(Bloomberg) -- When Erik Prince, a major Trump donor and private security mogul, traveled to Caracas in November for secret talks with Venezuela’s vice president, he was not, it turns out, the central figure orchestrating the meetings.
That person was a controversial British deal-maker by the name of Ian Hannam, according to people familiar with the situation. Hannam, a former JPMorgan banker, arranged the trip as part of his yearlong scouting effort for possible gold investments in the crisis-battered nation, the people said. Prince’s meeting with Vice President Delcy Rodriguez has been reported; Hannam’s role hasn’t.
The discussion of mining ventures with Rodriguez raises fresh questions about whether Prince, a Michigan native and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, violated U.S. law against doing business with sanctioned officials. Hannam is British and not subject to the same restrictions.
The trip is part of an intense behind-the-scenes scrimmage for Venezuela’s wealth and resources as it grapples with political gridlock, international sanctions and a humanitarian crisis. Juan Guaido, the opposition leader who’s recognized as interim head of state by the U.S. and more than 50 countries, is wrestling for control of the legislature with a lawmaker backed by President Nicolas Maduro and Russia.
The plan for the November bid was to see if Prince could help with security in the dangerous gold mining regions of Venezuela where Hannam sought business, one of the people said. Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and founder of the security firm Blackwater, also pushed for the freedom of six imprisoned Citgo executives during his visit. His effort to secure their release -- five are dual U.S. citizens -- offered an official reason for Prince’s trip that wouldn’t contravene sanctions, several people said. Those prisoners were later moved to house arrest.
Contacted for comment, Hannam declined to provide details, saying only, “We never discussed business or the Citgo Six.”
A lawyer for Prince, Matthew Schwartz, said his client went to Caracas “as a private citizen” and “received clear legal guidance which he scrupulously followed. While there, he did not discuss any business nor did he receive anything of value.”
Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for Venezuela, said lasts month that the meetings “would appear to violate U.S. sanctions.”
Vice President Rodriguez didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Hannam is no stranger to Venezuela. In 2008, while at JPMorgan, he was the financial adviser for a deal in which the Russian miner Peter Hambro invested in a Venezuelan gold mining venture with Vancouver-based Rusoro Mining Ltd. At the time, Rusoro was the partner of choice for Hugo Chavez’s government.
Much In Common
Prince and Hannam have much in common. Both have military backgrounds, a proclivity for controversy and a taste for nations under duress where the risks are as great as the potential rewards.
Both tried to do business in Afghanistan. Hannam co-founded a U.S. company called Centar, which has been trying to develop copper and gold assets in the war-torn nation. In Oct. 2018, he said Centar had secured approval to develop those assets from the Afghan government after years of delay, thanking the Trump administration and U.S. Defense Department for funding the tender process. Centar is not developing the assets now because the area is controlled by the Taliban, which is operating the mines.
The year before, Prince pitched a plan to President Donald Trump to privatize the war in Afghanistan using security contractors funded by the nation’s strategic mineral resources.
Blackwater, owned by Prince before he sold it a decade ago, became infamous after its employees shot unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007. Hannam, a former Special Forces captain in the British military, was once called the “King of Mining” for his role advising major miners such as BHP Billiton and helping orchestrate the $90 billion Glencore-Xstrata merger. In 2014 he was fined £450,000 by the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority for market abuse. Hannam, who didn’t contest the penalty, was said to have disclosed inside information to a potential customer in 2008 about his client Heritage Oil Plc. It was never suggested he’d acted for personal gain. After the decision, he was permitted to continue operating in the City of London.
Early in 2019, Prince proposed a plan that called for thousands of soldiers-for-hire to oust Maduro. On the November trip he made a less aggressive pitch to send security personnel to help pave the way for new presidential elections -- the Trump administration’s end goal.
U.S. officials have denied that Prince acted as their secret envoy and have threatened to sanction him. Yet Prince told confidants he was cleared to go by multiple senior officials and traveled under the protection of a special license obtained by a law firm that represents a Citgo 6 family, two people familiar with the matter said.
--With assistance from Jose Enrique Arrioja.
To contact the reporters on this story: Stephanie Baker in London at email@example.com;Ben Bartenstein in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: David Papadopoulos at email@example.com, Ethan Bronner
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.