Columbus AlivewireD

Murky network

Faster, Octopussy! Kill! Kill!

by Bob Fitrakis

The body of investigative reporter Joseph Casolaro was found in Martinsburg, West Virginia, with his wrists slashed on August 10, 1991. Near the body was a six-word suicide note: "I'm sorry, especially to my son," reported London's Daily Telegraph.

Why would a newspaper in England care about the tragic death of an obscure freelance reporter?

Casolaro had told his friends and family that he'd found a "network of murky individuals--he called it the octopus--linked with several covert operations and dubious organizations, including BCCI, which he suspected was used to funnel funds for arms sales to Iran," the Telegraph wrote. There were mysterious circumstances surrounding Casolaro's death: He was meeting with an unnamed source in a hotel confirming links between U.S. officials, arms sales to Iran, and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI); his body was hastily embalmed without the family's permission, which hampered a criminal investigation; and he had told his family that if he was killed in an accident, not to believe it.

Who is the octopussy that might be lurking in the Ohio River Valley? Perhaps we should start by asking shy Arkansas billionaire Jackson T. Stephens. After all, Stephens introduced BCCI from Pakistan to the United States and the WTI waste incinerator to East Liverpool, Ohio. Stephens would be a good sketch artist because he's seen some monstrous scandals in his day. Stephens' family firm is the largest privately owned investment bank outside Wall Street. In September 1977, President Jimmy Carter's Budget Director Burt Lance was forced to resign amid allegations about his bank dealings with Stephens (Stephens and Carter were classmates at the Naval Academy). In 1978, Stephens, Lance and BCCI were charged with violating U.S. security laws. The charges were dropped after the defendants promised not to violate security laws in the future, even though they admitted no guilt.

The New York Post reported in February 1992 that it was Stephens who enabled BCCI to gain a foothold in the U.S. and helped the fraud-plagued bank secretly acquire U.S. banks. In Peter Truell and Larry Gurwin's book, False Profits, perhaps the best account of the BCCI scandal, the authors outlined how opium revenue from Afghanistan Mujahedin fighting the Soviets ended up in the accounts of BCCI, founded by Agha Hasan Abedi. The Post reported that Stephens allegedly introduced Abedi to Lance shortly after Lance resigned.

In 1991, Lance testified that he urged Abedi to acquire a Washington bank holding company, but he denied any knowledge of BCCI's subsequent secret ownership of First American Bankshares. The Post reported that Securities and Exchange Commission documents from 1977 substantiate that the idea originated with Stephens.

During Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential run, Stephens and his son Warren boasted of raising more than $100,000 for the campaign. The Stephens family also owned a 38 percent share in Worthen National Bank that extended a crucial $2 million line of credit to Clinton in January 1992.

But Stephens' Ohio roots go further back. Waste Technologies, Inc. (WTI) was a Stephens subsidiary chartered in Arkansas in 1975. In January 1980, a Stephens employee and former East Liverpool resident, Don Brown, informed local officials that Stephens wanted to build the WTI incinerator on land recently acquired by the newly formed Columbiana Port Authority. A press release issued July 1, 1981, identified four firms including WTI, a subsidiary of Stephens Inc. of Little Rock, and Von Roll of America Inc., an affiliate of the Swiss firm Von Roll Limited. Four Von Roll officials were convicted in Switzerland for attempting to illegally sell "supergun" parts to the Iraqi government during the Gulf War. It also owned New Jersey Steel, a company with reputed mob ties.

The combined presence in the Ohio Valley of Von Roll and Stephens, with his BCCI links, should raise eyebrows in law-enforcement circles--particularly in light of the recent allegations of campaign money-laundering involving former Governor George Voinovich and his brother Paul and Von Roll lobbyist Tony Fabiano. Richard Kerr, the deputy director of Central Intelligence, told Congress that BCCI "was involved in illegal activities such as money-laundering, narcotics and terrorism." The CIA director called BCCI "the Bank of Crooks and Criminals International," and admitted it paid its contractors from its accounts.

A sting by federal agents on a BCCI bank in Tampa, Florida, led to a 1991 Congress-ional investigation that uncovered more than 100 cases linking BCCI to drug-money laundering. Still, critics of the BCCI investigation charge that the Justice Department limited the scope to Tampa. If federal authorities were allowed to follow BCCI's tentacles into Stephens' Arkansas or the Ohio River Valley, they surely would have intersected with the national security and intelligence apparatus of the U.S.

As investigative reporters Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair conclude in their essential book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, a great American tragedy occurred when the CIA and Bill Clinton were able to turn the allegations of Contra gun and drug-running at the Mina Arkansas airbase into "the darkest backwater of right-wing conspiracy theories."

The Mina allegations included Stephens, BCCI, Miami's Southern Air Transport, and then-Governor Clinton connected to the octopussy. In Ohio, we have Stephens, BCCI, Von Roll, Columbus' Southern Air Transport and former Governor Voinovich. Perhaps for symmetry, we should simply dismiss the similarities between the octopussies to that of the urbane, over-intellectual, left-wing paranoia.

Try to tell that to Casolaro, may he rest in peace.

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