He’s the founder of a globe-trotting hunting club that caters to millionaires and billionaires who like to shoot rare and exotic animals in far-flung countries. Robert Kern, the president of the Hunting Consortium, has taken down exotic animals from a helicopter in Russia’s Far East and seen one consultant to his group entangled in global outrage over an endangered rhino hunt. Now, court documents show that federal prosecutors launched an investigation into Kern and his group over an ill-fated hunting trip in Iran.
A search warrant application filed by prosecutors in Virginia show the Justice Department sought evidence of whether the prominent big game hunter and his group committed wire and insurance fraud in connection with their planned 2011 hunting trip in Iran. The feds say the founder of a globe-trotting hunting club may have committed fraud when he allegedly helped his wealthy clients get fraudulent reimbursements after Iran nixed their plans to hunt rare sheep in the Islamic Republic, according to court documents obtained by The Daily Beast.
Kern did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by The Daily Beast. The U.S. Attorney’s office, citing Justice Department policy, declined to confirm or deny the existence of an ongoing investigation.
Western tourists seeking to hunt rare big game animals are reportedly a lucrative business in Iran. One big game hunting service advertised prices as high as $28,000 per sheep.
In addition to the fraud allegation, federal investigators also looked into possible Foreign Corruption Practices Act violations by Kern. A footnote buried deep in the search warrant notes that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found a document labeled “bribe” as it relates to government officials in other countries. Court documents stated that law enforcement were looking for “business records related... to trips where a bribe was paid to facilitate hunting trips.”
The footnote mentioned a “previous investigation” of a Hunting Consortium trip in Russia, in an apparent reference to Kern’s first brush with federal law enforcement.
In 2007, federal prosecutors in Texas charged that Kern, a former combat helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, had violated the Lacey Act, which prohibits importing hunting trophies acquired through the violation of American or foreign laws. Prosecutors in the Southern District of Texas alleged that an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dubbed “Operation Fire and Ice” showed Kern and the Hunting Consortium had hunted moose and Kamchatka bighorn sheep from a helicopter during a 2002 hunting trip in Russia.
Hunting from helicopters is illegal in Russia, but Kern testified at trial that he believed that the hunters had qualified for an exception under the law because they had donated meat from the animals to a local children’s school. A jury agreed and acquitted both Kern and the Hunting Consortium on all charges.
Kern isn’t the only member of the Hunting Consortium whose hunting has garnered controversy. In 2014, consortium member Corey Knowlton announced that he had won a $350,000 auction by the Texas-based Safari Club, which had participated in the 2002 Kamchatka hunt, for the chance to kill an endangered African black rhino in Namibia. The auction generated an intense backlash from environmental groups and the public and Knowlton announced that he had to hire around-the-clock private security because of death threats against him. According to court records, in the August 2018 search of Kern’s house, investigators seized documents related to a Knowlton hunting trip from 2011. Knowlton hunted and killed the rhino in a 2018 trip documented by CNN.
The Hunting Consortium caters to an exclusive clientele of wealthy outdoorsmen. The late Texas oil billionaire Dan Duncan participated in the 2002 hunt in Russia. And in a review published on the organization’s website, Abdorreza Pahlavi—the late brother of Iran’s ousted Shah Mohammed Rez Pahlavi and an avid hunter himself—raved that “I have had some of the very best hunts of my life with the Hunting Consortium!”
The search warrant application unsealed in 2018 alleged that Kern helped participants apply for allegedly-fraudulent travelers insurance reimbursements when Iran cut back on hunting permits. According to an affidavit in the case, the FBI believed Kern knew in October 2011 that Iran would soon begin to restrict permits and carried out a scheme to allow participants in the planned hunt who hadn’t bought insurance beforehand to get reimbursed for their trip.
The affidavit cited an unidentified cooperating witness, who told federal law enforcement that Kern allegedly “prepared false letters, with different dates, purporting to be from Iran Safari” informing customers that the outing had been canceled.
The letters were allegedly designed to allow members of Kern’s Hunting Consortium to re-book their trips with traveler’s insurance and claim reimbursement when their permits later failed to come through. The informant, who operates his own hunting company, said the letters were suspicious because Iran Safari, a local Iranian company that helps organize hunting trips, never interacted with clients directly but only through his company.
The informant also told the Hunting Consortium’s insurer, AIG, of his suspicions and the company then “began denying some of the claims submitted by hunters for Iran hunting trips” booked by Kern’s group. Prosecutors claim that AIG investigators “identified eleven suspicious travel insurance claims” connected to the 2011 trip.
The court documents state that there is no evidence other hunters who hired Kern were aware of the alleged fraud.
The search warrant was executed in August 2018. Prosecutors have not charged Kern with a crime in connection with the allegations and it’s unclear whether the investigation is continuing. Federal agents seized more than 30 binders related to hunting trips from 2011 to 2017, and nearly a dozen electronic devices including hard drives and computers.
Court documents show that some members of the 2011 trip did eventually travel to Iran, but the rare sheep stayed out of their sights.