In September, Och-Ziff, the New York hedge fund, agreed to pay a $413m fine to settle claims that it paid bribes to secure lucrative natural resources deals in Africa. It was the largest fine ever levied on a US hedge fund for breaking foreign bribery laws, says The Sunday Times, and two former employees could yet face criminal charges. But for many, the real interest of the case was the renewed light it shone on the business activities of one particular man: Dan Gertler, the Israeli mining billionaire.
Gertler, 42, has built a $1.2bn fortune “through shrewd mining ventures”, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), says Forbes. As well as the Och-Ziff partnership, his companies struck joint ventures with Glencore, the commodities giant (which has not been accused of any wrongdoing), and ENRC, the former London-listed miner under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.
But Gertler’s role has been controversial: “he’s been dogged by accusations from [non-government organisations, NGOs] that he snapped up mining assets on the cheap by cozying up to politicians,” says Forbes. The Africa Progress Panel, an NGO headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has alleged the Congolese state may have lost out on a total of $1.36bn from just five deals involving firms linked to Gertler.
Gertler, an ultra-orthodox Jew with 11 children who spends most of the week in the DRC before flying back to his family in Israel for the Sabbath, has vigorously denied these claims. “The lies are screaming to the heavens,” he told Bloomberg in a rare interview in 2012. He views himself as a saviour of Congo, he said at the time, arguing that he should “get a Nobel prize” for his work developing the country.
Fleurette, his Gibraltar-based holding company, which owns stakes in various Congolese mines, claims to be one of the country’s largest taxpayers and employers (the firm says it disputes “all accusations of wrongdoing in any of our dealings in the DRC, including those with Och-Ziff”). Diamonds have been “a backdrop to Gertler’s life since childhood”, said Bloomberg. Gertler, who describes himself as “hyperactive and driven”, began trading rough gems aged 22, arriving in Congo in 1997.
Laurent Kabila, father of the president, was in dire financial straits; Gertler secured him a loan and was rewarded with a “near monopoly” of Congo’s diamond sales and the loyalty of the Kabila family. His diamond interests quickly expanded into iron ore, gold, cobalt and copper mines. Business associates described his style as a mix of “charm and aggressiveness”, according to Bloomberg.
Gertler’s deals have been scrutinised by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but he has never been formally investigated or charged with any wrongdoing. And he continues to enjoy strong public support from the DRC government. “For us an attack on him is an attack on the Congo,” Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, President Kabila’s chief diplomatic adviser told Bloomberg last month. “Mr Gertler’s businesses are legitimate.”