WASHINGTON — The Justice Department, climaxing a seven-year investigation, charged former Sacramento newspaper publisher John P. McGoff on Friday with failing to register as an agent of the South African government while lobbying federal officials on behalf of that nation.
The rarely invoked charges were filed by U.S. prosecutors in a "criminal information" document that claimed that McGoff used part of a secret $11.3-million South African fund to buy and operate the Sacramento Union in the 1970s after he had failed to purchase the now-defunct Washington Star in the nation's capital.
McGoff, an outspoken conservative businessman who has befriended many top Republican officeholders, sold his interest in the Sacramento newspaper nearly five years ago. He declined comment on the charges from his office outside Detroit, where he still owns a small newspaper and operates several boats that feature dinner cruises.
Investigations by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission determined that the funds used by McGoff were part of a $37-million propaganda campaign directed in the 1970s by former South African Prime Minister John Vorster and his information minister, Cornelius P. Mulder.
The Erasmus Judicial Commission, a South African panel that prepared a 1979 report on Vorster's propaganda campaign, condemned the clandestine disbursement of funds--often through Swiss bank accounts--designed to improve the apartheid government's image in the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, Japan and other countries. The charges filed Friday allege that, beginning in 1974, McGoff engaged in activities that created a continuing obligation on his part to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent of South Africa.
The court papers said that McGoff took part in unreported political activity on behalf of South Africa and that he disbursed money and political propaganda for that nation. He sought to use newspapers to support "South Africa's efforts to inform and influence policy and opinion makers within the United States," according to the charges.
Five Years in Prison
McGoff and South Africa wanted to acquire the Star "to counter the perceived anti-South African position of the Washington Post," its competing newspaper, the government said.
If convicted, McGoff would face a maximum punishment of five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
The charges were filed by Joseph E. diGenova, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who said the case took seven years to develop because of its complexity and extensive negotiations that were conducted with McGoff's lawyers to resolve the matter but ultimately failed.
"This was a very complex investigation that involved foreign evidence and foreign witnesses," diGenova said in an interview.
The U.S. attorney declined to comment on why the attempt to settle the case collapsed and would not say whether McGoff had turned down a government offer to register as a foreign agent--a procedure often coupled with a fine and an injunction in such cases.
Meese Approves Prosecution
In 1983, McGoff reached a settlement with the SEC in which he neither admitted nor denied SEC charges that he failed to disclose his South African ties to investors in Panax Corp., a newspaper-related firm in which he had 40% interest.
The decision to prosecute the 61-year-old McGoff, who has often entertained or socialized with leading Republicans, including former President Gerald R. Ford and Vice President George Bush, was approved by Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, according to diGenova.
"A decision to prosecute someone in the media requires the approval of the attorney general," he said.
DiGenova, noting that there had not been a criminal prosecution involving the statute for many years, said the charges were filed because of the covert nature of the alleged activity, the large amount of money involved and the attempt to co-opt U.S. media.
U.S. foreign policy and the sensitive issue of U.S.-South African relations had "absolutely nothing" to do with the timing of the case, diGenova said.
He said McGoff had earlier signed a waiver for a grand jury proceeding, but the waiver expires Monday, and failure to bring the charges now would have raised "procedural complications."