Parretti Lost Ally in Liberian Strongman
Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti appears to have lost a close associate--who nearly became a financial backer--with the death of Liberian strongman Samuel K. Doe.
Parretti, whose Pathe Communications Corp. hopes to take control of MGM/UA Communications Co. this fall under a longstanding buyout plan, has made no secret of his official status as a Liberian “ambassador at large,” nor of his brief co-ownership of Air Liberia during Doe’s regime.
According to public and private documents and other sources, however, the unlikely alliance between Parretti and Doe’s government went beyond diplomatic trappings and 49% ownership of the small, state-run airline, which Parretti sold last year.
Parretti was negotiating deals to manage government-owned hotels in Liberia as recently as this year, and previously he counted a Liberian minister of state among the five non-family directors of his European-based holding company, according to Luxembourg records.
Further, Parretti informed Luxembourg authorities in 1988 of an apparently abortive plan to name the minister vice president of the holding company, while including the Liberian government as a shareholder.
A spokesman for Parretti says that the financier now has no dealings with Liberia and that previous dealings were “in line with a lot of business investment (by others) in that country.” He also said Liberia isn’t involved in funding the $1.3-billion MGM/UA purchase.
The spokesman declined to discuss in detail the financier’s relations with Doe, whose stormy 10-year reign as president ended earlier this week with his death at the hands of rebels.
The principal broker of Parretti’s relationship with Doe appears to have been John P. Beh Sr., who is a fellow member of the dead president’s Krahn tribe and a Liberian minister of state.
A Pathe company phone list obtained by The Times includes three numbers for Beh in Liberia and the United States, and five numbers for the late president, including a line to his private security force. Attempts to reach Beh on Wednesday at his numbers and through the Liberian embassy in Washington failed.
An official registry of Luxembourg companies shows that Beh, in 1988, was a director of Parretti’s Comfinance SA, then known as Interpart. That same year, Parretti informed Luxembourg authorities that he intended to name Beh vice president of the board, to represent the Liberian government as a shareholder in the company, according to official sources.
Beh appears not to have assumed the vice presidency. Parretti’s spokesman said Beh is not currently on the Comfinance board and Liberia currently doesn’t own any Comfinance shares. It isn’t clear whether Liberia ever owned shares.
Comfinance controls 88.5% of Pathe Communications, which has proposed to buy MGM/UA later this year.
Liberian exiles in the United States say Beh, a former minister of land and mines, introduced Doe to Parretti in 1986.
“Parretti was first interested in acquiring a hotel that housed a casino,” said Harry Greaves, a former Liberian businessman and political activist who now lives near Washington. “He came in and, through . . . Beh, he got access to Doe. He lost out on the casino . . . but he was able to get a concession on Air Liberia.”
Some Liberian exiles believe that Doe amassed a fortune during his presidency. “Doe is said to be worth $100 million in funds abroad,” says Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former Liberian official who says she was imprisoned several times in that country. She now lives in Washington, where she is active in several Liberian exile groups.
There isn’t any immediate evidence that Doe had personal funds invested with Parretti.
Apparently, however, Parretti continued to explore dealings in Liberia only months ago, even as the country was erupting into a bloody civil war that has yet to be resolved.
According to one letter, dated Jan. 31 of this year and written on executive mansion stationery to Parretti by Minister of State G. Alvin Jones, the government asked the financier to take a 50% interest in managing certain hotel properties. The same letter complained: “Your Bank Guarantee of $US 1,000,000.00 (ONE MILLION DOLLARS) for Management of Hotel Africa arrived on January 18, with much delay.”
“My impression is that he came to Liberia hoping to swing some big deals that never got off the ground,” Greaves said. “Of course, he could have also been investing Doe’s money for him. The big question mark is where Doe’s money is. We know it’s substantial, but we don’t know where it is.”
Despite his Liberian diplomatic credentials, Parretti apparently does not enjoy any special privileges in the United States. He travels on a conventional Italian passport, according to the Italian consulate in Los Angeles, and is not accredited as a diplomat by the U.S. State Department.
In Los Angeles, the local Liberian counsel said his only contact with Parretti came when an aide inquired whether Parretti’s diplomatic standing freed him of his obligation to pay U.S. taxes on a car he had purchased. The consulate told Parretti’s aide that it did not.
Parretti’s relationship with the Liberian government has never been clear, said Andrew Ippolito, honorary counsel general of Liberia in Los Angeles. “He has diplomatic privileges, but we have never been given official notice as to his status here, and he has never attended one of our consul corps meetings, nor has he been invited,” Ippolito said.
Separately, a Los Angeles judge last week ordered Parretti and his business associate Florio Fiorini to schedule their depositions in a suit and countersuit between Pathe and Time Warner Inc. immediately after Oct. 23, when the MGM/UA acquisition is scheduled to close.
The ruling represents a setback for Time Warner, which sued after its plan to help Pathe finance the MGM/UA acquisition foundered earlier this year. Time Warner wanted to take the depositions immediately, but Parretti and Fiorini said they were forced to remain abroad all summer, seeking financing for the buyout. Parretti nonetheless briefly visited the United States to attend an urgent business meeting at MGM/UA in mid-August, according to a declaration filed by his attorney in the case.
Free-lance writer Larry Gurwin contributed to this story.