On October 5, Sarkis Soghanalian, once the world’s largest private arms dealer, died at 82. He had sold weapons to scores of dictators including Saddam Hussein, and he took many secrets with him to his grave… one secret he did not take involves Newt Gingrich when he was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. ~ Joseph Trento – See related articles
DCBureau has learned that Gingrich was at the center of a U.S. Justice Department criminal investigation in the late 1990s for a scheme to shake down the arms dealer for a $10 million bribe in exchange for Gingrich using his influence as Speaker to get the Iraq arms embargo lifted so Soghanalian could collect $54 million from Saddam Hussein’s regime for weapons he had delivered during the Iran-Iraq War.
Soghanalian was an FBI informant and was responsible for launching one of the most sensitive and secret investigations in FBI history involving the former Speaker and his second wife.
According to Marianne Gingrich, it took the direct intervention of then FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to “get the investigation called off.” Freeh did not return emails and telephone calls for comment.
A convicted felon with a long history of working with United States intelligence, Soghanalian cooperated with the FBI in the two-year investigation which included secretly taping emissaries with connections to Newt and Marianne Gingrich.
The cast of characters include personalities no Hollywood screenwriter could invent. One participant was involved in the Florida SunCruz scandal that resulted in the gangland-style killing of one of the cruise lines owners.
Another was a used Rolls Royce salesman who pretended to be part of the international arms trade. A third was a penny stock promoter.
For several years, FBI agents instructed Soghanalian to get beyond the men who claimed to have ties to Gingrich and insist upon meeting with Gingrich and his former wife directly to prove that they could deliver the Speaker.
Just before Soghanalian was to meet Gingrich and his former wife at a private Miami Beach fundraiser on June 8, 1997, arranged by one of these men, FBI headquarters called off the investigation. Washington ordered the FBI in Miami not to secretly tape record the fundraiser and to stop Soghanalian from attending.
Marianne Gingrich, in a series of telephone interviews from her homes in Georgia and Florida, acknowledges meeting the arms dealer in Paris but insists her participation was to solicit an investment from Soghanalian for her former employer, the Israel Export Development Corporation (IEDC).
She says the company was running short on cash and her meetings with the arms dealer had nothing to do with Iraq and arms dealing. Newt Gingrich did not return repeated telephone calls for comment.
Soghanalian said in a series of interviews before his death that men associated with Marianne Gingrich convinced him that Speaker Gingrich would use his influence to lift the embargo and allow Soghanalian to collect the millions of dollars owed to him by Iraq “in exchange for a $10 million payment to Gingrich through his associates.”
Soghanalian was to pay the money – not to the Gingriches directly – but through a think tank, The Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies (IASPS), which has offices in the United States and Israel.
Saddam Hussein’s government owed Soghanalian for arms he had delivered – all with the permission and knowledge of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, but he could not be paid because Iraq was under a U.S. and United Nations embargoes.
After his release from prison in the mid-1990s, Soghanalian settled in Paris and started rebuilding his arms business. In the United States he faced a $54 million IRS tax lien for profits he had never received from the Iraq arms sales. He told associates that he was trying to figure out a way to collect the monies owed to him.
One of those friends was a London-based Kurdish Iraqi who had close contacts with Israeli intelligence and a car salesman from Miami named Morty Bennett.
Bennett saw Soghanalian’s money problems as an opportunity. He says he passed the information from his Kurdish friend to Howard Ash, a friend from the Rolls Royce dealership in Miami where Bennett worked. Ash was a fundraiser for the IASPS, the think tank, and had worked at the IEDC with Marianne Gingrich.
In May 1995, while visiting his wife, Shirley, and his grandchildren in Palm Springs, California, Soghanalian got a phone call from Bennett. Soghanalian had never heard of him before, but Bennett says he used the name of their mutual acquaintance in London who had experience in the Kurdish arms trade to get Soghanalian to talk to him.
Soghanalian said before his death, “My ears perked up when he said he had an arms deal for me in Ecuador. There are a lot of pretenders in the business, but he seemed interesting, and I always need new information for my FBI friends, so I met with him.”
That May 1995 phone call from Bennett to Soghanalian resulted in a two-year FBI investigation so sensitive that details have never before been made public.
The goal of the investigation, according to a Justice Department official, “…was to see if Gingrich, through his then wife, was involved in an attempt by political associates to solicit bribes.”
One of the team of FBI agents involved in the case says, “The investigation was called off before we were permitted to finish making a case.” Another agent says it was just “too politically sensitive. We got so close and when the target was in sight, we were stopped by Washington.”
According to Bennett, the entire scheme to solicit $10 million dollars from the arms dealer was Howard Ash’s idea. Ash did not return repeated calls for comment left on his answering machine or with a woman who identified herself as his employee.
Soghanalian said of when he and Bennett met, “Bennett claimed that he and a partner named Howard Ash had an ‘in’ with Speaker Newt Gingrich on behalf of the Israelis… They asked me if I would invest with them in the deal.”
The “in” that Bennett and Ash had was Gingrich’s then wife Marianne. In addition to being a fundraiser for the IASPS, Ash was also Marianne Gingrich’s boss at the Israel Export Development Corporation (IEDC). Soghanalian said, “Bennett told me they just hired her before Newt was made the Speaker.”
In early 1995, Marianne Gingrich says, she was promoted above Ash to Vice President of Marketing. “He resented my promotion,” she says.
Marianne Gingrich says her boss at the IEDC, David Yerushalmi, called and asked her to make the trip to Paris. Yerushalmi served as counsel to both the IEDC and the IASPS.
She says that by this time the IEDC was running out of money and she was no longer on the payroll. “David told me that Howard Ash and his wife had been at the Parc Monceau Hotel in Paris for days and still did not have an answer from this arms dealer and that Ash said he needed me to come to get an answer. He paid for my expenses and even though it was at an inconvenient time, I made the trip.”
She says she thought the meeting was to win Soghanalian over as an investor in the IEDC. When asked why she would be willing to meet Soghanalian, a convicted felon, when she was no longer being paid by the IEDC, she says because her friend, Robert J. Loewenberg, the head of the IASPS, and her former boss at the IEDC, David Yerushalmi, “wanted me to meet with the arms dealer in Paris as a potential investor. …I believed that Robert Loewenberg had good ideas about free trade in Israel and this would help keep it going.”
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