The Hammer Tapes


September 1996

by Edward Jay Epstein

"You talked to the Minister, didn't you?"

"Yes sir."

"He's getting paid isn't he?"

"You betcha."

"Well, then why in the hell wont he deliver? This isn't such a big thing."

"Yes it is to them. It's beyond their powers. It's strictly political."

[A moment later]

"... Well, you know what I would do? I hate discussing this but maybe you're not paying this Minister enough."

"I don't think its under the decision."

"How much are we paying?"

"The total amount of money?"


"We've paid 3 million dollars."

The first voice is that of Armand Hammer, the industrialist, art collector and philanthropist, who died in 1990. At the time this conversation took place in November 1971, he was Chairman of Occidental Petroleum. He has invited the second man to his home in Los Angeles to discuss a highly sensitive subject-- the bribing of high officials in Venezuela. As he has done on other such occasions, he surreptitiously records what is said through a microphone concealed in his desk.

The second man, who has a deep southern accent, is John D. Askew. He is Hammer's "conduit and agent." In other words, he is a the bag man.

Askew, a native of Arkansas who has been doing business in Venezuela since 1946, he had sought out Hammer some three years earlier with a proposition. Venezuela then was planning to invite foreign oil companies to bid on developing five large tracts near Lake Maracaibo that contained an estimated 3 billion barrels of oil. These concessions were to take the form of "service contracts" that guaranteed the foreign companies a substantial proportion of the recovered oil for seven years. Even though two international oil companies, Esso and Shell, dominated oil production in Venezuela up until then--and planned to bid on these new tracts, Askew persuade Hammer that he had the connections in Venezuela to win three of the five tracts for Occidental. It would cost $1 million a tract in cash that, as Hammer described it in the taped discussion, was "outside the money that is paid under the contract." In the summer of 1971, it was announced that Occidental's bids had prevailed, and Hammer had to make good on his cash commitments. He transferred the $3 million to Askew along a very convoluted route. It went from the World Wide Trading Corporation, Occidental's Liberian subsidiary, through a shell corporation, called Noark International. Most of it was then channeled into the bank accounts of two Panamanian shell corporations and then withdrawn by unknown individuals in cash.

Hammer now wants to know more about the destination of these payoffs. For him, information has always been a form of power. "How is that 3 million divided?" he asks, "Who gets what?"

Even though Askew names over a dozen recipients of the cash, including three Ministers and one former Minster, Hammer is not entirely satisfied with he results. He carps that Venezuelan authorities are resisting his demands to use a Liberian subsidiary to operate the oil fields.

Askew defensively tries to explain. "It's beyond their powers. It is strictly political." Hammer answers, "Well, it's not beyond their powers." He sums up his philosophy in two words "Money talks." He tells Askew to "take a quarter of a million or even a half million of that money away from other people," and use an intermediary to "go to Caldera on that point." Hammer had always believed in going straight to the top-- as he had dome a half-century before when he met Lenin in the Kremlin-- and Rafael Caldera was the President of Venezuela.

I had no trouble recognizing Hammer's voice-- and modus operandi-- on the tapes. I met Hammer in 1981. I was writing an article about him for the New York Times and he invited me to travel with him on his private jetliner, Oxy One on his non-stop business and political trips. We went to Paris, London, Ottawa, Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York. He enjoyed prestigious hotels, in particular Claridges in London, the Plaza Athenee in Paris and the Madison in Washington D.C., and liked it when he was recognized by the hotel employees. (The only time I saw him lose his temper was in Paris when the cashier at the Plaza Athenee refused to accept his assistant's credit card -- and held up his baggage.) He had little tolerance for gourmet food, often preferring to order a hamburger. When he commuted through time zones in OXY 1, he had little respect for other people's time. He had no inhibitions about calling subordinates at home in the middle of the night. He kept his own schedule, napping or working, to suit his own convenience. His wife Francis almost always accompanied him on Oxy One and acted as his help mate. When the plane landed, he was usually met by a sizable entourage of personal assistants, public relations men, security men and his personal photographer, who strained to keep up with him as he spryly went about his business.

After Hammer died in 1990, an event occurred that he could not have foreseen: the Soviet Union collapsed and documents began flowing out of its secret archives. His dossiers showed that the autobiographical story Hammer had assiduously constructed about his capitalistic, artistic and humanitarian activities in post-revolutionary Russia were mainly fiction. He was a money launderer for Soviet overseas intelligence and this provided him, with his powerful mental focus, an invaluable education in the techniques of obscuring financial transactions, accumulating secret funds and discreetly disbursing money in difficult, if not impossible ways, to trace.

The extent to which Hammer applied these lessons in underground finance to more conventional capitalism and, in doing so, succeeded in winning in oil concessions worth billions of dollars, only became fully evident to me when I listened to the Hammer tapes in 1996.

They spanned some eighteen years in his career, beginning in 1963, and they came in a variety of formats-- reels, cassettes and microcasettes-- reflecting the changes in recording . They were made in a wide variety of locations, including even hotels and restaurants. The participants, aside from him, included everyone from lowly employees to a sitting President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. He taped his Directors, executives, lawyers, consultants and go-betweens. He also taped himself describing his meetings with foreign leaders. leaders. In all, they contained some sixty hours of conversation-- although not all was audible.

After getting these tapes, I played them for George Williamson, who had been President of Occidental in Libya and Europe when some of the tapes were made, and remained a close personal friend of his. Williamson had no problem recognizing Hammer's distinctive voice but, up until he heard them, he did not know that Hammer tape recorded his associates. Family members also confirmed Hammer's voice-- as did a forensic analysis that compared it with a now sample of his voice on a radio program-- but neither they, nor any of his former secretaries, aides or business associates admitted any prior knowledge about Hammer's practice of surreptiously recording conversations or the existence of the cache of tapes.

A typed note stapled to one micro cassette made in July 1979 and addressed to "AH," provided a lead as to who was helping Hammer with this secretive project. It read:

Enclosed are (1) the original microcasette of the recording made in your office on July 23 and (2) as "insurance copy" of the same recording on a standard cassette (which I used to make the verbatim transcript I gave you on August 6).

In keeping with he confidential nature of the recording the labels are written in Russian.

There are no other copies of either of the recordings or of the transcript.

It was signed "jh."


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