"You talked to the Minister, didn't
"He's getting paid isn't he?"
"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
"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and then withdrawn by unknown individuals in cash.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
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
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."