Just as Jeb Bush increasingly generates speculation about running for president, a controversial business venture that has dogged him for years is popping back up in federal court.
United States of America vs. MWI Corp. is scheduled for trial in Washington in October, more than 15 years after the start of a legal fight that has produced allegations of fraud against the U.S. government, bribery of Nigerian officials and plenty of fodder for the former governor’s rivals.
Bush was the 35-year-old son of a man about the become U.S. president when in 1988 he started working with the Deerfield Beach-based MWI Corp. selling water pumps across the globe. Over the next five years until shortly before running for governor in 1994, he earned about $650,000 in a venture that would eventually cause him “unmitigated grief,” as he put it years later
When the federal trial starts Oct. 21, however, the allegations of bribery, corruption in Nigeria, and even Bush’s role in the business won’t be part of the trial.
Bush had been listed as a potential witness, but MWI objected and a federal judge recently agreed his testimony was largely irrelevant and likely would produce a “distracting mini-trial.” Likewise, the judge is barring testimony about alleged bribery and accusations that MWI officials tried to hide assets from creditors as not relevant to the “narrow factual issues” to be examined by the jury.
The case centers on a 1992 deal to sell water pumps to Nigeria, financed with $74.3 million from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, or Ex-Im. It was a huge coup for MWI, more than four times the annual sales of the company run by David Eller, a top Republican fundraiser who formed a company with Bush, Bush-El Corp. to market MWI’s pumps.
The government contends that in applying for Ex-Im loans, MWI fraudulently concealed that the deal would include a “highly irregular” $28 million in commissions for the company’s Nigerian sales agent. The Justice Department argues Ex-Im never would have approved the deal had Ex-Im known of that payment.
Even though Nigeria paid the money back plus $33 million in interest and fees, MWI should repay the full $74.3 million in damages, the Justice Department argues, noting that the excessive commission meant less Ex-Im money available to help other U.S. companies and “excess commissions raise the risk of bribes or other illegal activity.”
MWI maintains the $28 million in commissions — almost 38 percent of the entire deal — were reasonable and appropriate given the work their Nigerian agent, Alhaji Mohammed Indimi, put into the project. They also contend that the U.S. government suffered no damages because the loans were repaid. Indimi has since moved into the oil business and is one of the richest men in Africa.
“MWI has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and vigorously defended itself in connection with this civil case, which has now spanned 15 years. We are confident that, when this case goes to trial this fall we will be fully vindicated and will finally be able to put this matter to rest,” MWI said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. The statement went on to applaud a federal judge for excluding “completely irrelevant” testimony from or about Bush.
Bush traveled to Nigeria on behalf on MWI in 1989 and 1991 but has insisted he had nothing to do with the Ex-Im loans. He says he received no commissions based on the Nigerian deal because he wanted to avoid any perception of a conflict while his father was in the White House.