, UNITED NATIONS, Jan 22 – NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo fell into a gold smuggling trap that saw millions of dollars handed over to a notorious Democratic Republic of Congo warlord, according to UN investigators.
Mutombo, a 7 foot 2 inch (2.18 meter) All-Star who ended his 18-year playing career with the Houston Rockets, has made a name for himself since retirement in 2009 campaigning for good causes in his native DR Congo. He was mentioned in President George W. Bush’s state of the union speech in 2007.
But Mutombo, 45, was just the latest of many gullible individuals to be tempted by the promise of riches dealing in the country’s gold and other treasure trove of minerals.
The Mutombo case involves bags containing millions of dollars in cash, sacks of gold of dubious origin and intermediaries with false identities across East Africa.
According to a report by UN sanctions committee experts, all was seized at an airfield in DR Congo. The money ended up with Bosco Ntaganda, a militia leader wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and the gold in government vaults.
“Our understanding was that Dikembe Mutombo’s role was as an intermediary. We don’t suggest that he was part of some criminal gang,” said Fred Robarts, coordinator of the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee experts for DR Congo.
“He thought that there was money to be made out of this deal and tried to set it up with a buyer to make a share of the profit; in that, he was probably naive,” Robarts told AFP from Kinshasa.
Mutombo and relatives from DR Congo organized a meeting at a New York hotel in December 2010 in which he proposed the sale of 475 kilograms (1,045 pounds) of gold to businessmen Kase Lawal and Carlos St Mary, said a report by the sanctions experts.
Lawal is the Nigerian-American head of a Houston oil company, CAMAC. St Mary heads a diamond trading company. Lawal agreed to finance the deal and share the estimated $10 million profit with St Mary and Mutombo.
The gold was to be extracted in DR Congo and handed over in Nairobi. The sanctions committee said an initial $4.8 million was handed over to one intermediary who “disappeared.”
Ntaganda presented himself as the owner of the gold when a handover was organized in February 2011 at Goma in eastern DR Congo — where militias are in a murderous battle for control of the mineral wealth.
Twenty-five metal cases of gold were loaded onto a plane chartered by Lawal, but before it could take off, the oil mogul’s representatives and St Mary were arrested by intelligence agents for money laundering and illegally transporting the gold.
St Mary said Lawal told him later “that he had lost a total of $30 million as a result of the whole ordeal, including transport fees, fines, bribes and payments made on the gold purchase.”
Neither Lawal nor Mutombo would speak to UN investigators. Neither have spoken to media about the deal.
The sanctions experts said they were “concerned” at the growing number of such scam cases which have sucked in the likes of the former NBA center.
The UN investigators are meant to concentrate on tracking down the sources of finance for Ntaganda and other eastern Congo warlords.
They see other scam cases through their detective work, said Robarts.
“They don’t always come to light because the buyers are often aware they are only operating semi-legally and they might not have all the right paperwork and they are just embarrassed. They don’t always go to the police.”
Kenyan authorities have investigated a number of cases. Some of the names are in Uganda and other east African countries, the investigator said.
Targets are shown real gold with certificates of origin. Lawal, however, made no inquiries into the real origin of the gold he was planning to buy, the UN report said.
“It is all an elaborate scam involving a lot of different people. And it seems to convince buyers to the point that they don’t give up easily. They want to know what has happened to their gold rather than realizing that they have been duped,” Robarts said.