Koch Industries flouted law with secret Iran sales
Internal company documents show that the company sold millions of dollars of petrochemical equipment to Iran, a country the United States identifies as a sponsor of global terrorism, through foreign subsidiaries.
The most visible part of Koch Industries is its consumer brands, including Lycra fiber and Stainmaster carpet. Georgia-Pacific, which Koch owns, makes Dixie cups, Brawny paper towels and Quilted Northern bath tissue.
Internal company documents show that the company also has sold millions of dollars of petrochemical equipment to Iran, a country the U.S. identifies as a sponsor of global terrorism, through foreign subsidiaries, thwarting a U.S. trade ban.
Koch Industries declined to make executives available for interviews.
But Melissa Cohlmia, Koch's director of corporate communications, said in an emailed statement: "During the relevant time frame covered in your article, U.S. law allowed foreign subsidiaries of U.S. multinational companies to engage in trade involving countries subject to U.S. trade sanctions, including Iran, under certain conditions."
Koch has since stopped all of its units from trading with Iran, she says.
U.S. companies have been banned from trading with Iran since 1995, when President Clinton declared it a threat to national security.
Iran supports Iraqi militants and Taliban fighters as well as terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah, according to the State Department.
But, internal company records show that Koch Industries used its French-based affiliate Koch-Glitsch to continue selling to Iran until as recently as 2007. The company's products helped build a methanol plant for Zagros Petrochemical, a unit of Iran's state-owned National Iranian Petrochemical, the documents show.
The facility, in Bandar Assaluyeh, is now the largest methanol plant in the world, according to IHS Inc., a provider of chemicals, energy and economic data.
On May 31, 2004, Koch-Glitsch secured another contract for 1.2 million euros, to help expand the Zagros facility.
The plant helped Iran turn its vast natural-gas reserves into methanol, which is used for making plastics, paints and chemicals.
The Italian office of Koch-Glitsch sought work on other projects in Iran — the expansion the country's largest refinery, and the development of South Pars, part of the world's largest natural-gas field, the documents show.
"Every single chance they had to do business with Iran, or anyone else, they did," says George Bentu, who had worked as a sales engineer from 2001 to 2007 for Koch-Glitsch in Germany.
Bentu joined Koch-Glitsch in 2001. His duties included drawing up bids for potential buyers of the company's distillation equipment, which is used in making fuels, fertilizers, detergents and other products.
Bentu says he had been working at Koch-Glitsch for two months when he first saw an order destined for Iran.
Concerned that the transaction might run afoul of U.S. law, Bentu asked his manager about it, he says. Bentu says his boss told him not to worry, that the company's U.S. lawyers made sure the deals with Iran were legal.
Internal Koch-Glitsch correspondence shows that the company coordinated with Koch Industries lawyers in the U.S. to make sure that American employees didn't work on sales to Iran. Elena Rigon, now Koch-Glitsch compliance manager for Europe, based in Italy, in December 2000 addressed a memo outlining compliance guidelines to company managers in her region.
In another email, Rigon said all offices had to go through a checklist for each estimate quoted for materials headed to Iran.
"Your staff shall send this form to me since I have to send it to the lawyers in the USA as part of the compliance program," Rigon wrote in the email. "If somebody happens to find out that any U.S. persons are involved in this project or U.S. material is delivered to Iran you CANNOT quote."
Rigon declined to comment.
"Koch-Glitsch had protocols in place that were consistent with applicable U.S. laws allowing such sales at the foreign subsidiary level," Koch's Cohlmia says.
Koch-Glitsch told employees in 2006 that the company was winding down business in Iran, Bentu says.
At that point, he says, his bosses still asked him to work on Iran bids. He says he told them he was no longer willing to sign off on such work, leading to arguments between Bentu and his managers.
On Aug. 14, 2008, investigators from the Department of Homeland Security met with Bentu for a four-hour interview at the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt. The officials asked about documents showing details of the company's trades with Iran, he says.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez declined to comment.