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Wrong Number, All Right

May 10, 1987

If you're having trouble coming up with the right numbers to win at Lotto, give a thought to the Sultan of Brunei. Last year Sultan Sir Muda Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzadin Waddaulah, absolute ruler of the miniature but oh-so-rich state on the north coast of Borneo, was approached by Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Be a good fellow, Shultz said in so many words, and donate $10 million to support the Nicaraguan contras . Fine, the sultan said in so many words, where do I send the check? My man will be in touch with your man, Shultz answered, and soon that came to pass. Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams provided the palace with a secret bank account number at Credit Suisse in Geneva, and the money was sent winging off.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. The account number that Abrams had sent to Brunei turned out to be off by one digit--a fact that was discovered only belatedly. As a consequence, the sultan's money never reached its intended recipient. Presumably discreet inquiries were made, and presumably the sultan gave sincere assurances that the check was in the mail. Meanwhile, someone with an account at Credit Suisse got a hell of a pleasant surprise when his next quarterly statement arrived. Those who think it sinful to mention the word "honest" in the same sentence with "Swiss bank account" won't be surprised to hear that this mistaken deposit was never reported.

The sultan, though he may be a bit put out, really doesn't have to worry. He sells about $3 billion worth of oil and natural gas a year--more than enough to take care of his needs and those of his quarter-million subjects. Still, Washington would be wise from now on not to phone him to ask for any more donations. His likely response would be to say, "Sorry, wrong number," and hang up.

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