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Ex-Sen. George Mitchell: Freed Whistleblower on Azerbaijan Corruption Should Never Have Been Jailed

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We look at the case of Frederic “Rick” Bourke, who is considered a whistleblower after he was imprisoned for exposing corruption and bribery in the oil-rich region of the Caspian Sea. Bourke is known for founding the luxury handbag company Dooney & Bourke and is a philanthropist who has invested his wealth into ventures seeking novel cures for cancer. In the mid-1990s, he met a Czech national named Viktor Kozeny who recruited investors for the takeover of SOCAR, the state-owned oil company of Azerbaijan. Serious investors vetted the opportunity and sank huge sums into the enterprise, including our guest, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, as well as Columbia University’s investment fund, the insurance giant AIG, and legendary hedge fund manager Lee Cooperman, a longtime executive at Goldman Sachs. But the investment failed, and Kozeny absconded with the remaining funds. Bourke was recently released from prison, while Kozeny was never punished. When asked if Bourke should be exonerated, Mitchell responds, “I do not believe he should have been convicted in the first place.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Mitchell, I wanted to ask you a different question. We have been following the strange case of Rick Bourke, Frederic Bourke. It’s about a country that borders Iran, Azerbaijan. In the wave of the Soviet collapse, privatization of countries was happening at a record level, and it was believed Azerbaijan would privatize its oil supply. There were many who invested in this—Columbia University, AIG, you did, Frederic Bourke did, who founded Dooney & Bourke, the handbag company. In the end, the money was stolen. As Rick Bourke’s attorney, Michael Tigar, said, it was Viktor Kozeny, this Czech criminal, who “was a crook,” he said. “He stole every bit of [Rick] Bourke’s money and all of the other investors’ money. He bribed Azeri officials. He lives today happily unextradited in the Bahamas.”

Ultimately, the only person who went to jail was Rick Bourke. The Government Accountability Project called him a whistleblower, yet he has just come out of jail. Do you believe he’s a whistleblower, and you believe that he should be exonerated?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, I believe that he should not have been convicted in the trial, in which conviction did occur. I think it was a very unfortunate circumstance and, as you describe it, regrettable from Rick Bourke’s standpoint.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe he should now be exonerated, to be able to clear his name fully?

GEORGE MITCHELL: Well, yes, but I’m not sure what process would occur. He was tried, convicted. The conviction was upheld on appeal. But I—as I said, I repeat, I do not believe he should have been convicted in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Senator George Mitchell, we want to thank you very much for joining us. Senator Mitchell served as the U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace under President Obama from 2009 to 2011. He previously served under President Bill Clinton as the special envoy for Northern Ireland, where he helped broker the Belfast Peace Agreement of 1998. Before that, Senator Mitchell served as Democratic senator from Maine for 15 years, including as Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re talking about Indiana. Stay with us.

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