Top Clinton Foundation donor who was denied entry into the U.S. fires back with a lawsuit

A Lebanese Nigerian billionaire donor to the Clinton Foundation sued seven federal agencies Thursday over being denied entry to the U.S., saying his reputation was damaged by the disclosure to the Los Angeles Times of reports alleging he may have facilitated fundraising for Hezbollah.

Gilbert Chagoury — a friend of Bill Clinton, an ambassador to the Vatican and owner of a hilltop mansion in Beverly Hills — said he wanted an opportunity to correct what he said was false information. He said it damaged his reputation and prompted a bank in California to close his accounts.

Last month, The Times reported that the State Department denied a visa to Chagoury, a British citizen, on terrorism-related grounds, a broad category that can apply to anyone suspected of providing any kind of support to an extremist group.

According to government documents, the decision was based at least in part on unconfirmed reports alleging that Chagoury was assisting a Lebanese politician in funneling money to Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.

Chagoury’s suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, names agencies with access to classified information in databases the government uses to track known or suspected terrorists: the FBI, the Justice Department, the National Counterterrorism Center, the State Department, CIA, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. He does not name The Times in the lawsuit.

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“I have always been told that American justice demands due process, yet I was given no explanation for having my visa revoked, and no opportunity to rebut these falsehoods before my reputation was dragged through the mud,” Chagoury said in a statement. “That is not the America I know and love. I only want to clear my name.”

In challenging the government, Chagoury has kept to legal channels and has not asked for help from any of his powerful friends, including Bill or Hillary Clinton, according to his spokesman, Mark Corallo.

“He has assiduously avoided asking the Clintons or any of their staff for anything,” Corallo said.

Chagoury, 70, a friend and supporter of Bill Clinton since the 1990s, donated between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation. Last month, his name surfaced in a release of State Department emails showing connections between the foundation and the State Department under Hillary Clinton. Doug Band, an aide to Bill Clinton, asked Huma Abedin, a top aide to then-Secretary Hillary Clinton, to arrange a meeting for Chagoury with an American diplomat in Lebanon.

“As you know, he’s key guy there and to us,” Band wrote in 2009. The disclosure of the email was one of several in recent months that have renewed questions about State Department access granted to foundation donors and about Clinton’s level of transparency as she runs for president.

Bill Clinton suggested Chagoury pursue that meeting, after the two discussed the messy politics of Lebanon, Corallo said Thursday. Chagoury had wanted only to share political insights, and no meeting ever happened, Corallo said.

The State Department told Chagoury last year that he was denied a visa on terrorism-related grounds, the complaint says, adding that the agency “could only wrongfully conclude Gilbert Chagoury is a terrorist threat by relying on false information stored in a government database.”

Chagoury asked for a waiver but was denied, said his lawyer, Stewart Baker.

He never was told what the supposed terrorist connection was, or even asked any questions, according to Baker, a former official at the Department of Homeland Security.

“He would have welcomed an opportunity to engage on the merits of these charges, and he didn’t get it,” Baker said.

Chagoury made his fortune in Nigeria, where he prospered during a close relationship with a corrupt dictator; he was implicated in schemes to steal public money, and his conviction was expunged after he returned millions to the Nigerian government.

Chagoury also has been deeply involved in the fractious politics of Lebanon; he has donated money to Christian relief organizations in the Middle East but has not provided any support for Hezbollah or any other terrorist groups, the complaint says. “Hezbollah has enemies,” the suit said, noting the group is at war with Islamic State. “To be falsely cast as a supporter of Hezbollah is to have one’s life and the lives of one’s family put at risk.”

After publication of The Times story, a bank in California closed his accounts, an action the lawsuit blames on concerns about breaking rules prohibiting doing business with known or suspected terrorists. Because of the banking problems, Chagoury “is finding it increasingly difficult to pay for maintenance, property taxes and other continuing expenses on his house in Beverly Hills.”

Even though Chagoury was denied entry into the U.S., other officials in the State Department have continued to pursue a deal to build a new Lagos consulate at Eko Atlantic, a futuristic development owned by the Chagoury family. The State Department said Eko was first identified by a real estate firm; no deal has been signed.

The suit says Chagoury was damaged by a “deliberate, outrageous and unlawful leak of information, and more importantly, misinformation” to The Times. Chagoury’s lawyers will also ask the agencies to investigate who disclosed it, the suit says.

In 2010, Chagoury was pulled off a plane after he showed up on the Department of Homeland Security’s “no-fly” list, again because of unspecified suspicions of terrorism links; his attorneys challenged the decision, and he was taken off the list and given a letter of apology. During that episode, Chagoury also never called the Clintons or any other friends for assistance, Baker said.

But there is little legal recourse for non-citizens like Chagoury, a British citizen who has spent summers in Beverly Hills for 35 years, to challenge the State Department’s visa decisions.

According to Baker, the lawsuit is the first complaint filed under the Judicial Redress Act, signed into law in February by President Obama, which may extend U.S. privacy protections to European citizens. The new law, a response to negotiations with European Union countries over privacy rights, may extend to those countries’ citizens the same protections against unauthorized disclosure of government information.

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @jtanfani

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