business in africa
The Billionaire behind the Vale
Who is the Israeli businessman, involved in an international corruption case, trying to drag the Brazilian mining company into it with him?Consuelo Dieguez
Translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Alexandra Joy Forman and Jane Adlington
Benjamin Prime is a popular steakhouse located between Park and Madison, two of the most famous avenues in New York. Chestnut-brown leather sofas, white linen tablecloths, and walls styled in wainscoting create a cozy decor suggestive of long conversations. That is where the economist José Carlos Martins, a mining consultant, was headed, one cold night in February this year, just hours after his flight from São Paulo had landed in the city. Martins had been one of the most influential directors of Vale, the third largest mining company in the world, for ten years, between 2004 and 2014. He had scheduled dinner with Alexander Miller, an executive at Mersus Energy, an American company that was interested in doing business in South America. Martins was excited about the meeting.
A few years out of the market, the economist had been probed by Mersus for an especially attractive job: a consultancy on a mining project in Peru, for which he would receive 10 million dollars. Mersus executives wanted an in-person conversation with Martins before closing the deal, and they wooed the consultant generously. They offered and purchased business-class airfare, put him up at a five-star hotel for two nights, provided a private driver, and wined and dined him at lunch and dinner in refined restaurants. At Benjamin Prime, Miller and Martins ate the house specialty – sirloin – while they drank red wine and exchanged business cards and details.
Martins could not have suspected that except for the steak and wine, the rest was pretext. Mersus Energy did not exist nor did the consultancy proposal in Peru, and even the business card was a fake. Alexander Miller was a fictitious name. The man Martins spoke to for almost three hours was an agent at Black Cube, one of the most aggressive corporate espionage agencies in the world, with headquarters in Israel and offices in London and Madrid. The meeting was a trap.
Their exchange in the New York restaurant had been recorded and videotaped – and the transcript reveals Martins talking more than he should. Caught up in the conversation, Martins confided that Vale suspected irregularities in the business dealings of Israeli billionaire Benjamin Steinmetz. When Beny was awarded the concession in Simandou, one of the largest unexplored iron mines in the world, located in the Republic of Guinea, this raised red flags. Guinea is a small, poverty stricken, corrupt country on the west coast of Africa. According to Martins, Vale accepted to join Steinmetz in the mine development and extraction project, in 2010, despite their suspicions of irregularities. “We knew the project smelled bad,” said Martins. That was precisely what the investigator had been paid to hear.
Martins’ statement was added to the top of a stack of evidence Steinmetz was gathering to reopen his legal case against Vale in London and New York. In 2015, when the partnership between the Israeli investment company and the Brazilian mining company, the Vale Beny Group, was undone, due to injury Vale felt it had suffered from its former partner, Vale appealed to the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA), in London. After five years in a dispute consuming upwards of 100 million dollars apiece, the LCIA ruled last year in favor of Vale and declared that Steinmetz must compensate the mining company 2.2 billion dollars, to cover their investment plus interest and arrears. Since payment is overdue, the LCIA issued a freezing order on Steinmetz’s assets and those of five more BSG Resources (BSGR) directors at the request of Vale. Until now, no payment has been made.
With his property blocked, Steinmetz cannot dispose of his assets, nor spend freely, as there is a weekly withdrawal limit on his bank accounts. Forbes magazine estimates the Beny fortune at 1.2 billion dollars. Beny owns a private jet and a luxury yacht – and when I first talked to him, by videoconference, on July 29, the businessman was aboard his yacht, near an island in the Mediterranean. He maintains properties in Israel, Switzerland, France, and England. To avoid any illicit maneuvers, his wife and his partners’ wives had been warned that his assets would be blocked and that he might try to transfer properties into their or stooges names. Enraged, Steinmetz railed against Vale: “I won’t be hounded. I will prove that I am a victim of an injustice,” he told me.
Steinmetz has since tried to reopen the case to demonstrate the injustice but with a compilation of unusual evidence. The Israeli billionaire is not concerned with demonstrating the uprightness of his business in Africa, but wishes to prove that the Brazilian mining company was aware of the irregularities committed in obtaining the concession to operate in Guinea – and, despite this, decided to participate. As such, the mining company would be impeded from claiming losses. Even so, Steinmetz will not admit to any irregularities in his business methods. Thus, he uses effective reasoning for extraordinary claims. He holds that he was forthright and honest in his business and wants to prove that Vale knew that his business was not exactly an example of forthrightness and honesty. And, to back up his claims that Vale had connivance of irregularities, Steinmetz contracted Black Cube in December 2019. Martins was the first to fall into his trap.
The second person was economist Alex Monteiro, who held an important position in the financial division of Vale. At the beginning of the year, a Black Cube agent, using the fictitious name Rodrigo Donoso, made contact with Monteiro. This time, the agent posed as a representative from a British investment firm keen on investing in mining companies in Peru and Brazil. His proposal was that Monteiro become a member of the board of one of these companies.* The matter was to be discussed in a face-to-face meeting in Buenos Aires, where, unlike Brazil, corporate espionage is less rigidly controlled. At the start of the pandemic, however, the conversation ended up taking place via Skype. According to the recording, Monteiro recalled that Vale did an audit of BSGR but did not find any abnormalities; still, “there was the stench of wrongdoing.”
The Israeli believes that Martins’ and Monteiro’s statements – and those by Vale’s lawyers, also secretly recorded by the Black Cube – are evidence sound enough to prolong the court dispute with the mining company. “I may be an ant against an elephant. But I’m not afraid of Vale,” said Steinmetz, in our first conversation.
Beny Steinmetz is 64 years old, with blue eyes, slightly gray hair and a sporty demeanor. His tanned, slightly creased face is reminiscent of an Indiana Jones-style adventurer. He rarely gives interviews and is protective of his privacy. In our first conversation, he appeared to be in his office on one of the floors of his yacht. He was wearing a distressed pale blue polo shirt, suitable for someone who is relaxing at home. His expression, however, was serious and untrusting. When I asked him to speak louder and slower, so that I could understand him better, he displayed a sense of humor. He said, in English: “I’ll leave speaking fast and quiet for when I don’t want to respond to your question,” and opened a wide smile.
Steinmetz has been married to Agnes since the 1980s. He and Agnes left Belgium, where they’d met, for Israel in 1986. The couple has two daughters and two sons. Without being prodded, he told me about each child’s profession. In chronological order: the first, a daughter is an artist, followed by a son who is a doctoral student in philosophy, the second daughter is a psychologist, and youngest, a son, is an investment fund operator in England. He sums up his lifestyle as follows: “I like sports, all of them. Skiing, swimming, cycling,” he told me. His greatest pleasure, however, is working. “I work all the time. I love to work. Now, in the pandemic, I spend all my time on the telephone or checking emails or in video conferences.” And, to demonstrate how reserved he is, he adds: “You won’t see me spending money in casinos or drinking late into the night at expensive and trendy restaurants.”
Despite his affinity for discretion, Steinmetz is well known for his flashy businesses. He grew rich in the diamond trade, became an owner of mines in Africa, expanded his activities to the Russian and Eastern European banking and real estate sectors; but, his corporate structure is so confusing, it is practically impossible to follow. The BSGR headquarters are on the island of Guernsey, a tax haven in the English Channel. He has been arrested for tax evasion in Israel. He is often described as a “dubious adventurer” and accused of maintaining ties with Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, to spy on competitors. He claims this rumor arose because Asher Avidan, a former BSGR Guinea executive, belonged to the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet.
Steinmetz has few friends, “just enough.” Some are childhood friends. “They don’t believe the lies people tell about me,” he said. Among his more famous friends, he cited only Nicolas Sarkozy, former president of France. “I don’t choose my friends for their political views or positions.” However, his social connections also include former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was arrested for bribery and obstruction of justice after leaving office. But, in the Republic of Guinea, where Steinmetz conducted reckless transactions with the local government, he is now complying with a billion-dollar indemnity to Vale.
The story began in 2008, when Beny Steinmetz, already a well-known billionaire, surprised the mining world by securing the tender to develop operations in blocks 1 and 2 of the Simandou mine in southeastern Guinea. Then, the country was ruled by the dictator Lansana Conté, who shortly before he died voided half of the Simandou concession, then in the hands of the Anglo-Australian mining giant, Rio Tinto, who he claimed was taking too much time to explore the mine. And he transferred the license to Steinmetz.
The news came as a surprise especially since Steinmetz was familiar with diamond, bauxite, and nickel mining, but was a neophyte in iron ore extraction. Furthermore, he paid a negligible amount, merely 160 million dollars, for the rights to prospect and operate that part of the mine. Just two years later, in 2010, he sold 51% of his concession license to Vale at the exorbitant rate of 2.5 billion, to be paid out over five installments, as different phases were reached in the project’s progression. The first installment of 500 million dollars was delivered at the deal signing. The Israeli businessman and Vale formed the joint venture VGB, Vale BSGR Guinae.
This partnership was unorthodox in its terms. The mining company paid 500 million dollars upfront, with no basic guarantees of the project’s viability. First they would need to transport the ore through the neighboring Liberian port, which was much closer to Simandou than the Guinean port. Steinmetz gave his word that passage through Liberia would be authorized, although no Guinean governor had agreed to letting it out of their hands. Vale agreed to make the necessary investments to begin iron ore extraction, without any counterpart from its Israeli partner. This sparked suspicions that the Israeli planned to flip the mine and had no intention of extracting iron ore.
Shortly after the formation of VGB, things started to get complicated. Guinea held its first democratic election since the 1950s, and the lawyer Alpha Condé was declared victorious. For years on end exiled in France, Condé had been studying at the Sorbonne, making influential friends, such as George Soros, the billionaire Hungarian financier, and he himself was considered a promise of modernity and ethics in Guinea. He even said he’d try to be the “Nelson Mandela from Guinea.” Upon assuming office, one of his first official actions was to review the Simandou mining contract. He considered that in the sale for 160 million of the local mine, the Guinean natural heritage had been plundered. He also suspected that the transaction had been greased with bribes.
With the change of command in Guinea, Vale and Steinmez decided to approach Condé. In December 2010, a day after the new president took office, Vale’s then president, Roger Agnelli, disembarked in the Guinean capital, Conakry, to meet with Condé. It was a friendly meeting, and the Guinean President expressed interest in meeting the then Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was in his final month in office, he would soon pass the baton to Dilma Rousseff. Agnelli was quick to grant Condé’s wish. In February 2011, Lula arrived in Conakry for a visit. At a lunch in Lula’s honor, Condé prevented Steinmetz from sitting at the table he shared with Lula and Agnelli. Although the gesture was discreet, it did not pass unnoticed. Vale came to understand that the Isreali business partner was not welcome by the new government.
Among the first measures of the new government, Condé determined it necessary to review all of the country’s mining contracts and even the mineral laws in vigor. On suspicions of bribery, Condé had opened an official inquiry in Simandou. Soros suggested removing the matter from the orbit of influence of the corrupt local elite, and Condé hired foreign experts to evaluate and investigate the case. In their findings, a diamond-studded watch valued at 60 thousand dollars was offered by a director of Steinmetz’s company to the former dictator, before BSGR was awarded the Simandou concession. (The company denies it). Frédéric Cilins, a French intermediary was hired to approach Mamadie Touré, one of the dictator’s four wives (Guinea has a Muslim majority and legalized polygamy), because her half-brother was hired as the public relations director for BSGR Guinea.
When the dictator died, Mamadie Touré fled to the United States and settled in a mansion in Jacksonville, Florida. When investigators tracked Mamadie Touré’s accounts, they determined that the dictator and his fourth wife had accepted bribes. It was also revealed that her company, Matinda, had a stake in a company called Pentler Holdings Ltd, which had signed multiple agreements with BSGR Guinea. It became clear to investigators that Mamadie Touré and Steinmetz did business through Pentler.
In April 2013, more evidence appeared. The FBI, at the request of investigators in Guinea, set a trap at Miami International Airport in Florida. Frédéric Cilins had flown to Miami to meet Touré. She was collaborating with the FBI and went to the meeting with a hidden wire. The agents also installed a hidden camera. Upon landing, Cilins met Touré at an airport bar. In this recorded conversation, Cilins offered her a bribe to destroy any documents linking her with the BSGR. He mentioned that he was there on Steinmetz’s orders. Cilins was arrested there and then at the airport, accused of offering a bribe and trying to destroy evidence. He spent two years in prison in New York, but never denounced Steinmetz. (Today, he lives in France and maintains close contact with the businessman and BSGR executives.)
During the course of the investigation, agents also discovered longstanding ties between BSGR Guinea and Mamadie Touré. Witnesses said that as early as 2006, Asher Avidan, BSGR executive, met with Touré to discuss the Simandou mine business, which she referred to as “my project.” The legal process that resulted from this investigation made the argument that Steinmetz obtained the uranium exploration concession in Guinea, in February of the following year, thanks to the intervention of Touré. The proof was a business agreement signed between BSGR Guiné and Touré’s Matinda in June 2007. Under its terms, Matinda came to have a 5% share of BSGR as a “reward” for her assistance in securing permissions to the uranium mine.
In February 2011, prior to these discoveries, Condé’s government informed Vale and BSGR that if they wanted to continue in Simandou, they’d need to follow the new mineral legislation and pay 1.25 billion dollars. Vale and Steinmetz rejected the exigency. In March, however, financier George Soros, who had become an informal adviser to President Condé, approached Vale. Soros informed the Brazilian mining company that, with a payment of 250 million instead of the previously declared 1.25 billion, they could retain their concession to explore and extract ore at the Simandou mine and run their production out through Liberia. Vale agreed. Soros’s influence was such that the memorandum of understanding between Guinea and Vale was with the Open Society, the NGO created by the financier, an international network of entities that support anti-corruption, democratization, and independent media. At the closing, however, Soros announced that the guarantee to mine Simandou and export the ore through the neighboring country would cost 500 million. This time, Vale did not accept.
A month later, in April 2011, President Dilma Rousseff forced Roger Agnelli to resign from Vale’s command, replacing him with Murilo Ferreira, who had a decade-long career in the mining company and had left due to disagreements with his predecessor. On June 6, Ferreira received an email from Eduardo Ledsham, then Vale’s executive director. Ledsham wanted him to know what had happened behind the scenes with Soros. “Murilo, I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, but Roger and I were with Soros in London,” he began, in the email to which piauí had access. “A week later, after the agreement had been drafted, he [Soros] changed his stance.” He told them that the guarantee had increased from 250 to 500 million. Ledsham continued, regarding Soros’ influence: “Clearly, he is close to President Alpha, but he has no mandate to speak on his behalf.”
Ferreira replied by saying that Soros called him that same day, June the 6th. The Hungarian financier recounted the conversation in his email: Condé had asked him to reinforce Guinea’s interest in doing business with Vale and told him that an investigation was underway to ascertain whether Steinmetz had offered bribes to secure the concession at Simandou. That is why, Soros said that the government of Guinea wanted to open “a parallel channel of negotiation.” Ferreira had been astute, saying only that Vale would deal directly with Condé. In conversations with the people closest to him, he left it clear that he had no appreciation for Soros, “a person who makes money speculating on the weakness of others,” and never intended to honor his intentions at interference. “Imagine, a company like Vale has no need for Soros’ intermediation to speak to the President of Guinea,” he went on to say.
Vale did not negotiate, but Rio Tinto did. Around that time, Soros urged the Anglo-Australian mining company to make payment in exchange for the same guarantees, only the amount was 700 million dollars to maintain the licenses that they already held to explore Simandou. Rio Tinto paid. A report by the French newspaper Libération, published in July of this year, entitled Guinea: The Mystery of Rio Tinto’s 700 million dollars, revealed that of the payment made by the Anglo-Australian company, about 120 million dollars are not in the coffers of the Guinean government and remain unaccounted for. Rio Tinto, moreover, is being investigated in the British courts for a fraud scheme in Guinea. According to a report in Financial Times, the English newspaper, the mining company is accused of having paid 10.5 million to guarantee the concession of the two blocks in Simandou to a Frenchman, François Combret, who was an influential banker with the Guinean government.
Vale limits its criticism of Soros to his excessive interference in the Guinean government. According to Roger Agnelli’s testimony at the London Court of International Arbitration, Soros’ intention was for the mining companies to pay higher taxes and royalties on mineral extraction to the country’s Treasury, not to mention that he would personally benefit from the increase in these taxes. Meanwhile, as a Vale partner, Soros already has made good money in Guinea with the rise in value of his shares in the mine due to the joint venture with BSGR**.
In 2014, when Vale refused to pay Soros the sum he had requested, proof had been gathered by FBI agents and after calls between Steinmetz and one of the dictator’s wives had been corroborated, President Alpha Condé cancelled the BSGR and Vale concession of the Simandou mine. This in turn made the joint venture between VGB, the Israeli finance company and the Brazilian miner unviable, rendering the partnership null and void. At this point, in addition to the first instalment of 500 million dollars paid to BSG, Vale had already invested 700 million dollars in preparing the mine for exploration.
In Steinmetz´s version, Guinea´s investigation was a huge conspiracy against him designed to remove him from Simandou; and he named the conspirators – President Alpha Condé, the financier George Soros and his NGO, the FBI, Rio Tinto, and the “activist press.” He said, “Clearly Condé, egged on by Soros, wanted to take the concession from me. It was that simple. They didn’t want me in the country.” And he continued, “Soros hounds me, with his friends from the press, he defames me, he pits public opinion against me.” According to Steinmetz, Vale then took advantage of the turmoil to end the partnership that no longer interested them and appealed to LCIA, London, on the grounds of bad faith.
Steinmetz swears he never bribed Mamadie Touré, one of the former dictator’s widows. He claims she lied because the FBI were threatening to deport her from the United States. In an online interview in October, Asher Avidan also stated that he had never paid Touré anything. “She´s crazy,” he accused. By way of confirmation, he recounted that she used to walk around Conakry, the Guinean capital, in the company of an albino girl, called Ema, who she claimed possessed supernatural powers. “Touré had a lot of power in the country. People were afraid of her.” He said. “Why would anyone listen to someone like that?” He asked indignantly. I asked him why then had he held meetings with her. He looked disconcerted and replied that Touré was influential and talking to her was a kind of condition for staying in the country.
Steinmetz, however, sees the villain of the story as George Soros, who forced the Guinean government to pull the plug on a deal that was good for everyone. It was “good for Vale, for us, for Guinea, for the Guinean people.” He claims that Soros has been persecuting him since the nineties, when they were in dispute over the acquisition of a Russian telephone company. Soros came off better, but the business went under in the 1998 financial crisis. Someone told Soros that Steinmetz was making fun of his failure (which he denies). Apart from this somewhat “childish” justification, he claims Soros is persecuting him because he is Jewish. “Soros is Jewish too, but he hates Israel. He supports the Palestinian cause. I stand for everything he despises because I’m a successful Jewish entrepreneur, ideologically identified with the right and I like the State of Israel.”
He went on to attack his rival in a slightly irritated tone of voice. “Do you really think he’s a philanthropist? I think he uses philanthropy to make money. What has he built? Think about it, he has a billion-dollar investment fund that grew out of betting against the currencies of weak countries. That´s what happened in the Asian crisis and the Russian crisis. He bet against the Bank of England too. Then he comes along saying he’s a good guy? Good for who?” He paused for a beat and then started up again. “He never gives money to the people of the countries he goes into. He only funds NGOs so that they attack governments. Or he funds refugee causes. He wants an open world so he can do business.”
In the mining industry though, Steinmetz is the one who has a reputation for being a cunning negotiator, who will do anything to reach his goals. He resumed the rant blaming Soros for his bad image in the press. “Soros is a devil. And he turned the American press against me because he donates a lot of money to the activist press. He’s a psychopath. He thinks he’s a big shot using his network against me.”
I reminded him that he was fighting with a man who has the support of world leaders, like Tony Blair, former prime minister of the UK, and Barack Obama, former president of the United States, and who is affiliated with international human rights organizations. “He started it.” He said defensively. “He´s the one who likes arguing, not me.” He then drew on a boxing metaphor to elaborate. “I had no choice. If you’re in the street and someone thumps you, what do you do? There are just two options. Either take it on the chin and run, or react and hit back. I turned around and thumped him back.”
Soros did not want to get involved in the discussion. He sent a message via his spokesperson, Michael Vachon, saying that he, personally, and the Open Society “have a long and well-documented history of funding anti-corruption programs around the world.” He added that “Mr Steinmetz´s accusations are distorted or false.”
In Brazil, when bvg sank, Vale was a very different organization. From May 2011, the company had been headed up by Murilo Ferreira who the Israeli businessman had never managed to get close to. He liked Roger Agnelli, who died in an airplane disaster in March 2016, along with his wife, his two children and their spouses. Steinmetz considered Agnelli to be “a leader and a visionary” and deemed his successor “a bureaucrat.” He remarked, “If I were to define them both, I would say that Roger was a whisky-drinker and Murilo would prefer a glass of milk.” The antipathy is reciprocal. Ferreira never trusted Steinmetz, who he said was “unreliable,” and he only communicated with him through attorneys.
Agnelli was a proponent of the business in Guinea, despite all the signs that exploration of the Simandou mine was a hornet’s nest. The project was expensive as it would demand an investment of around 20 billion dollars and infrastructure in Guinea was extremely precarious. There was no railway and no port to transport production. All the possible solutions were complex. Either they could build a 400km long railway, through Liberia, the port of which had deep enough water for large ships, or, if the Guinean government did not authorize transportation through the neighboring country because of rivalry and political instability in the mining region, the answer would be to build a railway in Guinea itself, which would be much more expensive and longer, about 650km. A dock would also have to be made 20 km out to sea to circumnavigate the problem of shallow waters. Most importantly, Vale´s business partner did not have a good reputation and Guinea was a corrupt country.
But the iron ore at the Simandou mine was high quality and had not been explored. The Chinese had their eye on its riches and the Brazilian government, a majority shareholder of Vale, wanted to expand into Africa. Agnelli thought it was an opportunity not to be missed and employed all his leadership skills, in an almost imperial style, to convince the Board of Directors to approve the deal. Another director from the Finance department at that time, Fabio Barbosa, was relentless in his opposition. He thought the deal was a foolhardy risk, so much so that on the day the contract was signed, in a ceremony at the Vale headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, attended by Steinmetz and Agnelli, Barbosa refused to put his name on the document and advised his subordinates to do the same. (Fabio Barbosa died of cancer in November 2015).
Not everyone thought it was a bad idea. At the time Sérgio Rosa, the CEO of Banco do Brasil´s powerful employee pension fund, the largest Vale shareholder, was also Chairman of the mining company’s Board of Directors. He believed it was a good deal. After all, Agnelli, who had had spectacular results while running the company, was an enthusiastic defender of the idea. Eduardo Bartolomeo, current CEO at Vale, was also in favor of the deal, as were Eduardo Ledsham and José Carlos Martins. Steinmetz´s team called the Vale executives the Chihuahua Team, because they jumped to Agnelli´s orders. In an online conversation, one of them said: “They agreed to everything Roger wanted. They were like his little dogs. ‘Yes, Roger’, ‘What do you want, Roger?’, ‘We´ll do it, Roger!’”
The Black Cube investigation, though, wanted to uncover evidence that Vale had been aware this was a question of dirty business rather than bad business. The conversations recorded with Martins – there were three in total – partly provided this. Martins related that although Vale had carried out an audit and had not found irregularities at BSGR, the entire Board of Directors knew the business was dubious. According to Martins, Agnelli himself had warned the board members about the grey areas, but was in favor of the deal. “The whole mining industry wanted that deal and couldn’t get it. Why would Beny get it? It wasn´t just because he had blue eyes”, Martins said in a Skype conversation in February with a Black Cube agent. He said that he had drawn the Board’s attention to this. “I said to the Board: ´Look, we are going into this business with our eyes shut.’” Martins told the Black Cube agent that the response was: “Ok, go ahead. Don´t tell us anymore. Do the deal.”
Unaware that he was being recorded, Martins divulged that this dialogue had not been included in the minutes of the board meeting to avoid problems for its members. In his last conversation with the agent, in March, Martins returned to views on what Simandou was to the Brazilian mining company, using a vulgar image. “It was like picking up a pretty girl. You take her back to your room. She´s naked and amazing and then she says we have a problem. I have Aids, ok?” “Simandou,” he said “was this pretty girl with Aids.”
If Martins´ version is corroborated it will bring the entire Board of Directors at Vale under suspicion. When asked about Martins´ version, Sérgio Rosa, Chairman of the Board, responded evasively by WhatsApp: “I like your work, but you have to be careful not to be used.” His warning was clear. The Israeli billionaire might be trying to influence the press to benefit his plea and to damage Vale. Oscar Camargo, the only one still on the mining company´s board, was categorical when he said, also via WhatsApp, that the matter had never been put in like that. “I would like to stress that I never participated in any Board meeting at which Martins expressed himself in this way. I request that any further inquiries be directed to Vale´s legal department.”
The current Vale CEO, Eduardo Bartolomeo, did not comment on the case. The São Paulo attorney, David Rechulski, who is representing the former mining executives, is now being bombarded by Steinmetz, agreed to speak after four months of pressure. Awkwardly, he said that Martins had simply invented the story because he wanted the 10-million-dollar consultancy deal they were offering him. “He jazzed things up for his prospective employer.” I asked whether jazzing things up meant lying. “Yes. He made up part of the story, as people often do when they want to impress. It’s embarrassing to say it, but that is what happened,” he said.
Martins told me that he was hugely affected by this story. He does not deny what he said to the Black Cube agent, but he attests that it was not the truth. In a long email sent to me in November, he says he did not know he was being watched and admits that he exaggerated the story “to make it more colorful in order to attain my objective to get the job.” And he continues, “I never imagined that some of my statements that were, yes, exaggerated, typical of an interview where everyone tries to show their value, could be exploited outside the context of a recruitment interview”.
Those familiar with the business world in African countries, say that Vale may have been playing what some call the ´African gambit´. This consists of the following: smaller companies, mostly in the areas of mining and oil, receiving concessions and advantages by means of transactions in which they corrupt high level officials. Once this phase is complete, the companies sell their concessions to big mining and oil companies who enter the business, no questions asked about operations, and without getting their hands dirty. “So, they´re free of any criminal action should anything illegal be discovered in the transaction,” said an attorney who works for the Guinea government.
The attorney Scott Horton, at the firm DLA Piper, experts in investigating corruption cases worldwide, was hired by the Guinea government to look into the intricacies of Steinmetz´s business, a suggestion made by Soros. His team had access to Vale´s internal documentation, with the mining company’s consent. After examining the paperwork, Horton and his team concluded that Vale had indeed played the ‘African gambit’, whether intentionally or not. The attorneys who participated in the Swiss investigation and who tracked Steinmetz´ bank accounts came to a similar conclusion. “Clearly, staff at Vale were suspicious, but they had no idea of the mechanism of the corruption,” an investigator on Horton´s team told me, asking not to be identified because their contract with the Guinea government has a confidentiality clause. In other words, Vale, this investigator told me, corrupted no one, didn’t even know how the corruption was done but, in buying 51% share of the business, made out well with the malfeasance.
Steinmetz states that he has never heard of the ´African gambit´ and is adamant that he secured the Simandou license through legal means. In our second conversation, in August, when I asked him whether it was inconsistent to accuse Vale of knowing there was corruption involved while at the same time denying the existence of corruption, he was muddled. He said that Vale had been in Guinea since 2006 and knew who Steinmetz was doing business with. “Conakry is a small place. Everyone knows who’s who in this market. Vale cannot claim that they went into a partnership without being aware of the risks.” In this statement, Steinmetz blurs and confuses the difference between “risk” and “corruption,” as he did repeatedly in the three conversations we had.
The evidence gathered by Black Cube for Steinmetz may be of no use. In October, one of Vale´s attorneys in London, who prefers not to be identified for the purposes of duty of confidentiality, said that Steinmetz is just kicking up a fuss, stating that “There is absolutely no likelihood of re-opening the case. The deadline for reviewing the decision is thirty days after sentencing and that happened last April. […] Beny is making up stories, going to the press and drawing attention to a matter that has been settled.” According to the attorney, the main reason why the LCIA will not reopen the case, however, is the fact that Steinmetz´s arguments are already in the proceedings of the trial. “The Court concluded that Beny had paid a bribe. Anything BSGR says now is rubbish,” he said. “He wants to spice up the case with spies, like James Bond, to attract the press,” he said, “but this has been painful for everyone involved.” And especially for Martins.
Steinmetz claimed to sympathize with Martins, but seems unconcerned about having prepared a trap for the former Vale executive. “It was the only way we could prove that they knew what was going on,” he said, “because Vale had a policy of destroying documents. During the trial, we asked for emails exchanged by executives at the time, and they claimed that it was their policy to destroy documents one year after executives had left the company.” (Now a new transparency law prohibits publicly traded companies in Brazil to destroy documents in under five years.) There is indignation among former Vale executives regarding Steinmetz´s methods. One of the attorneys who followed the case in New York said that North American prosecutors were keeping a close eye on Black Cube´s ´intimidating methods´. The lawyer told me, “Beny could be sued for this type of espionage.”
Dan Zorella, an Israeli with a pleasant demeanor, is the executive director of the agency. He has curly brown hair, blue eyes, and an almost angelic face, in contrast with the viciousness employed by Black Cube to invade and expose the privacy of the people it investigates. But, according to lawyers who have already hired his services, Zorella usually assures that his methods are “100% legal” and the agency only works in countries where this style of working is allowed. This is why he had to lure Martins to New York, where this type of investigation is authorized, and why he intended to take Alex Monteiro to Buenos Aires, where it would also be legal to secretly record him. The recordings have to be authorized where they are made, otherwise they can´t be used by the judiciary.
The agency is a worldwide force in espionage, investigating money laundering, corruption, and white-collar crime. It employs eight hundred people, some of whom are former members of Mossad, the armed forces, and national investigation services in the country. It is a Tower of Babel where forty languages are spoken. The agency became a household name worldwide when it was hired by Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mega producer, who was struggling to shake off a series of accusations of sexual assault. At the time, agents tried to extract information from the actress Rose McGowan, one of Weinstein´s accusers, to get her to deny the assault. The actress met various times with a Black Cube spy, who introduced herself as a women’s rights lawyer, but McGowan did not contradict herself. Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
The Swedish businessman, Dag Cramer, is one of Steinmetz´s executives, whose assets have also been blocked by the International Arbitration Court, participated in the process of dissolving the VGB partnership between Vale and BSGR. On 16 September, we spoke face-to-face for five hours in Rio de Janeiro. Cramer turned up with his attorney Renato Polillo, of the firm Warde Advogados, Steinmetz´s advisors in Brazil. In grey pants, a khaki jacket and wearing two leather wristbands he looked as though he had just come from a safari, rather than London, where he lives.
To give an idea of what Steinmetz is like he talked about a conversation he had on completing two years at BSGR. They went out to dinner to discuss his performance. Despite having achieved good results for the company, Cramer heard only criticisms from his boss. This grated on him and he complained asking Steinmetz to at least say one positive thing about him. “I thought he would say ok, but he replied: ‘Are you a baby? If you´re a baby I´ll give you kiss. Otherwise we could make better use of our time talking about ways you could improve. If I didn’t think you were good, you wouldn’t be sitting here´.” Cramer sees this as a great lesson. “He is the right person to be at the helm. That´s Beny”, he applauded. Later, he explained that Steinmetz is not after the money, Cramer told me, “luxury consumerism holds no attraction for him. He is not a guy who splashes money around like the Russians do, or like lots of Brazilians I saw in São Paulo. He is not ostentatious. He likes business and competition.”
Cramer agrees with Steinmetz´s view that Vale took advantage of the situation to dissolve their partnership with BSGR. Because the price of iron ore had dropped from $200 to $120 per ton and Vale had managed to secure a license which they had been after for a long time to explore a mine in Carajás, in the Brazilian state of Pará, they had lost interest in staying in Guinea. Cramer told me that at a meeting in Paris in early 2013, at which the lawyer Scott Horton represented Alpha Condé, there was an agreement to attempt dissolving the partnership. But the Brazilian mining company refused to finalize the deal because, according to him, the Guinea government would rescind BSGR’s part and would become Vale’s partner. “Obviously, Vale didn’t want to enter into partnership with a corrupt government,” says the executive. “the Guinean government wanted our share of the business to partner with the powerful Vale. And Vale, smartly, took advantage of the impasse to get out and later to sue us and recoup the money they had invested.”
The mining company’s lawyers who attended that meeting have another version. They said the company’s termination agreement did not move forward because BSGR wanted to receive compensation. In Paris, Vale’s lawyers even consulted the company’s headquarters in Rio de Janeiro to find out if it would be possible to make any payments to Steinmetz. The company said no. It was understood that the Israeli billionaire had already received 500 million upfront and there was no point in paying anything else. Without an agreement, Vale was forced to leave Guinea, because, according to Condé’s condition, the mining company could only continue in Simandou if it got rid of the Israeli partner.
The attorney, Clovis Torres, who represented Vale in dissolving the partnership says it wasn´t like that at all. “We sued them because he [Steinmetz] lied to us. We lost the concession because of him,” he said. “Beny lies. He lied the whole time. Firstly, when he made the deal with Vale and guaranteed, in writing, that there was no illegality in the transaction.” Torres looked irritable as he concluded: “Throughout discussions at the Arbitration Court, his defense insisted the acquisition of the mine was honest. Now he’s lost the case, he’s started saying it was corrupt, but Vale knew? This is crooked.”
During this reporting I often heard references to psychological pathologies. Steinmetz thinks Soros is a “psychopath.” While Cramer says his boss is a “sociopath.” “Throughout my long executive career, I have met presidents, billionaires, bankers etc,” he said, “and I have noticed that to achieve personal success, you have to be a sociopath. I don’t define this as being a murderer, but rather as someone who is prepared to put empathy to one side and get the job done, which a lot of people think is brutal.” He went on to say that sociopaths are “egomaniacs and really like themselves.” Indeed, he believes there are “good sociopaths,” and “evil sociopaths.” Steinmetz is in the former category, alongside Lula and Agnelli. President Alpha Condé, he says, is in the evil category.
Steinmetz´s quarrel with Vale is likely to go on for some time. The businessman has no intention of withdrawing the lawsuit against the company. Even if it comes to nothing, Clóvis Torres, former legal director at Vale believes the noise Steinmetz is making will be bad for the mining company´s image. “Vale is a publicly traded company on several Exchanges. It is unpleasant for the company to be exposed like this because of a story that brought nothing but losses.” In our last conversation in October, Steinmetz, boasted: “I’m going to push Vale into a corner.”
In November, Steinmetz showed that his willingness to fight is endless. He hired the services of former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who now works as a lawyer, to write an opinion showing that Vale is wrong and is not entitled to the 2.2 billion dollar compensation. According to the newspaper O Globo, Moro recently charged 750,000 reais to prepare three opinions. One of them is Steinmetz’s. I asked Renato Polillo, Steinmetz’s lawyer in Brazil, about the basis of Moro’s opinion. He refused to say, but told me he was very confident of his client’s victory and asserted that they still have “many cards up their sleeve against the mining company.” When called on to comment, Moro cried professional secrecy and did not want to talk about it.
After changing the Constitution of Guinea in order to stay in power, President Alpha Condé was re-elected for a third term, in October of this year. He won amid protests by the opposition who allege the electoral process was fraudulent. The country’s economy is in tatters. Its perceived level of corruption, according to Transparency International, is among the highest in the world. Condé was not the next Nelson Mandela, after all.
After all the strife, accusations, and lawsuits, Beny Steinmetz arrived last year in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, with his friend Nicolas Sarkozy. He wanted to make a courtesy call to President Condé. And he managed that and more: he signed a provisional deal with the President to rescind all accusations of corruption against BSGR in Guinea. As if that weren’t enough, the courts sealed the case against Mamadie Touré and the others involved. Steinmetz and Sarkozy were greeted with a long red carpet, stretching from the jet to the airport lounge.
 Two articles on the subject were printed in the Piauí_90, March 2014 edition. Risk Contract (Contrato de Risco) tells how Vale became involved in the exploration of the Iron mine in Guinae. The other was reproduced from The New Yorker: Buried Secrets (O tesouro, o mercador, o ditador e a amante) tells the backstory in the dispute for control of the mine.
*This segment of the article online has been corrected. The print version states that Alex Monteiro received a proposal for a 10 million dollar consultancy.
**This segment of the article online has been corrected.The print version states, mistakenly, that George Soros invested in the joint venture between Vale and bsgr.
Repórter da piauí desde 2007, é autora da coletânea de perfis Bilhões e Lágrimas, da Companhia das Letras