Charles Taylor says he paid D.C. firm for access to Clinton administration
Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, admitted last week during his war crimes trial that his government spent about $630,000 on the firm of a powerful Washington, D.C., lawyer, Lester Hyman, between September 1997 to April 1999 to improve Liberia’s relations with Washington and secure access to influential Democratic officials, including then-President Bill Clinton and ...
Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, admitted last week during his war crimes trial that his government spent about $630,000 on the firm of a powerful Washington, D.C., lawyer, Lester Hyman, between September 1997 to April 1999 to improve Liberia's relations with Washington and secure access to influential Democratic officials, including then-President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton.
Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, admitted last week during his war crimes trial that his government spent about $630,000 on the firm of a powerful Washington, D.C., lawyer, Lester Hyman, between September 1997 to April 1999 to improve Liberia’s relations with Washington and secure access to influential Democratic officials, including then-President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton.
A U.N.-backed prosecutor has charged Taylor with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for lending support to the brutal Sierra Leonean rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), that allegedly killed and maimed thousands of civilians during the country’s civil war in the late 1990s. The prosecution maintains that Taylor armed the RUF in exchange for access to Sierra Leone’s diamond mines. Taylor has denied the charges.
Prosecutors have sought to show that Taylor lavished large sums of money and mineral concessions on D.C. lobbyists and other influential Americans, including the conservative evangelist Pat Robertson, to purchase influence in Washington, D.C. At the same time, they said, he deprived his own citizens of basic services. Robertson, who signed a gold exploration deal with Taylor’s government in the 1990s, denied through a spokesman that he provided any services to Taylor in exchange for the deal.
In an interview with Turtle Bay, Hyman acknowledged his firm had represented the Liberian government in its dealings with the United States, but denied he received so much money for his services. "It was a minuscule amount," Hyman said, though he could not recall the precise amount. "Money was never the factor. It was a great loss for me and for the firm."
Hyman said that he had urged the U.S. Departments of Justice and Defense to provide training to Liberian troops and police, and pressed the Clinton administration to allow American firms to invest in Liberia. The United States, he recalled, declined. "I was never representing Charles Taylor; I was representing the 3 million citizens of the country," Hyman added. "They were the ones who were really suffering. I was trying to see if I could resolve some of the problems between the United States and the Liberian government."
Hyman wrote a letter to President Clinton in July 1999 asking him to meet with Taylor during a trip to the U.N. General Assembly, according to court documents. The meeting never took place because Taylor changed his mind at the last minute and canceled his travel plans, according to Hyman. Hyman also arranged to set up a private meeting between Hillary Clinton and Taylor’s wife Jewel Howard Taylor, where they discussed African microenterprise programs, he said.
For his part, Taylor selected Hyman to manage the country’s lucrative maritime registry in 2000, taking over from another American company that had fallen out of favor with Taylor. Hyman served as shareholder and chairman of the American firm Liberian Shipping and Corporate Registry (LISCR), which oversaw the registry. "Lester, I can say he was a friend," Taylor said.
The prosecution also cites the efforts of retired U.S. Army General Robert A. Yerks to advise Liberia in 1999 on how it could improve relations with the United States, noting that he had reached out to senior officials in the State Department. Taylor said Yerks received no payment for his services. But a U.N. report from 2000 indicated that Yerks has been linked to the transfer of diamonds in the region.
It remains unclear how successful Hyman and Yerks were in convincing U.S. officials to improve their relations with Liberia. But Taylor believed Hyman played an active role in persuading American authorities to expunge Taylor’s criminal record following his escape from a Massachusetts prison before the war. "Yes, he did have some involvement in dealing with the legal matters about the escape, yes," Taylor said.
The lead prosecution counsel in the war crimes case, ret. U.S. Air Force Col. Brenda Hollis, asked Taylor whether Hyman was able to persuade then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a friend of Hyman’s, to have the charges dropped. "I’m sure State had something to do with it," Taylor said. "I’m not sure if it was Secretary Albright personally."
Hyman said that he had approached Albright but that she refused to intervene to press Massachusetts to clear Taylor’s record. "Madeleine Albright’s position was that this is a matter that has to be resolved by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," he said. "The most Madeleine would say was that [the State Department] would abide by whatever decision the district attorney there made."
Efforts to reach Albright, who is traveling abroad, through a representative of her office this weekend were unsuccessful. A State Department spokesman declined comment this weekend.
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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