Firm that paid White House adviser accused of securing UN votes, arms on Iran's behalf

The Iran-tied telecom firm that paid White House adviser David Plouffe $100,000 in speaking fees is caught up in allegations that it led a campaign of bribery and influence-trading inside the Islamic Republic in order to "steal" a mobile-phone license.

The "premeditated program of corruption" allegedly included efforts to arm Iran and secure favorable United Nations votes regarding its nuclear program. The claims were detailed in a lawsuit filed by a spurned competitor earlier this year in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The claims surfaced in U.S. court years after Plouffe, who also served as President Obama's 2008 campaign manager, accepted the speaking fees from South African company MTN Group in late 2010. But the suit alleges that the "corruption" was well under way, dating back to 2004, though MTN has denied the accusations.

That suit, filed by Turkish company Turkcell, is sure to get renewed attention following the revelation Monday that Plouffe accepted $100,000 in speaking fees from an MTN subsidiary shortly before joining the White House. Initial reporting noted that the Obama administration and outside groups have since scrutinized MTN's business deals inside Iran but did not focus on the Turkcell case.

In the March lawsuit seeking $4.2 billion, the competitor leveled scorching allegations, claiming MTN conspired to "steal" the telecom license that Turkcell initially won. To do that, according to the court filing, "MTN used its high-level political influence within the South African government to offer Iran the two most important items that the country could not obtain for itself: (1) support for the Iranian development of nuclear weapons; and (2) the procurement of high-tech defense equipment."

The suit said MTN worked "behind the scenes to bribe, corrupt and control officials" from both governments -- including working toward getting South Africa to abstain from three U.N. votes on Iran. It claimed that in 2005, the company secured South Africa's abstention from an International Atomic Energy Agency decision referring Iran to the Security Council, giving Iran more "time to show compliance" on its nuclear program.

The telecom license deal was struck three days later, the suit said.

Further, the suit claimed MTN worked to secure deliveries of "big ticket defense equipment" like helicopters, sniper rifles, cannons and radar technology, "unavailable to Iran through legitimate means" because of U.S. and other sanctions. It alleged that MTN bribed officials from both countries to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The project was code-named "Project Snooker," according to the suit.

MTN is trying to get the case dismissed, arguing in a court filing last month that it is "nothing more than a commercial dispute" over competition for a license -- a dispute that does not belong in U.S. court, they say. The MTN motion to dismiss said the complaint "has no conceivable connection to the U.S."

The company also denies the allegations. Paul Norman, director of corporate affairs at MTN, said in a written statement that "any suggestion that Turkcell's failure to obtain the license was as a result of any alleged corruption or improper practices by MTN is unfounded. The allegation that MTN influenced South African foreign policy with regard to its armaments and nuclear position is simply ludicrous and has already been dismissed by the South African government.

"MTN believes that there is no legal merit to Turkcell's claim and no basis for such claim to be brought before a U.S. court."

Norman said MTN had already formed an "independent committee" to investigate ahead of the D.C. court case, and that the probe will continue.

Further, the company has claimed Turkcell's accusations are based on claims from a "disgruntled former employee."

MTN's court filing noted this is the fourth attempt by Turkcell to seek damages. That effort started in Iran, and was later rejected by another tribunal. According to a Reuters report this year, MTN has claimed Turkcell used the threat of filing suit in the U.S. to extort MTN.

The July motion to dismiss argues that this case, if heard anywhere, should be heard in South Africa.

The White House has not commented publicly on this lawsuit.

The White House, though, said Plouffe's interaction with MTN in 2010 was confined to speeches and that he did not meet separately with company executives.

"Even the most zealous watchdog group on this issue did not start their campaign on the host's holding company until years later," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. "Criticism of Mr. Plouffe now for issues and controversies that developed only years later is simply misplaced."

After the Republican National Committee criticized Plouffe Monday over the speaking fees -- separate and apart from the lawsuit -- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney described the Republican criticism Monday as "political criticism after the fact." He stressed that Plouffe accepted the speaking fees prior to the "dynamic we have now."

United Against Nuclear Iran, which has launched a pressure campaign urging MTN to get out of Iran, called on Plouffe in light of the latest reports to "use his considerable influence" to urge President Obama to sanction MTN.

"MTN is one of the most egregious corporate actors in the world when it comes to Iran," spokesman Nathan Carleton told