A gilded Cage

There are few people more gifted at the art of phony moral preening than your average Hollywood movie star. Most of them know next to nothing about anything, but a remarkable number of them are quick to weigh in on political issues and say whatever they think will make them look like pillars of virtue.

And yet one after another of these stars, who are already extremely well paid, are also quick to sell their services, for the right price, to any brutal dictator who comes down the pike.

Will Smith

We’ve seen, for example, that Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, have gone all-out to promote Dubai, which, of course, is one of the United Arab Emirates, where gays are executed and where straight tourists who engage in even the tamest public displays of affection are subject to long prison terms. We’ve discovered how Sting took a million or two dollars to perform for the daughter of murderous Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov and how Nicki Minaj cashed a $2 million check from the Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos for a similar gig.

Sharon Stone with Putin and unidentified girl

We’ve listed the names of several celebrities – among them Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, Mickey Rourke, and Sharon Stone – who’ve taken money from Vladimir Putin to turn up at official events in Russia, and other luminaries – including Seal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Hilary Swank – who’ve accepted payments to entertain Putin’s puppet leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Now it’s time to add another Tinseltown name to this roster of shame: Nicolas Cage. Born Nicolas Coppola, a nephew of filmland’s master of nepotism, Francis Ford Coppola, Cage, now 53, has been one of the luckiest men in the business, reaping great rewards in exchange for a very modest talent. He gets millions of dollars per picture and is reportedly worth about $25 million.

Nicolas Cage in Kazakhstan with an official of the Eurasia Film Festival

In short, he is not a man in drastic financial need. Nonetheless, in exchange for an unknown but presumably hefty sum, he recently attended the Eurasia Film Festival in Kazakhstan, a country that has been ruled for over a quarter of a century by the tyrannical Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Some people will do anything for a buck. Cage, who invariably comes off on talk shows as something of a self-important jerk and all-around dimbulb, was willing to don a native Kazakh outfit that earned him widespread mockery online. “I would be pleased to participate in some film project on the territory of Kazakhstan,” Cage told local journalists during his lucrative visit. “I enjoyed the architecture of your capital. What I saw reminded me of an old black-and-white film that depicted the future.” These stars often make such dopey, ingratiating statements in these situations. It’s hard not to believe they are reading from a script. In any event, one thing is clear: Nicolas Cage didn’t go to Kazakhstan for his health.

Sleaze all the way down: Tony Blair

blair1
Tony Blair

This week we’ve been pondering the sickening case of Tony Blair – who, upon stepping down from the job of U.K.’s head of government in 2007, was a not-so-young man in a very great hurry to accumulate the fortune he’d been fantasizing about during those ten underpaid years as (in his own words) “Britain’s most successful prime minister.” In a revelation-packed new bookBroken Vows – Tony Blair: The Tragedy of Power, which was recently excerpted in the Daily Mail, veteran investigative reporter Tom Bower maps out in detail Blair’s squalid road to riches. His tale of Blair’s shameless self-enrichment makes the history of the tirelessly acquisitive Clintons look like a children’s bedtime story.

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 23JAN13 - Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, President of Nigeria speaks during the televised session 'De-risking Africa - Achieving Inclusive Prosperity' at the Annual Meeting 2013 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2013. Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo Remy Steinegger
Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, President of Nigeria

Yesterday, for example, we saw that Blair was quick to whitewash the crimes of Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev in exchange for a handful of shekels. But Nazarbayev is only one of Blair’s many thuggish paymasters. In 2010, Blair visited Nigeria, “ostensibly to offer the services of AGI and the Faith Foundation” – two of his “charities” – “to help reconcile the country’s Muslims and Christians.” What he ended up doing was performing an expert ego massage on Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, whom he persuaded to hire J.P. Morgan as manager of his nation’s sovereign wealth fund. Result: a big payday for both Blair and Morgan – which secured the lucrative job without having to make a competitive bid.

Blair’s links to some of the world’s most unfree governments and to many of its less than scrupulous global businesses are too complex to easily diagram. And there’s no apparent limit to the level of oiliness that he’s apparently able to summon up in order to grease the wheels of commerce between the two. In 2012, in exchange for a generous sum, Blair put together a meeting between the top honcho at Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trading house, and the prime minister of Qatar, the goal being to facilitate a business deal. “Although present at their hour-long meeting,” writes Bower, Blair “remained curiously silent,” leading the Glencore CEO to wonder whether “Blair’s huge fee had been a waste of money.”

bower2
Tom Bower

Bower outlines deals so convoluted that they make one’s head spin. But never mind the details; what matters is the uniformly sleazy cast of characters, led by a host of disreputable but staggeringly flush sovereign wealth funds and a small army of cartoonishly rapacious presidents of African cesspools. When some corporation in the Persian Gulf that you’ve never heard of (but that’s swimming in money) decides to make an investment in some dodgy start-up in Indochina, the Balkans, west Africa, or South America, don’t be surprised if Blair’s right there in the middle of the whole ugly deal, scraping his 20 percent off the top.

And so it goes. As Bower writes, Blair

also popped up on the advisory panel that supervised the construction of British Petroleum’s £32 billion oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean. Oddly enough, he was also paid to advise the president of Azerbaijan. In addition, his services were called in when BP was seeking new oil concessions in Abu Dhabi.

The sheikh who employed Blair privately to work for his investment fund also happened to be the head of Abu Dhabi’s Supreme Petroleum Council. 

One wonders how Blair can keep track of it all himself. But we haven’t yet gotten around to his Big Kahuna: Muammar Qaddafi. Tune in tomorrow.

Tony Blair’s web of cash

Yesterday we began looking at the post-prime ministerial life of Tony Blair, as chronicled in a new book  (recently excerpted in the Daily Mail) by British investigative journalist Tom Bower. We saw that Blair, like some of the slimiest stooges in Venezuela and elsewhere, has come up with ingenious ways to generate income and has established his own elaborate network of front companies to hide the loot.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair

But that’s not all. Get this: he’s also set up a number of institutions, some explicitly designated as businesses and others as charities, but all of them apparently intended to rake in money from deep-pocketed tyrants and shady business types around the world. One of those institutions is Tony Blair Associates, a consulting firm that is frankly in the business of — well, business. Another is the Faith Foundation, a purported charity whose stated objective is to contribute to the healing of religious divisions around the world. Another is the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), another self-declared charity which is supposedly dedicated to helping governments from the Suez to the Cape of Good Hope to formulate and carry out economic development plans.

bower
Tom Bower

Massive amounts of dough pass through these institutions. All that mazuma should, of course, be kept separate from Blair’s own personal stash. But as with Bill and Hillary Clinton’s notorious foundation, the reality of Blair’s finances turns out to be a good deal messier than the cover story. Also like the Clintons, Blair is in the habit of collecting outsized sums for, um, delivering speeches; Bower cites, for example, “an address in Orlando, Florida, to the International Sanitary Supply Association — manufacturers of lavatory cleaners.” Quite clearly, Blair doesn’t lie awake at night worrying that he might be doing things beneath the dignity of a former British PM.

There’s more. Just as Blair is insufficiently careful about separating his personal cash from his charities’ funds, he’s not too meticulous about drawing a line between his current role as private citizen and his former role as British head of government. This often leads to wildly inappropriate situations. For instance, while making scads of money dispensing advice to other countries’ governments — advice that isn’t necessarily consistent with the interests of his own country — Blair still expects the British Embassy in each capital he visits “to provide him with a comprehensive security briefing and occasionally even overnight accommodation,” as if he were still in office.

At times he pushes it even further. Visiting one African country, allegedly on behalf of AGI, Blair asked for a private audience with the head of state because he claimed to have been asked to give the top man “a personal message…from David Cameron.” But he had no such message to deliver; he was there for no other reason than to drum up business for Tony Blair Associates. The head of state, quite appropriately, took offense at this cheesy bait and switch. Later, when confronted with this incident and asked whether he’d been “mixing charity and business,” Blair lied outright: Tony Blair Associates, he insisted, doesn’t do business in Africa, only in the Middle East and Asia.

david-cameron_1939896c
David Cameron

On the contrary, Tony Blair Associates seems to be prepared to do business anywhere there is a euro, pound, buck, peso, or yen to be snagged. As Bower puts it, Blair has “concentrated on offering advice to sheikhs, presidents and dictators.” It seems plain enough from Bower’s accounts that Blair’s advice itself, to the extent that he actually bothers to proffer any, is next to worthless; if the world’s tinpot tyrants are nonetheless queuing up with wheelbarrows full of cash, it’s obvious that they’re greasing his palm in exchange for influence, for access. This is, after all, a guy who can get any head of state in the world, from President Obama on down, to come to the phone. So it was that the government of Kuwait paid him £20 million to “review the country’s economy.” The report he ultimately turned in was a piece of embarrassing, amateurish hackwork – a “lengthy repetition of Kuwait’s well- known problems, concluding with a series of impractical solutions,” that was “greeted with derision” and then buried by Kuwaiti authorities. 

nursul
Nursultan Nazarbayev

But for the authorities to whom Blair peddles his influence, no “advice,” it appears, is too worthless. And for Blair, in return, no client is too sleazy. He accepted a sizable sum to help the corrupt U.I. Energy of South Korea secure an oil contract. He took a hefty salary from another nefarious outfit, PetroSaudi, to make deals on its behalf with Chinese authorities. In 2011, he even went to work for the rotten-to-the-core Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose abuses of his subjects’ human rights didn’t keep Blair from recording “an hour-long video about Nazarbayev” in which he “repeatedly eulogis[ed]” the creep. Not only that, Blair “arranged for his old crony Alastair Campbell and former Downing Street spokesman Tim Allan to promote the despot.” When Nazarbayev asked Blair how, in a speech at Cambridge, he should address his security forces’ cold-blooded murder of 14 civilians, Blair suggested he take the angle that the massacre, tragic though it was, “should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made.”

Disgraceful. But Nazarbayev isn’t the only autocrat with blood on his hands who’s helped fatten Blair’s bank account. Far from it. More tomorrow.

Above the law: Steven Seagal’s Balkan cronies

seagalniko
Seagal meeting with Nikolic

One of the first stooges we profiled on this site was Steven Seagal, the action star who’s got a bromance going with Vladimir Putin, whom he’s praised as “one of the greatest living world leaders.”

Now it turns out that Putin isn’t the only unsavory head of state in Seagal’s social circle. On December 1, the Associated Press reported that Seagal had “received the royal treatment” during a recent visit to Serbia. While there, he’d been granted audiences by President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, and Belgrade mayor Sinisa Mali.

laureati_2015
Seagal with his fellow 2015 laureates

And that wasn’t all. Seagal was also presented with the Karic Brothers Award, which is given to a half-dozen or so people a year at an annual Belgrade ceremony. The award was created by Bogoljub Karic, who, as the AP pointed out, “was given asylum in Russia after he fled Serbia when its previous government charged him with corruption and the embezzlement of millions of dollars in state funds.” The award’s stated purpose is “to stimulate and motivate all those who create and produce value that will result in more pleasant living conditions”; winners have included businessmen, artists, actors, journalists, diplomats, clergymen, and politician.

kazakhstan-president-nursultan-nazarbayev-7
Nursultan Nazarbayaev

One of Seagal’s fellow 2015 laureates was Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator of Kazakhstan, who, rather hilariously, was honored for “strengthening democracy and peace.” This, note well, for a “president” whose personal bank accounts were found to contain over a billion dollars fleeced from the Kazakh treasury; who pushed bills through the Kazakh Parliament granting him legal immunity and legalizing money laundering; who’s been repeatedly returned to office in elections universally considered to be total shams; and whose country, thanks largely to his thuggish, terroristic treatment of journalists, stands at #161 out of 180 nations on the World Press Freedom Index.

seagalputin
With pal Putin

In short, these awards might fairly be described as a joke.

Upon accepting his award, which was described as a recognition of his “humanitarian work,” Seagal told the audience that he was “honored to follow many leaders who have received this award before me, such as Vladimir Putin.” (He also made the rather baffling remark that “the world’s 17 major Roman Emperors originate from this region, and that has to mean something.”)

steven-seagal-vicic
With Prime Minister Vucic

But that was just the beginning. Seagal, who “used to overwhelm Russian and Serbian bad guys in Hollywood movies with his martial arts techniques,” was offered a job teaching Aikido, the Japanese martial art, to Serbian special police.

And in January it was reported that Seagal, after agreeing to set up a martial-arts school in Belgrade, had been granted Serbian citizenship. Seagal praised the country’s leaders and said “he feels like a Serb.” It was unclear exactly how aware Seagal was of the record of President Nikolic, who in 2007 proposed making Serbia part of a Russian superstate that would resist “the hegemony of America” and in 2012 denied that genocide had ever taken place in Srebenica. Of course, given Seagal’s enthusiasm for Putin, one can hardly imagine him balking at Nikolic’s comparatively amateur-level malevolence.