TV preacher Pat Robertson says he's ending his relationship with the Christian Coalition to "focus on those things that will bring forth the greatest spiritual benefit." But it's more likely that Robertson is dropping the declining organization to gain other types of benefits, too. In recent months, the Virginia Beach, Va.-based religious broadcaster has been involved in several high-profile and controversial business transactions.
Robertson has entered into a partnership with brutal Liberian dictator Charles Taylor to run a gold-mining operation in that war-torn African nation, hopes to become the main Internet provider in communist China and is trying to open an oil refinery in a poor neighborhood near Los Angeles. If successful, these ventures could produce billions of dollars for Robertson, a man whose net personal worth was recently estimated at $150 million.
As a businessman, Robertson has a mixed record. A multi-level marketing scheme he founded in the early 1990s called Kalo-Vita went belly up in 1995, leading Robertson to sell the company to an unnamed investor for the grand sum of one dollar. The Virginia Beach televangelist has had better luck with broadcasting ventures. In 1997 he sold his cable concern, the Family Channel, to Fox's Rupert Murdoch for just under $2 billion. (Fox later sold the channel to Disney/ABC, and Robertson retains the right to broadcast his "700 Club" program, the cash cow for his nonprofit religious empire.)
Two of Robertson's most recent profit-making ventures the Liberian operation and the oil refinery have difficulties. He may be stepping down from the Christian Coalition partly to devote more time to shoring them up.
Robertson's investment in Liberia through a company called Freedom Gold has sparked a string of negative columns from Colbert I. King, a writer with The Washington Post. Since Sept. 22, 2001, King has written five columns for The Post blasting the TV preacher's partnership with Liberian strongman Taylor and he doesn't appear to be planning to let up anytime soon. Other writers have since joined the anti-Robertson chorus.
Robertson's Liberian deal calls for 10 percent of the profits of Freedom Gold to go to Liberia not including royalties and rental fees the Taylor regime will earn if the mines become productive. Robertson insists the money is going to the country, not Taylor personally, but King remained unpersuaded, noting that Liberia has been described by critics as "Charles Taylor Inc."
Under Taylor's regime, Liberia totters on the brink of chaos. Racked by civil war, the nation is poor and close to anarchy. Thousands have been killed and tortured by Taylor's troops, police and security forces, and Taylor is accused of backing rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone, spawning more death and destruction there.
In a Nov. 3 column, King wrote, "The international community has received a steady stream of reports detailing police floggings, kickings and burning of a detainee's skin with hot plastic to extract confessions; victims stripped naked, made to kneel on iron bars and whipped with belts and cables; the jailed people lying face down on the floor while police walk on their wrists and forearms."
On Nov. 30, Robertson replied to King's columns, asserting in a letter to the editor that he has never met Charles Taylor and insisting that his employees there have "found freedom of religion, freedom of movement, freedom of expression and what appears to be a judiciary dedicated to the rule of law."
King responded the next day, pointing out that the only reason Robertson hasn't met Taylor is that last year he was warned by State Department officials not to travel to Liberia. That same year, Robertson's plan to bring Taylor's wife, Madam Jewel Howard, to Norfolk was cancelled after Taylor's vice president was murdered.
Last month, GQ magazine ran another expose on the Robertson-Taylor connection. Summarizing the deal in their story "Pat Robertson's Gold Fever," writers Bob Drury and Aram Roston wrote, "[I]t seems clear that in his lust to tap the lucre of the West African Craton [gold seam], the Reverend Pat Robertson has crossed a moral line in order to go into business with a torturer, a murderer, a barbarian who has supported thugs who lop off the arms of defenseless women and children."
Further complicating things for Robertson, in November The New Republic reported that Taylor has ties to terrorist Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. According to the magazine, bin Laden's cronies have been operating in the Liberian capital of Monrovia since September of 1998, financed with diamonds Taylor's regime has looted from neighboring Sierra Leone.
According to writer Ryan Lizza, bin Laden has raised millions buying diamonds from the Taylor-controlled Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and reselling them through middlemen in Europe at a high markup.
Observes Lizza, "In other words, Robertson is in business (Taylor owns 10 percent of Freedom Gold) with a man who, through his underlings in the RUF, is in business with Al Qaeda. And it is entirely possible that money washes from one enterprise into the other. For as much as Robertson might like to pretend that any profits Taylor accrues from the Freedom Gold partnership are being used to buy Bibles for Liberian children, the truth is that Taylor's top fiscal priority is arming the RUF and maintaining control over Sierra Leone's diamonds the same diamonds whose sale funds Al Qaeda."
A second Robertson business venture consists of a plan to bring greater Internet access to China, a move that has angered other Religious Right leaders. In late November, Robertson's son Gordon spoke with the TV preacher on the "700 Club" about a recent trip to China. The elder Robertson portrayed the visit as largely humanitarian and said he had gone to China to find new ways to legally raise money for charitable foundations there.
But it's also likely Robertson was pursuing business negotiations in China at the same time. According to published reports, he has been trying to bring Christian television to the nation of more than 1.3 billion and hopes to become a major provider of Internet services.
Robertson has reportedly expressed anger that he missed out on the growth of the Internet in the United States and doesn't want to lose the same opportunity in China, where Internet use is growing rapidly. To capitalize on the situation, Robertson has founded a company called Zhaodaola, which translates loosely as "I have found it."
The site, which Robertson calls a "lifestyle portal," steers clear of religious content and offers mainly news, entertainment and information about popular culture. Robertson has modeled the website on Yahoo, the popular U.S. Internet provider, and once expressed hope that his company would become "the Yahoo of China."
Some Religious Right leaders have accused Robertson of selling out. Many conservative leaders are critical of the country's communist regime for its lack of religious freedom and frequent persecution of Christian groups. In November, Robertson told Agence France Presse news service that he does not raise these issues when meeting with government officials in China.
"Did I criticize them in terms of abuses here in China? No, I didn't," Robertson said.
Last year Robertson even excused China's policy of forced abortions. Appearing on the CNN program "Wolf Blitzer Reports" April 17, Robertson remarked that the Chinese are "doing what they have to do" to keep the lid on a spiraling population. Robertson, who has repeatedly blasted legal abortion in the United States, said the Chinese policy is necessary because the country's population has topped 1 billion.
The next day Robertson issued a clarification, saying his remarks "were not spoken with sufficient clarity to communicate my lifelong opposition to voluntary and forced abortion as a means of population control." But several Religious Right and anti-abortion leaders blasted Robertson for the comments, asserting that his business interests had made him soft on the country's human-rights abuses.
Meanwhile, a third Robertson business venture appears to be floundering. The televangelist's attempts to reopen the Powerine oil refinery in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., hit a snag in November when a state judge issued an order blocking the project unless modern pollution-control equipment is installed.
"The public interest favors enforcing the Clean Air Act and protecting the environment," wrote Judge A. Howard Matz. Allowing the refinery to reopen in its current condition, he wrote, presents "the possibility of irreparable harm."
Robertson formed a company called Cenco, Inc., in 1998 to buy the aging refinery about 16 miles south of Los Angeles. At that time, Robertson was the firm's sole board member, and he remains president. Robertson has said he wants to use the profits to fund his charitable work.
Most local residents adamantly oppose the refinery project. The New York Times reported that protestors have marched outside the plant and "dragged [Robertson's] effigy in the streets, depicting him with devil's horns and a pointy red tail."
The refinery is located in a section of town that is about 70 percent Latino. It is surrounded by a hospital, a home for the elderly and a neighborhood school. Residents told The Times that when the plant was running, it belched smoke so noxious it peeled the paint off cars.