WASHINGTON — Five years ago, the United States accused a wealthy Israeli diamond dealer of more than $1 billion worth of corrupt mining and oil deals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, saying they undermined economic growth and “the rule of law” in the impoverished African nation.
Now, that businessman, Dan Gertler, has found a surprising ally in his quest to have his name removed from a U.S. sanctions list: President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Despite the U.S. accusations that Mr. Gertler had in effect looted the country, Mr. Tshisekedi directly intervened with President Biden, asking that the Treasury Department roll back the punishment, documents obtained by The New York Times show.
“The Democratic Republic of Congo no longer has any grievances against Mr. Gertler and his group,” Mr. Tshisekedi said in a letter, not previously made public, that he sent to Mr. Biden in May.
How Mr. Gertler managed to enlist the president of Congo, whom American officials have celebrated for his efforts to combat widespread corruption since he took office in 2019, is an illustration of the determined bid by Mr. Gertler to lift a set of sanctions that prohibits companies with ties to the United States from doing business with him and freezes money he has in international banks.
Mr. Tshisekedi’s lobbying efforts came after Mr. Gertler agreed to return to Congo an estimated $2 billion worth of mining and oil-drilling rights secured over the past two decades. In exchange, the Congolese government agreed to pay Mr. Gertler’s companies $260 million and to help him lobby in Washington to have the sanctions revoked, the agreement with Mr. Gertler says. The move would allow Congo to resell the mining rights to new investors.
“The terms of the settlement are unprecedented and on any view should be positively received — even by my detractors,” Mr. Gertler wrote in a letter in March to two dozen human rights groups.
But human rights activists say that the agreement is hardly a good deal for Congo and that Mr. Gertler is still entitled to collect potentially tens of millions of dollars a year in royalties on copper and cobalt mining in the country.
“Far from paying an appropriate consequence for his actions, Mr. Gertler will keep collecting an average of $200,000 a day in royalties from these three highly lucrative mining projects for at least another decade,” human rights groups said in a letter sent last month to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, urging them to leave the sanctions in place.
Mr. Gertler declined to respond on the record to written questions. Officials at the State and Treasury Departments and the White House also declined to comment on the pending petition to revoke the sanctions.
But the State Department did say in a statement, referring to the Democratic Republic of Congo, that the United States would “continue to urge the D.R.C. to address the corruption and regulatory inefficiencies that plague the business operating environment in order to attract more responsible foreign investment.”
Congolese officials said they worried that with sanctions hanging over Mr. Gertler, the country was not entirely legally clear to sell the mining rights that belonged to him. Lifting the sanctions could help them attract international investors, they argued.
The choices before Mr. Biden and his aides reflect the longstanding complexity of U.S. relations with the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is one of the richest nations in the world in terms of its extraordinary mineral wealth. Yet it is also one of the poorest, with at least 60 percent of the population living in extreme poverty.
As climate issues have become a major part of the Biden administration’s agenda, U.S. officials have stepped up engagement with Congo, trying to challenge China’s dominant role as a foreign investor in the mining sector there in recent decades.
Top Biden cabinet officials have descended on Congo, bringing millions of dollars’ worth of grants and technical assistance to enforce labor laws. The United States signed an agreement with Congo and Zambia in December for the creation of an electric vehicle battery plant, a notable development for a continent that usually exports metals for processing.
But corruption remains a problem in Congo — and a concern for the Biden administration. An audit last year showed hundreds of millions of dollars of missing revenues collected by Gécamines, the state-controlled copper and cobalt mining company that had multiple deals with Mr. Gertler over the years.
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With his mining investments and philanthropy, Mr. Gertler is perhaps the most famous foreign investor in Congo, which he first visited in 1997, when he was 23 and selling rough diamonds. A few years after his arrival, he had negotiated the exclusive right to export the country’s diamonds.
The U.S. government estimated that the lost revenues to Congo associated with Mr. Gertler’s deals from 2010 to 2012 were about $1.36 billion, or approximately half the nation’s entire health budget during that period.
As the Treasury Department added more sanctions in 2018 on businesses associated with Mr. Gertler — beyond what it had first imposed the previous year — it said, “A financial toll will be imposed on individuals and companies that exploit innocent people and vulnerable jurisdictions for their own personal gain.”
Mr. Gertler has long disputed the allegations, arguing that he never paid any bribes and that his investments in Congo provided billions in taxes and thousands of jobs.
Mr. Gertler made a previous attempt to have the sanctions lifted in 2019, during the Trump administration. He hired Alan Dershowitz, an ally of the president, as well as Louis J. Freeh, the former F.B.I. director, and successfully pressed Steven T. Mnuchin, then the Treasury secretary, to largely repeal the sanctions, as The New York Times reported in 2021.
But Mr. Biden’s team, days after his inauguration in 2021, moved to reinstate the sanctions. “U.S. credibility has been significantly damaged,” it said, “as has the credibility of the Global Magnitsky sanctions program,” referring to the human rights and corruption law under which Mr. Gertler was punished, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
But Mr. Gertler did not give up.
His Washington-based law firm, Arnold & Porter, submitted a new petition to have the sanctions lifted.
The Times has sued the Treasury Department seeking copies of this correspondence, among other emails.
The Congolese president, for his part, warned that failing to lift the sanctions could have far-reaching consequences for access to the country’s natural resources.
“If sanctions are perceived by foreign investors as a dead end to the liquidation of their entities and the cessation of their activities, this anxiety will surely lead to the disappearance of foreign direct investment in Congo,” Mr. Tshisekedi wrote in his letter to Mr. Biden.
In recent weeks, Mr. Gertler’s lobbying campaign has extended to international human rights groups, which have been highly critical of his activities in Congo, asking them to endorse his effort to have the sanctions lifted by the American authorities.
“You have achieved the desired changes being sought,” Mr. Gertler wrote in a letter to the human rights groups in February. “To oppose this settlement is to say that continuing my suffering is more important than improving the lives of the Congolese people.”
Several Congo-based civil society groups, including one known as Congolese Association for Access to Justice, have also joined the effort sending their own letters to top officials in Washington urging them to revoke the sanctions, arguing the settlement agreement benefits the citizens of Congo. “We, the Congolese people, want these assets now, and to benefit from these assets now!” said one of the letters sent in March to Mr. Blinken and Ms. Yellen, which listed hundreds of signatures.
But international human rights groups have fired back with letters to Mr. Gertler and the U.S. government, arguing that he was still wrongly profiting from corrupt deals in Congo even after he promised to return assets his companies owned.
“If Gertler succeeds,” said Justyna Gudzowska, the director of illicit finance policy at the Sentry, a human rights group, “this will become the playbook for other wealthy sanctions targets — including Russian oligarchs — from all over the world.”