INVESTIGATIVE REPORT: How a Plane Mogul Dodged U.S. Scrutiny
When a Kansas strip-mall bank with possible mob ties folded in the mid-1980s, federal authorities investigated whether a shareholder, Iranian-born aviation magnate Farhad Azima, should face criminal charges.
The probe hit a dead end. Azima, a U.S. citizen, essentially had a stay-out-of-jail-free card because of secretive work he had performed for the U.S. government, a former federal prosecutor involved in the case said. Azima, a gunrunner later tied to the CIA and the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration, was never prosecuted.
Over decades, Azima has glided among different worlds, flying weapons to the Balkans, selling spy gear to Persian Gulf nations, dealing with a small Midwest bank and navigating Washington’s power circles.
If he enjoyed a loose, informal immunity during those years, it is being tested now. Authorities in the U.S. and abroad are investigating Azima as part of a global corruption case. Specifically, they are examining whether Azima, now 75, paid a kickback to a former United Arab Emirates official to reap the profits from a hotel sale in Tbilisi, Georgia.
That was of interest to U.S. law enforcement because Iranians involved in the deal were later blacklisted by the Treasury Department, accused of helping Iran avoid sanctions over its nuclear program.
More recently, Azima was involved in a plan that envisioned instigating mass protests in Kuwait to force out its government, apparently on behalf of a disgruntled member of the ruling family.
An Associated Press examination of Azima’s past, drawing upon interviews, court filings and a recently obtained collection of tens of thousands of emails his lawyers say was stolen by hackers, reveals a man whose web of international business interests helped him make millions of dollars from federal contracts. A former comptroller for one of his firms described the company’s work with the CIA.
Azima, who was traveling internationally earlier this month, declined through a spokesman to answer written questions from the AP or to be interviewed. He acknowledged his secretive work to his local newspaper last year, while sidestepping some questions about ties to the CIA.
“I’ve never been employed by the CIA,” he told The Kansas City Star, though he acknowledged he may have been indirectly contracted. “I’ve done classified work. . It’s not working for the KGB or the enemy. I’m proud of it.”
A former employee once described Azima as “an Iranian with a bona fide gold-plated get-out-of-jail-free card.” It was a label that seemed to please him. “Guilty as charged!” he exclaimed in a private email included in the recently obtained cache.
Azima has called Kansas City, Missouri his home since he attended nearby William Jewell College in the 1960s. From his adopted city, he built Global International Airways, a charter and cargo carrier.
The carrier was initially intended to transport cattle from Nebraska to Iran, until the U.S. cut diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Soon the flights were filled with mysterious cargo — including arms.
In 1979, 50 tons of arms on one of Global Airways’ planes were found in Tunisia. Azima said the flight had been forced to land at a Tunisian military base to take the weapons onboard instead of medical supplies destined for Nicaraguan refugees in Costa Rica.
Seven years later, another of his planes — purportedly leased to his brother — carried 23 tons of weapons into Tehran as part of the Iran-Contra affair, the scheme of secret U.S. arms sales to Iran to pay for illegal U.S. support of Nicaraguan rebels. He again denied involvement.
In 1991, another Azima-owned aircraft carried 18 tons of arms sent to Croatia during that country’s war for independence from Yugoslavia.
Jeffrey Fegley, the former comptroller of Global Airways, described the airline as a “seat-of-your-pants operation” run by brave pilots who flew cargo into hotspots worldwide.
“I was simply the bookkeeper, the guy who filled up the briefcases with $100,000 worth of small bills so you could bribe the ground crew to get your cargo unloaded in a foreign land,” Fegley told the AP. “Other than that,” he said dryly, “it was just business as usual.”
Asked who the airline’s main clients were, Fegley said a “reputable agency.”
Asked again, he was more direct: “CIA.”
These ventures continued as federal investigators in the 1980s began looking into the collapse of a small bank in Kansas City, Kansas, part of a nationwide probe of financial institutions during the savings and loan crisis. The collapse drew questions because a lawyer suspected of Mafia connections was among its directors.
Azima was a director, too, and owed the bank hundreds of thousands of dollars for outstanding loans to his airline.
The investigation of Azima was stymied by higher-ups, who a prosecutor said offered no clear reason why.
“It became apparent that we were not able to pursue prosecution of Azima,” Lloyd Monroe, a prosecutor retired from the Justice Department’s organized-crime task force in Kansas City, told the AP. “It was a source of real tension.”
Azima later won multimillion-dollar contracts with the U.S. military. Before and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he had $30 million in deals to transport troops. A recent $8 billion contract to supply food to U.S. forces in Afghanistan saw him provide trucks to ship in the provisions, though paperwork never bore his name.
It “does not mean any less involvement on my part,” Azima wrote in an email.
Now he’s under scrutiny again by both Emirati and U.S. authorities over a planned hotel deal in Tbilisi in 2011.
When the hotel’s owner — the UAE sheikhdom of Ras al-Khaimah — was looking to sell, Azima stepped in to mediate a deal for three would-be Iranian buyers. Ras al-Khaimah, like Dubai, is one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, a staunch U.S. ally on the Arabian Peninsula.
Ras al-Khaimah accuses him of improperly trying to profit from the deal by secretly arranging a 10 percent stake in the hotel for himself with the Iranians.
It also accuses him of bribing the then-manager of Ras al-Khaimah’s state-owned investment fund, who oversaw the hotel sale. The accusations are made in a lawsuit brought by the emirate against Azima in British courts.
Separately, Ras al-Khaimah prosecutors have announced they are looking into unidentified American and British citizens in connection with a criminal corruption probe. Azima was one of the targets, according to a person familiar with the investigation who was not authorized to talk publicly about the matter. As part of that same probe, the investment fund chief was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison, though he maintains his innocence.
Azima also disputes the allegations, saying Ras al-Khaimah knew details of the hotel deal. He has said the payment to the investment fund chief was above board and involved the separate sale of an aircraft.
Meanwhile, the U.S. began looking into the hotel deal because the Iranians involved were later accused of helping Iran avoid sanctions over its nuclear program.
The investigators earlier this year were considering whether Azima’s activities in Georgia violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal to bribe foreign governments. Discussions about Azima focused partly on the hotel deal and numerous accounts he has at a Midwest bank, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case was not public.
It is not known what the investigators concluded about Azima’s activities. The Justice Department declined to comment.
Azima also filed his own lawsuit against Ras al-Khaimah in federal court in Washington, accusing it of taking advantage of, or orchestrating, the hacking of his emails.
In court documents, the emirate has raised the possibility of other hacking suspects — including Russia, because of Azima’s ties as a donor to the Clinton Foundation, to which he gave at least $250,000. Most of Azima’s political donations have gone to Democratic candidates, but he also gave smaller sums to the Republican Party and its candidates.
The email cache, which was leaked on the internet last year, brought to light other Azima ventures.
One was a business partnership, Denx LLC, that he appears to have owned along with two former CIA officers, Gary Berntsen and Scott Modell. Their names appear in the leaked documents along with the amounts of their initial capital contributions. Both men told the AP that the venture never got far, with Modell describing it as “just banter and talk and fun-sounding business proposals.”
Denx LLC was a private intelligence firm that also dealt in surveillance equipment, at one point pursuing a $725 million sale of intelligence and reconnaissance material to the United Arab Emirates.
But the firm also devised a scheme, apparently on behalf of a Kuwaiti ruling family member, to install “new, bolder, more energetic leadership” in the Gulf nation.
It planned to do so by fomenting protests in support of the unidentified client by tens of thousands of people in the streets, including by a “rent-a-crowd flash mob.” It detailed a PR campaign to depict current government officials as mired in corruption and involved in helping Iran’s nuclear program.
Both Modell and Berntsen told the AP they knew nothing of the Kuwait plan, though an email address identified as Berntsen’s in other correspondence sent Azima the PowerPoint deck of slides outlining it.
“We wrote proposals up and we didn’t execute any of this,” said Bernsten, who told the AP that he was in charge of Denx efforts overall. He also said that he would not have taken part in an effort to undermine a U.S. ally.
Kuwait’s ruling emir, 88-year-old Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, took office in 2006 amid a succession crisis as an emir sworn in days earlier suffered poor health. That short-circuited a long power-sharing arrangement between two branches of the ruling Al Sabah family, whose hereditary control of Kuwait was challenged by 2011 Arab Spring protests. Last year, three ruling family members and four other individuals were found guilty in a plot to publish anonymous Twitter posts sharing fabricated videos of judges receiving bribes.
The PowerPoint presentation, titled “A Methodology For Change,” outlined steps for the plot proposed by Denx. It’s thick with corporate-speak jargon: Graphs demonstrate “principles of influence progression” and blurbs speak of “face-to-face (F2F) engagements … based on positive impact indicators.”
It also includes dashes of spy-thriller pulp, at one point referring to a 29-hour visit with a contact identified only by the codename “Sheikh Jackal.”
It warns the client that he may have to pony up more money if his opponents counter with their own PR campaign. Then it adds dramatically that he and his family could face a dangerous backlash.
“The stakes are very, very high ($30+ billion) and are easily worth killing over,” it reads.
It was unclear whether any of Denx’s plans were ever put into action. The company was disbanded last year, according to corporate registration paperwork filed in Florida.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Writer Raphael Satter in Paris and news researcher Monika Mathur in Washington contributed to this report.
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