01.18.12

Basketball Great Dikembe Mutombo’s Crazy Congo Gold Scandal

The NBA all-star is known for battling poverty in his native Congo, but an explosive Houston Chronicle story details his attempt to reap $4 million by pushing a failed scheme to invest in Congolese gold.

On the basketball court, NBA all-star legend Dikembe Mutombo was a good-humored goofball known to tease his opponents by playfully wagging his finger at them, like he was scolding an annoying child. Once considered one of the greatest defensive players and shot blockers of all time, Mutombo was equally revered as a humanitarian fighter who battled poverty and oppression in his homeland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and as a tireless leader in the fight to end polio globally.

With that same goal in mind, he met with State Department officials in November 2010 to discuss the illegal and oftentimes bloody sale of gold and other “conflict minerals” from Congo. Less than two weeks after the meeting with state officials, the Houston Chronicle reported that Mutombo, whose career earnings topped $145 million, flew to New York with a greedy and hypocritical plan to persuade a Houston energy mogul to invest $10 million in gold from the mines of Congo.

The explosive article, which centers around a newly released United Nations report and a mineral trader named Carlos St. Mary, an associate of the mogul, who was involved in the shady scheme, explores how the 7-foot-2-inch former NBA star acted as a middleman in order to broker the deal that would be divided three ways and net him a cool $4 million.

However, the “elaborate scam” didn’t go off as planned, and “ended at an airport in Goma [a city in eastern Congo] with the seizure of the Gulfstream V jet and the arrest of St. Mary and several [energy company] employees, all suddenly facing accusations of money laundering and attempted smuggling,” the Chronicle reported.

It also resulted in the confiscation of 1,000 pounds of gold and $6 million in cash by Congolese officials and a local general named Bosco Ntaganda, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court. The ill-conceived plan received international media attention, but at the time there was no mention of Mutombo. His part in the botched plan was revealed recently with the release of the United Nations report.

Mutombo allegedly bragged that he and his family owned the 1,045 pounds of gold.

As the story goes, the plan was hatched around December 2010, when St. Mary was asked to attend a meeting in New York organized by Houston oil executive Kase Lawal, chairman at the energy company CAMAC. St. Mary was surprised to see Mutombo and three of his nephews at the meeting. During the meeting, Mutombo allegedly bragged that he and his family owned the 1,045 pounds of gold, and they needed the expertise of St. Mary and Lawal to unload it.

The deal would go down in Kenya, because Mutombo didn’t think that selling the gold in Congo’s capital of Kinshasa would be safe, and he wanted the transaction to occur closer to his home.

After a few months, St. Mary began questioning the deal and his dealings with a man named Eddy Michel Malonga, who claimed to own the gold. St. Mary said he warned Lawal, but the oil executive was still convinced the deal would go forward. At one point St. Mary alleged that the gold went missing from a secure customs facility in Nairobi, only to end up on a military base in Congo, after heat was put on Malonga. As more dirty details emerged, St. Mary told the Chronicle that on Jan. 28, 2011, he spoke to Mutombo, who encouraged him to stick with the plan.

“Just get this deal done, he says, and there will be much more. Kase finally tells me to be at his office at 11 the next day. When I get there, he asked me what I thought. I said it was a judgment call. I could see why you would want to salvage the deal if it is salvageable.”

According to the newspaper, the deal went awry at an airport in Goma, when employees working for CAMAC were arrested by Congolese officers and charged with racketeering, among other things. In the end, Lawal was shorted more than $10 million, St. Mary got stiffed, and the gold ended up in a vault at the Central Bank of Congo, most likely to be handed over to Ntaganda. St. Mary said he lost contact with Mutombo after the deal fell through.

The Houston Chronicle got hold of Mutombo in Atlanta, but the former ball player refused the paper’s request for an interview.

Mutombo played in the NBA for 18 seasons, and retired in April 2009. Because of his humanitarian work, The Sporting News nicknamed him one of the “Good Guys in Sports” in 1999 and 2000. Among his other credits, he was global ambassador for the Special Olympics, a spokesman for CARE, honored for his humanitarian work in President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union Address, and given an award for his efforts to reduce polio globally by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.