

-- An improbable cast of characters that included a defrocked Pentecostal preacher, a high-ranking felon from a Reagan-era Washington scandal, and a pair of former Navy SEALs.

And overriding everything was money - lots of it.

Robertson embodies the "prosperity gospel" school of evangelical Christianity that blends doing good with doing well. His plan in Zaire was to turn a profit and give some of the proceeds back to help the country.

But as it turned out, virtually all of the cash flow was outgo, not income. For Robertson, the mega-successful televangelist, diamond mining turned out to be a big-time bust.

In an interview last fall, a Robertson spokesman blamed the business losses on the economic and political chaos engulfing Zaire today. Critics say Mobutu has looted the country, amassing a fortune estimated at $6 billion while letting Zaire's public infrastructure collapse. Inflation and unemployment are rampant; poverty is unrelenting. There is an armed rebellion raging.

But a different version emerges in a lawsuit filed in late November by Robertson's African Development Co. (ADC) in a Norfolk, Va., federal court. In its complaint, the company blames its failure on defective equipment.

The suit against Keene Engineering, a California-based manufacturer of mining equipment, claims that two dredges purchased from Keene for extracting diamonds from riverbeds were "wholly inadequate" for the task. Robertson's company is seeking relief in excess of $1.25 million, which includes the cost of the dredges and more than $1 million in business losses.

Which explanation for African Development's failure is correct? Both, Robertson's spokesmen now say.

"Clearly the defective dredges and the inability to move forward with the mining venture was a contributing factor to ADC's decision to terminate its operation in Zaire," Gene Kapp, a vice president for public relations at Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), said recently. "It is still true that the general internal chaos in the country was part of the reason as well."

Robertson himself declined to comment on the venture.

The full story of African Development's failure is complex.

"There wasn't enough preplanning and exploration," one person with intimate knowledge of the operation said. "They shot from the hip. Plus, every time you drove down the street, you had to pay somebody off. Taxes, licenses - everybody had their hand out. It was a giant fiasco."

This person's estimate of the venture's total losses: somewhere between $2 million and $10 million. An American businessman and longtime resident of Zaire put the figure at $5 million to $7 million in a report last summer in the San Antonio Express-News.

David Ventker, attorney for African Development, declined to put a figure on the losses beyond the $1 million-plus mentioned in the lawsuit. But he said: "Those were all Pat Robertson's personal funds - his own money."

A cash hemorrhage

When Craig McFarland arrived in Zaire in mid-1994, the hemorrhage of cash was quickly apparent.

McFarland, a free-lance mining consultant from California, had been hired to set up and operate the dredges.

"They said at that point, over two years and $2 million had already been spent on that project," McFarland said. "I don't know where it went. There was nothing physical to show for it." No camp, airstrip or other infrastructure was in place.

Up until then, Robertson had been relying chiefly on William Lovick, a former Assemblies of God minister who had spent nearly 35 years in Zaire. Lovick, who died last May, had been dismissed by the church in 1985 for unethical fund raising.

"Dr. Lovick was their direct line to Mobutu," McFarland said. "He had a couple of little prospecting dredges over there - just for sampling. He was trying to start the operation up for Dr. Robertson. I think that's where a lot of the $2 million went."

A Zairian headquarters, which seemed lavish by McFarland's standards, was set up in Kinshasa, the capital.

"They rented two condominiums," he said. "They also maintained a room at the Intercontinental Hotel. That's expensive."

Based at the Kinshasa headquarters was Thomas Demery, whom Robertson had brought in to oversee the operation. Demery had been the highest-ranking official indicted in the $2 billion influence-peddling scandal at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Reagan administration.

Demery, an assistant housing secretary, pleaded guilty to two felony counts in 1993. He was sentenced to two years' probation after cooperating with prosecutors.

In contrast to the company's elaborate Kinshasa digs, the mining site was a world away.

The dredges were set up on a river near the village of Kamonia, close to the Angolan border in southern Zaire. An airstrip was built in the village, and 7 1/2 kilometers of trail had to be widened into a road so the equipment could be trucked to the site. The nearest town of any size, Tshikapa, was a five-hour drive away.

Snakes, crocs and hippos

The miners lived in grass huts perched on platforms 4 to 5 feet off the ground. "You wanted to be up on a platform to keep the snakes, crocs and hippos away," McFarland said.

One of the former Navy SEALs was operations manager; the other was chief of security. Security was a continuing concern, McFarland said, and it became a point of contention between him and the ex-SEAL.

"It's not a city park," said one person familiar witht he operation."One guy was bitten by a scorpion. Another got malaria and had to be airlifted out. The Medevac bill was $5,000."

Robertson's contract with the Mobutu government stipulated that 50 percent of African Development's profits would be plowed back into humanitarian projects in Zaire, McFarland said.

But there were never any profits.

Once the mine finally got up and running, its output was disappointing. The stones were small and mostly industrial grade - not the clean, pure gemstones that can be cut into jewelry. Industrial diamonds typically bring no more than $5 per carat, while gem diamonds can fetch hundreds of dollars per carat.

At its height, McFarland said, the mine produced only about 20 to 25 diamonds a day. One insider estimated the total output at less than $10,000 - a tiny fraction of the millions Robertson had invested.

But by early 1995, Robertson apparently had decided to pull out.

While the diamond mine was struggling, a farming operation run by Operation Blessing - on a large tract of land outside Kinshasa that once belonged to Mobutu's first wife - was also failing miserably.

By the end of 1995, it was all shut down.

Robertson had had grand plans for becoming a bigger player in the diamond game and expanding into gold mining and timber, one person close to African Development said. But the desire to stanch the cash hemorrhage finally overcame those urges.

"I think he had spent all the money he wanted to," this person said. "I think he's terribly embarrassed. He thinks of himself as a shrewd businessman - and he is. His downfall is that he acts impulsively at times.

"I think he was trying to do good - trying to make some money and help people, too."

Robertson aids Mobutu

What Mobutu, who had ruled Zaire with an iron fist since coming to power through civil war with the CIA's help in 1965, got out of the deal is clearer.

On Feb. 16, 1992, a Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Christians poured into the streets of Kinshasa, the Zairian capital, for a peaceful pro-democracy rally after church services.

Mobutu's soldiers gunned down scores of the demonstrators, many still carrying their hymnals and prayer books.

Amnesty International, the worldwide human-rights organization, estimated the number of deaths at 42, but John Metzel believes the total might have been as high as 250.

Metzel, son of a retired Presbyterian missionary to Zaire, is manager of the Zaire Educational Council, a Washington-based lobby.

"And what does Mobutu do? He calls in Pat Robertson. In less than three weeks, Mr. Robertson was on national television embracing Mobutu, calling him a fine Christian and a democrat."

Robertson has played down his support for Mobutu since the spring of 1995, when he appeared alongside the dictator in Kinshasa and made a public plea that the United States lift the travel restrictions it had placed on him. Mobutu was barred from the United States because he was seen as impeding his country's transition to democracy.

Kalala Kalao, a Zairian journalist who fled to the United States in 1993 after being arrested for coverage deemed unfriendly by the Mobutu regime, said in an interview that Mobutu flaunted his relationship with Robertson because he needed a Christian leader's support to placate his people after the Kinshasa massacre.

Robertson's appearance with the dictator in March 1992 was one of many the broadcaster has made on Zairian state TV, which is tightly controlled by the regime, he said.

Kalao described Robertson's appearance this way: "He went on TV and said to the people of Zaire: You don't have to worry about the political situation, about the Mobutu regime . . . because God loves your country, he has blessed your country."

Robertson still has access to Zairian media. His Christian Broadcasting Network recently aired a weeklong evangelistic media blitz on prime-time TV there.

Robertson spokesman Kapp said his boss has worked with Mobutu to ensure the success of his evangelistic and humanitarian efforts but does not involve himself in the country's internal politics.

That's easier said than done, said James Bullington, a former U.S. ambassador to Zaire's neighbor, Burundi.

"There's no such thing as a purely humanitarian operation in that part of the world," Bullington said. "It inevitably gets involved in politics, because you've got to support one group of people who are hostile to another."