THE LONDON SUNDAY TIMES 31-10-10
HOME/ NEWS / POLITICS
Chocfinger’s Tory donation
The secretary of state for international development intervened to help a cocoa trader beat sanctions for smuggling in Ghana
By Marie Woolf and Jon Ungoed-Thomas
Published: 31 October 2010
In early July Andrew Mitchell, the secretary of state for international development, was passed a three-page letter by one of his civil servants. It was from a Tory party donor — and it was asking for a favour.
Anthony Ward, a commodities trader dubbed Chocfinger for his audacious deals in the cocoa market, was aggrieved that his company had been banned from one of the key cocoa regions of Ghana after one of its contractors was caught in a smuggling sting.
According to the letter, the ban was disproportionate and “being felt throughout our global business”. There had been efforts by local British diplomats to end the ban, but Ward wanted the clout of a government minister.
“We therefore would like to ask you to intervene on our behalf at presidential level to request the ban be lifted with immediate effect,” Ward said. “We thank you in advance for your help.”
The letter suggests that one potential lobbying opportunity would be a UK-Ghana investment forum in London which the Ghanaian vice-president was due to attend.
Ward’s name was familiar to Mitchell. From August 2006 to August 2009, his company donated £40,000 to the MP’s office. It also donated £50,000 to the Conservative party.
Just days after Mitchell read the letter, the Ghanaian vice-president was indeed lobbied on behalf of Ward’s company by a Foreign Office minister at a dinner on the eve of the trade forum. Mitchell now faces questions about his exact role in the fast-tracked decision to put a government minister into battle for the company, Armajaro Holdings.
Mitchell’s intervention is the first apparent conflict of interest for a coalition government minister. It has echoes of cases under Labour, such as the Hinduja passport affair involving Peter Mandelson, and Tony Blair’s intervention over a steel plant in Romania on behalf of Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s richest man.
Ward, 50, is a co-founder of Armajaro, one of the world’s largest cocoa commodity traders. With estimated wealth of £36m, he was reported to have cornered a chunk of the market, buying 240,100 tons of cocoa beans for £658m. He is believed to have taken delivery of the cocoa at the start of July, at about the time he sought Mitchell’s aid.
The matter raised by Ward involved British business interests overseas, which meant it was outside Mitchell’s remit. But after considering the contents of the letter, he called Nicholas Westcott, the high commissioner to Ghana.
Armajaro’s problems can be traced back to last April when an undercover reporter [Anas Aremeyaw Anas] exposed a smuggling epidemic from Ghana to Ivory Coast involving security officials and cocoa companies.
A contractor for Armajaro Ghana offered to buy cocoa to be smuggled to Ivory Coast, where prices can be significantly higher. The Ghanaian government sets a fixed cocoa price for its farmers.
In his conversation with Westcott on July 6, Mitchell immediately declared his interest in the donations from Ward. Westcott assured him he had already raised the matter with Ghanaian officials.
“Nick explained that Armajaro has been unlucky and was being made an example of,” said an email from the Department for International Development (DFID). “He has raised the issue personally and would continue to press their case.”
Westcott confirmed the details in Ward’s letter about a forthcoming UK-Ghana trade forum in London. He said the matter could possibly be raised by Henry Bellingham, the foreign minister.
Mitchell ended the conversation by concluding what might have appeared obvious from the outset: it was a matter for the Foreign Office.
In Whitehall, weeks often pass before correspondence is answered or acted on. In this case, civil servants went into overdrive. They were spurred into action with an email sent by Mitchell’s officials to the Foreign Office at 9.43am on Tuesday July 6, the same day Mitchell spoke to Westcott.
The initial email sent by the DFID stated: “It will be in your best interest to give this transfer request your urgent attention.” It also made clear that Westcott had been primed and was on standby to give a briefing: “The British high commissioner in Accra is awaiting request on this case from you.”
Officials in the Foreign Office deliberated on whether Bellingham could raise the matter with John Dramani Mahama, the vice-president of Ghana, at a dinner on the eve of the July 8 trade forum.
There appears to be at least some disquiet in the Foreign Office at this prospect. “[Bellingham’s] not going to meet the [vice-president] — apart from a dinner — not the right forum,” said one Foreign Office official in one of the July 6 emails.
The official added: “Is this an overreaction on the part of [Ghana] and therefore something we should lobby on? Or should the UK company realise they’ve broken the rules and have to pay the price?”
There are also suggestions of telephone calls between the departments. But yesterday neither the Foreign Office nor the DFID would say whether Mitchell or anyone on his behalf had picked up the phone.
Despite some initial misgivings about lobbying for Armajaro, officials eventually concluded that Bellingham should raise the matter. He dined with Mahama on the eve of the trade forum and, after briefings from officials, lobbied him on Armajaro’s behalf.
Mitchell faces scrutiny over his actions on July 6. Why did he phone the high commissioner in Ghana on a matter that was outside his department’s remit? Did he or his officials put pressure on the Foreign Office to raise the matter by telephone or in emails?
Westcott attended the UK-Ghana trade forum at Drapers’ Hall in the City of London and also took the opportunity to lobby on Armajaro’s behalf.
(See Docs 2)