V. Money and Menace

(Matt Rota for ProPublica)

Firestone’s money started flowing to Taylor in January 1992.

That month, Firestone paid Taylor’s government $69,000 in income and reconstruction taxes; $10,000 for a “social security pension scheme;” and $6,000 for a “social security income scheme,” according to internal corporate records.

By the end of 1992, the records’ careful rows and columns showed that Firestone had paid out more than $2.3 million in income taxes, Social Security pensions, worker injury funds and rent. Of that total, more than $1.3 million was paid in “cash/check” and about $1 million in contributions of rice, buildings and equipment. The documents also showed that Firestone poured $35.3 million into rebuilding the plantation between June 1990 and February 1993. It’s unclear whether that total included the tax payments. The document said the money paid for rice shipments, plantation rehabilitation, pensions and labor settlements, and $12.3 million in “miscellaneous obligations and expenses.”

In the coming years, Taylor traded in smuggled diamonds and illegally harvested timber. While the exact sources of his war chest remained murky, the State Department estimated in 1996 that he could have been taking in as much as $75 million a year. In addition, he also received support from sympathetic nations, such as Libya and Burkina Faso.

But at the beginning of his insurrection, Taylor was a start-up warlord with a growing army and a need for new revenue. Taylor explained the special importance of Firestone’s resources while on trial for war crimes at The Hague.

“Once we captured Harbel, we then made it very clear to the Firestone plantation company that they could no longer be permitted to exercise allegiance to the government in Monrovia,” Taylor testified. “It became at that particular time our most significant principal source of foreign exchange.”

At one point, Taylor said his dealings with Firestone netted $1 million to $2 million every six months. The cash was kept in a building in Gbarnga by Taylor’s finance minister, since there was not yet a First National Bank of Taylorland.

As to how he used the funds, Taylor was as transparent as an Enron footnote. The money purchased “food and medicine and different things,” he said.

Taylor's untrained militias roamed the country with impunity. (Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis)

Taylor said Firestone worried about its dealings with him.

Firestone “did not want to get involved in a violation of United States laws,” Taylor testified.

To accommodate those concerns, Taylor said that he worked out a scheme with Firestone. The company provided rubber to Taylor officials, who smuggled it out of Liberia and sold it in neighboring Ivory Coast.

U.S. Embassy cables from the 1990s corroborate Taylor’s testimony about Firestone’s worries. In 1991, U.S. Embassy officials noted that Firestone was “very concerned” that Taylor was making demands which could result in the company violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The law bans American companies from paying bribes to foreign government officials. Firestone was being “remarkably cagey” about its dealings with Taylor, one cable said.

Taylor was also adamant that Firestone had never paid taxes to his rebel government.

“They did not pay taxes to the NPFL,” he said in his testimony.

Padmore, however, acknowledged that Firestone had, indeed, paid taxes. Such payments were entirely legal, he explained, because Taylor was a de facto government that controlled Firestone’s plantation.

"This is complicity," Amos Sawyer, the former head of Liberia's interim government, said of Firestone's dealings with Taylor.(FRONTLINE)

Firestone “did not pay off warlords, or give money under the table,” he said.

“There is nothing in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that says you can’t pay warlords,” Padmore said. The law “in essence says you cannot bribe.”

ProPublica and Frontline unearthed previously unreported records of Firestone’s payments to Taylor in a lawsuit filed in a county courthouse in Akron, Ohio.

The documents, with their green-eye-shade accounting precision, surprised both Americans and Liberians.

U.S. officials who served in Monrovia at the time said they had not heard of the payments. Ambassador William Twaddell took charge of the embassy eight months after the Firestone agreement was signed. During a recent interview in Washington, D.C., he shook his head in disbelief when he was shown the Firestone document labeled “Schedule of Payments to the NPRAG.”

“It’s kind of amazing that it is so broken down by columns,” he said.

If Firestone became Taylor’s “bankrollers as a deliberate sort of corporate decision, that’s pretty disturbing,” Twaddell said. “The other stuff about supplying the fuel and the communications — if that is really deliberate and voluntary, that’s disturbing.”

Former ambassador William Twaddell ran the embassy during Operation Octopus.(FRONTLINE)

Sawyer was also taken aback. When he viewed the documents in Monrovia recently, the aging ex-president reacted angrily, saying he would recommend that the current Liberian government look anew at Firestone’s role in the civil war.

“I think this is sad. I’m not only troubled by it … I’m angry at it,” he said. “The Liberian people deserve some explanation.”

“This is complicity,” he said. “This is complicity.”

Brenda Hollis served as one of the chief prosecutors at Taylor’s war crimes trial. An expert in international law, she exhausted herself trying to untangle Taylor’s finances. Even today, his sources of funds remain a mystery.

Hollis had never seen the documents, either. She scoffed at Firestone’s use of the term “taxes” to describe payments to Taylor.

“You can call it taxes, but in my view they were paying him to stay in business,” Hollis said. “They were dressing it up.”

The Fix-It Man

Firestone fulfilled its second promise to Taylor in May 1992. Weihe came out of retirement to take over as managing director of the Firestone plantation.

A retired U.S. Air Force captain, he had wavy hair and an easy, gap-toothed grin. He liked whiskey and had a big diamond ring.

Weihe had acted as Firestone’s fix-it man before. A chemist, he was not particularly experienced in operating a rubber farm. He did, however, have a very particular set of skills that he had acquired during his long career: “I knew how to move around in the political circles,” Weihe said.

In the 1970s and ’80s, he sold off the company’s rubber plantations, except for the one in Liberia. Later, he bargained with Samuel Doe to get a better deal on the company’s contract with Liberia. In the late ‘80s, he ran the Firestone plantation in the final, turbulent years of Doe’s regime.

Weihe met Taylor when the rebel leader was a newly minted bureaucrat controlling the money that sloshed through Doe’s administration.

Don Weihi, center, was Taylor's pick to return as Firestone's plantation boss in 1992. (Anonymous source)

Weihe also befriended Richardson, Taylor’s top adviser. Both men loved deep sea fishing. In what could have been a scene from a Graham Greene novel, expats and Liberian anglers mixed at Firestone’s fishing club, a collection of wooden docks and 20-foot boats on a muddy creek just outside the entrance to the Firestone plantation.

“I didn’t sense any racism in him,” Richardson said of Weihe. “He didn’t have that plantation mentality.”

Although 65 years old and settled into retirement, Weihe welcomed the chance to return to Liberia.

“I felt a big responsibility for the plantation over there and the people there,” Weihe said. Weihe was interviewed a few months before his death in 2010.

In Firestone’s absence, Taylor had turned House 53 into his own personal White House, a place to retreat to as he scuttled around the country for security reasons.

A Firestone cook prepared meals for him. Firestone’s repairman fixed the hot-water heater after Taylor complained that the showers were too cold. Firestone workers cut the lawn by hand.

He reveled in his power. He welcomed diplomats, U. N. representatives, even former President Jimmy Carter, who came to Liberia to work on a peace accord.

Still, Weihe liked what he saw — on the plantation, and with Taylor.

“My first impression with Taylor was that he might be a reasonable man,” Weihe said. “He certainly spoke reasonably about how Liberia should be changed, and what should be done.

“What he said made sense,” Weihe said.

Taylor held up his end of the memorandum of agreement. He appointed Brig. Gen. Domingo Ramos, a mercenary from Gambia, to protect the plantation with about 300 soldiers. Matt Chipley, a Ramos commander, said Firestone paid him $425 a month and gave him free fuel and 25 bags of rice. Taylor also ordered Ramos to recover looted Firestone equipment, machinery and vehicles.

Taylor and his ministers’ homes in the hills were off limits. So Weihe and his crew set up a spartan dormitory in the guest-house Firestone used to put up visitors.

As the first summer rains began, the expats worked to assess the damage to the plantation. At night, they gathered at communal tables for meals of rice and chicken. Afterward, they relaxed with Club Beer, the local brew. Weihe drank whiskey from a small glass.

Click to learn more about the Firestone Plantation. (Samuel Velasco/Special to ProPublica)

Taylor visited the Firestone expats on several occasions. In the humid guest-house, he gave long speeches on democracy and the future of Liberia.

“We called him Mr. President,” remembered Brad Pettit, the plantation’s controller. “I actually felt that if there was an election, he would be elected. I was impressed with the man.”

Occasionally, the expats ran into roadblocks set up by rebel soldiers. They saw child soldiers roaming the grounds. Convoys of armed rebels raced past.

“Should we have waited” to resume operating? Pettit asked recently. “Probably, yes, I will agree that that’s a probable, better answer. But we decided…that it was doable and we decided to try.”

Weihe rehired thousands of Liberians to tap rubber trees, rebuild plantation buildings and trim back jungle growth that threatened to overrun the plantation.

As decreed by Taylor for all foreign companies working in Taylorland, Firestone started paying workers half in Liberian currency and half in U.S. dollars, according to an embassy cable. As the U.S. dollars circulated, they helped provide Taylor’s government with much needed liquid currency.

Weihe created a new transport system that allowed Firestone to use the port at Buchanan to export liquid latex — previously only possible through Monrovia.

Taylor returned the favor. His port charged lower fees than the interim government’s levies in Monrovia. The arrangement saved Firestone money, put cash into Taylor’s hands and starved Sawyer’s interim government of badly needed revenue.

It was a sweet deal for everyone involved.

“Firestone’s intent was to make money. Always has and always will,” Pettit said. “Why did we go back? Because we felt sorry for the people that were there? Probably not. We wanted to get the investment earning money again.”

Off Limits

The languorous summer days of 1992 were filled with tension. Almost two years had passed since the cease-fire, and both Sawyer and the West African peacekeepers were running out of patience. Taylor had kidnapped more than 500 West African soldiers. He was fighting pitched battles with a rebel faction invading from neighboring Sierra Leone.

Weihe knew that Taylor’s fighters were using the plantation as a staging area. They rushed off to attack peacekeeping and government forces stationed at the Schieffelin military base between Firestone and Monrovia.

“They used the plantation to, more or less, regroup, and go down to Schieffelin,” Weihe said. “You could hear the cannons going off, the gunfire right on the plantation.”

“You knew there was a war going on,” Weihe said.

Rebels fought against regular military forces from Liberia and other West African nations. (Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis)

Taylor’s rebels sometimes kicked Firestone workers out of their homes. In other cases, the rebels were Firestone employees — working when they weren’t warring.

Welwean, the son of the general manager’s cook, described a constant influx of fighters.

“There was absolute anarchy because rebels were all over the place with their guns. They were in Firestone, through Mr. Weihe, giving them lots of transportation, so most of these Firestone vehicles were owned by the rebels,” Welwean said. “It was very bad.”

Expats and Liberians recall planes flying overhead in the middle of the night and landing at Roberts airport, just outside the plantation entrance.

“A number of mysterious airplanes were landing at Roberts airfield bringing in God knows what,” Gale Ruff remembered. “We didn’t get anything off those airplanes.”

Convoys of pickup trucks trundled up the main road, carrying secret cargo deeper into the shadows of the Firestone plantation.

“When the plane come, you will see vehicles coming from there covered with tarpaulin, and it seem to be weapons, you know,” said Daniel D. Roberts, Weihe’s secretary. “The boys that were living with us in the camp will say, ‘Our weapon will come.’”

Weihe and Taylor worked to set up a communications center and radio station in another senior manager’s house nearby, according to a Firestone official and a deposition from Tom Woewiyu, Taylor’s defense minister.

In July 1992, Weihe gave U.S. Embassy officers a tour of the resurgent plantation. He told them how Ramos had deployed around 300 soldiers to protect the operation. Another 1,000 or so rebels lived on the farm, “taking advantage of Firestone’s food distribution,” Weihe told the officers.

As the tour progressed, the group chatted with Ramos. He seemed laid-back, affable. They bumped into Gen. Adolphus Dolo, better known as Gen. Peanut Butter. He was infamous for recruiting child soldiers.

After the tour, embassy officials summarized the visit in a lengthy cable to Washington.

“Firestone appears to want to play ball with NPRAG and has appointed Weihe to deal more effectively with the NPFL/NPRAG over the long term,” the cable said. “Impressions from the plantation visit give the feeling that Firestone management both in Akron and on the scene are determined to stay the course.

“It has a huge investment to protect and wants again to make the plantation a profitable long-term operation. Firestone seems to have concluded that to be successful they must deal with Charles Taylor now.”

There was one more thing Weihe wanted the embassy to know. At some point, Weihe pulled one of the embassy officers aside. The rebels had not permitted Firestone to venture into some areas of the sprawling plantation, he said.

“Without elaborating, but giving the impression that there may be some military significance, [Weihe] also mentioned that certain parts of the plantation were off-limits,” the embassy recounted in the cable to Washington.

Preparations on the Plantation

On Oct. 8, 1992, the new U.S. ambassador to Liberia paid an official visit to the Firestone plantation.

Twaddell and his entourage traveled smoothly across the 20-mile tarmac road from the capital to the plantation. Weihe provided a tour. There was great news.

Firestone was back in business.

Parts of the plantation were off limits to Firestone's personnel as Taylor prepared for Operation Octopus. (Ashley Gilbertson for ProPublica)

For the first time since June 1990, Firestone had begun producing rubber in Liberia — 600,000 pounds in August, 3.9 million pounds in September.

More than 6,500 Liberians were back at work tapping rubber trees. Buildings destroyed by looting had been repaired. The company had managed to reopen Firestone’s hospital.

“It was a pretty impressive installation,” Twaddell said. “We got, I think, a pretty fair snapshot of what the operation was about and how it worked.”

That was only partially true. By the day of Twaddell’s visit, Taylor’s men had cleared the usual 25 roadblocks manned by teenage rebels looking for bribes. Child soldiers had vanished from sight. Taylor himself was nowhere to be seen.

Behind the scenes, though, Taylor was overseeing the final stages of preparation for Operation Octopus — an all-out push to seize Monrovia and take control of Liberia. Soldiers mounted a heavy machine gun in front of House 53 for Taylor’s protection. Taylor began spending most of his days at the plantation, he testified.

On the farm, some expats said they noticed nothing different. Weihe said he had no idea that Taylor was planning an attack. John Chapman, a British expatriate who was a production manager at the rubber-processing plant, said he vaguely recalled an armed convoy passing through the plantation in the days before the operation was launched. But he didn’t think much of it.

“We were concentrating on getting the factory running,” he said. “We were all pleased that it was running.”

During the tour, an embassy contact on the plantation “quite flagrantly told [embassy officials] that an ‘Aeroflot’ cargo plane had made night landings and discharged freight” at the Taylor-controlled Roberts airport in early October, a cable said.

U.N. reports would later attest that arms dealers from the former Soviet Union were among Taylor’s chief weapons suppliers — including the notorious Viktor Bout.

Twaddell noticed that the soldiers he saw bore automatic weapons that were “shiny and new and apparently just out of the packing crate,” according to the cable.

If Firestone’s expats noticed nothing suspicious, their Liberian employees were more perceptive.

The monsoons of the rainy season had just given way to drier weather. The air thrummed with a kind of energy and dread. A sharp blade was scraping softly up Liberia’s neck.

“You could tell they were planning to launch a full-scale war. There were weapons moving around,” Welwean said. “We knew something was up.”

Comments powered by Disqus