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Background: Tamraz Testifies

September 18, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Most of high-profile figures sought by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee thus far have refused to appear. They are implicated in violations of campaign fund-raising laws. International businessman Roger Tamraz has been described in countless press reports as contributing $300,000 to the Democratic Party to win U.S. Government support for a Central Asia oil pipeline project.

Today a calm-looking and unapologetic Tamraz broke the pattern–he acceded to a committee subpoena and stated his own case.

ROGER TAMRAZ: I know that I am a man innocent of any crime. After all this time swimming in false accusations, the U.S. Senate rises like a lighthouse beacon, beckoning me to the solid ground I have been wanting, ground where what I have done will be recognized by people who share my love of democracy.

KWAME HOLMAN: The 57-year-old Tamraz says he has a love for U.S. democracy that had its genesis in his native Lebanon. Tamraz came to the U.S. and studied at the Harvard Business School in the 1970′s and later became a U.S. citizen.

By the 80′s Tamraz was back in the Middle East running a large Lebanese bank and running afoul of anti-American authorities.

Tamraz said he began what would become a long association with Intelligence officials when they asked his help in freeing hostages taken around the time of the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans.

ROGER TAMRAZ: The U.S. asked me to arrange for safe passage into Lebanon for the person who was to lead American actions in retaliating and recovering our hostages. This man was abducted and tortured to death. His abductors, the suicide bomber supporters, enemies of the U.S. and peace, became my enemies. They attacked me with every means at their disposal. I was kidnapped, slowly poisoned, tortured, and beaten for three weeks in 1989, while I was the leading candidate in the Lebanese presidential elections. All of my assets, worth more than a billion dollars, were illegally seized by my enemies in power.

Even in 1996, the harassment continued with the court case in which I was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail for being in contact with Israeli citizens.

I would like to know why after all that I have accomplished, lived through, seen and participated in, I should be deemed unfit to visit the White House. I have risked my life many times for this country for no material gain.

KWAME HOLMAN: Committee Chairman Fred Thompson suggested information about Tamraz on the public record alone should have kept him out of several White House social events he attended in 1995 and ’96.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee: A Lebanese court charged you with embezzling $200 million from a bank. In 1992, a Jordanian court convicted you in absentia for the same fraud, and sentenced you to two years in prison. A French court has ordered you to pay $56 million in connection with a financial dispute. And there is an outstanding Interpol warrant for your arrest. That was information that presumably they had access to.

KWAME HOLMAN: Because of such information, National Security Council officials recommended Tamraz be barred from meeting high level officials, including the President and the Vice President. But those warnings apparently never reached the right people at the White House. Tamraz was invited to a White House dinner in March 1996 and spoke to the President about his plans for an oil pipeline in Central Asia.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Describe that discussion.

ROGER TAMRAZ: Well, it was just an introduction to the President, and he asked how I was. And I explained that I was on that project and that most probably the project would be going to overseas workers.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Would be going where?

ROGER TAMRAZ: To overseas. It’s going to be a project financed from overseas.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Did he know what you were talking about?

ROGER TAMRAZ: Yes, he knows that I discussed the pipeline with him, yes.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: What was your reason for bringing it up? What were you hoping for?

ROGER TAMRAZ: Well, I was introduced to the President. And that’s what you discuss, what you do.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: You say you didn’t ask specifically. Did you ask in a more general way for his assistance?

ROGER TAMRAZ: No. I said, “If somebody wants to hear me out, I’m available.”

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R) Maine: Did you believe that by making the contributions, it would allow you to have that access?

ROGER TAMRAZ: No, because if I really wanted access, I wouldn’t just go to social functions. I mean, you must understand what these functions are about. You think you get into the White House so you’ve won. It’s only–the fight begins when you get into the White House. Then there’s a guerrilla fight to get close to the President.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Something you were successful in doing

ROGER TAMRAZ; Well, let me finish my position. First, the President is surrounded by the ladies, because they swoon around him. (Laughter.)

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: This one doesn’t

ROGER TAMRAZ: Secondly, you have his bodyguards. And thirdly, you have the handlers. The same handlers that get you into the White House are sure, once you get in, that you don’t get the chance to get what you want.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: But you were, in fact, successful in talking to the President about your pipeline project, were you not?

ROGER TAMRAZ: I think the record shows, ma’am, I’m a persistent person. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I wasn’t

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: That’s very true. Do you believe that you would have been able to have the conversations, however brief they might have been, with the President of the United States about your pipeline project, a project in which you believed deeply, without having contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the DNC?

ROGER TAMRAZ: Honestly, no.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman And thank you, Mr. Tamraz.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Thank you very much. One humorous moment in the last six months, and I was out of the room (laughter). Senator Levin.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, (D) Michigan: When you didn’t get the one-on-one meeting that you expected with the Vice President, you were frustrated?

ROGER TAMRAZ: Sir, I’ve been in much worse positions in my life.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I understand. I understand. But my question is–

ROGER TAMRAZ: Petty politics never frustrates me; it amuses me.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Were you unhappy that you didn’t get your one-on-one meeting with the Vice President?

ROGER TAMRAZ: Not really, because if they kept me from the door, I come through the window.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I think that says it all.

ROGER TAMRAZ: Yes.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: The problem is that around here people can buy their way through the window. That is the problem. Now, I think you for your purposes, which you think are important purposes, were fighting for access to the President and the Vice President. I think you were doing it aggressively. I think you were hustling. I think you were being hustled at the same time. And that’s the culture. That’s the bad news. The good news is you didn’t get your one-on-one meeting with the President, and its policy was not changed, if there is any good news in this story. But the bad news is that your hustle for a lot of money, that you thought, that you thought that that would get you access, that, in fact, it did contribute to getting you access. And the question is whether or not we’re going to change it.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, (D) Connecticut: Let me ask you this, as my time on this round expires. As you look back at the $300,000 you gave, do you think you got your money’s worth? I mean, do you feel badly about the fact that you gave and you didn’t get any change on the pipeline, for instance?

ROGER TAMRAZ: What crystal ball? It’s a fantasy. I was not looking for any change on the pipeline.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: So do you think you got your money’s worth? Do you feel badly about having given the $300,000?

ROGER TAMRAZ: I think next time I’ll give $600,000.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Don’t give out your phone number.

KWAME HOLMAN: Also today the committee heard from the man former National Security Council official Sheila Heslin accused in yesterday’s emotional testimony of pressuring her to help Roger Tamraz. Department of Energy Official Jack Carter testified he intended no such pressure and said Heslin misunderstood him. The Senate hearings continue tomorrow.