Former White House staff member Oliver L. North personally cashed $2,400 worth of traveler's checks he received from Nicaraguan contras and spent the funds on such items as groceries and snow tires, congressional investigators said Tuesday.
And he gave another $1,000 worth of the checks as a wedding gift to one of the key aides in his secret contra operation, the North associate told the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra scandal.
Fired in November
North, the central White House operative in supporting the contras when Congress had banned U.S. aid, was fired last November from his White House National Security Council post after it was discovered that profits from the secret sale of U.S. arms to Iran had been diverted to the rebels.
The traveler's checks had been given to North by contra leader Adolfo Calero, a successful fund-raiser who had access to tens of millions of dollars donated to the Nicaraguan rebels by Saudi Arabia. According to earlier testimony before the committee, Calero had turned over large sums to North in the form of traveler's checks issued by a Cayman Islands bank, and North in turn had dispensed the checks back to various contra leaders.
Robert W. Owen, who acted as North's go-between with the rebels, told the committees that--when he asked North why he preferred to transfer the money in the form of traveler's checks--North replied: "Well, it's very easy. There are no receipts left."
But if that was what North had assumed, he was wrong. Calero, who is scheduled to testify today, has provided detailed records that have made it possible for the committee to trace how the checks were spent.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) revealed Tuesday that investigators have found numerous checks, mostly in small amounts, that North wrote to various businesses in the Washington area.
And Owen said North had handed him $1,000 in traveler's checks on Owen's wedding day in October, 1985, and told him to "please use it as you see fit."
'Want You to Have It'
Owen said he had protested that he did not "feel comfortable taking this." However, he said, North had insisted that he take the traveler's checks, saying: "We want you to have it."
"He didn't say who, but I had invited Adolfo Calero to my wedding, and I don't know, maybe Adolfo Calero thought that would be a nice wedding present for me," Owen said.
Owen, who was working for the contras at the time, also said Calero had fallen at least a month behind in paying him his $2,500-a-month retainer.
An aide to Hatch said North cashed roughly $2,400 in traveler's checks at such places as an NTW tire store, where he bought two $50 snow tires; an Exxon gas station in Virginia, and a Giant grocery store. The ultimate purpose of the purchases was unclear.
Most were purchases of $100 or less, the aide said, except for two $500 checks that were written to Pan American World Airways. Under questioning by Hatch, Owen speculated that North may have used the larger checks "for flights overseas that he didn't want to use U.S. government funds for."
Owen insisted that he did not believe that North would have put any of the contras' money to personal use.
Congressional investigators said they have not yet determined whether North cashed the checks for his own expenses. They speculated, for example, that he may have been reimbursing himself for funds that he had advanced to the contras.
Owen described North at various times as "my godfather" and told the committee, "I love Ollie North like a brother." In his testimony, he offered his own insights into the character of a man who Owen said was "an anathema and an enigma . . . in a town which is run, by and large, by bureaucrats and paper, and a lot of the paper is used to cover the tails of the bureaucrats."
North, Owen said, "was willing to get the job done. And sometimes he stepped on toes. . . . He was willing to do anything and everything."
Owen also described, in emotional terms, a "cold, rainy night" when North worked late to get a payment to contra leaders despite pleadings from his youngest daughter that he come home and join in her birthday celebration.
"She called him three times . . . and in essence said, 'Daddy, when are you coming home?' And Ollie said, 'Don't worry, honey, Daddy's coming home as soon as he can. I've just got to finish this work,' " Owen recalled. "By the time he got home, his daughter was already asleep, but he was willing to take the time to get the job done."