WASHINGTON — Former White House aide Oliver L. North persuaded wealthy Americans to donate millions of dollars to the Nicaraguan rebels by giving them unorthodox private briefings, once even outlining a secret U.S. plan to overthrow the Sandinistas, the congressional committees investigating the Iran- contra scandal were told Thursday.
Potential contributors frequently got what Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) described as "the one-two punch": a White House briefing on the contras' needs from North, followed by a direct pitch for money from fund-raiser Carl R. (Spitz) Channell. Those who gave at least $300,000 were said to qualify for a private meeting with the President.
3 Contributors Testify
All told, the three contributors who testified before the committees--millionaire brewer Joseph Coors of Colorado, Texas heiress Ellen St. John Garwood and New York oil investor William O'Boyle--donated a total of more than $2.3 million as a result of their meetings with North. It has not yet been established whether these funds reached the contras.
Neither Reagan nor North ever asked potential contributors directly for money, according to the witnesses, but Rudman dismissed as "legal fiction" the claim made by some committee Republicans that the President and his aide did not solicit funds.
"The whole event was a solicitation," Rudman declared.
At the time that these private funds were being raised, the Reagan Administration was strictly prohibited by Congress from giving either direct or indirect U.S. military assistance to the Nicaraguan resistance. The ban was not lifted until last October.
Garwood, 83, a slight, white-haired woman and a frequent donor to right-wing causes, was the only one of the three witnesses who qualified for a meeting with the President. After attending a presidential briefing in April, 1986, in which Reagan thanked her and several other contributors for their generosity, she gave Channell $1.98 million in cash and stocks.
She gave another $10,000 to Channell to be used for North's legal defense or for his children's education after the Iran-contra affair came to light, she said. But she later transferred the money to another fund for North when she was told that Channell had been taking 35% of all donations for himself--a charge she said he did not deny when she confronted him.
The Austin heiress to a cotton and rice fortune, Garwood inherited along with her vast wealth a legacy of anti-communism that led to her involvement in the contra cause. Her father, Will Clayton, was the undersecretary of state to President Harry S. Truman.
'Ollie's the Guy to See'
Coors, a friend of the President who gave $65,000 to buy the contras a single-engine Maule airplane, was referred to North when he asked the late CIA Director William J. Casey how he could help the contras. He said Casey replied: "Ollie's the guy to see."
North provided Coors with a brochure about Maule aircraft and the number of a Swiss bank account, where the brewing magnate deposited his contribution. Much later, North showed Coors a jungle photograph of the Maule that he had paid for--what Coors called "my plane."
Although North's pitch to Garwood and Coors focused on the military and humanitarian needs of the contras, O'Boyle recalled receiving a far livelier presentation when he met privately with the Marine lieutenant colonel in his White House office April 29, 1986. It was North's third meeting with O'Boyle, who already had given $130,000 for two Maule airplanes and later contributed another $30,000.
Among other things, O'Boyle said, North claimed to have been involved in the arrest of a major drug dealer who had millions of dollars in a suitcase, confided that he believed that the Soviet KGB was involved in a plot to discredit him and asserted that billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt had given $1 million--all stories with no apparent foundation in fact.
Wondered About WWIII
"I remember wondering whether we were involved in the beginning of World War III here," O'Boyle said, referring to North's KGB saga. But he said North replied: "Russia would never go up against us to save Nicaragua."
North also outlined what he described as a "very, very secret" plan to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. At first, O'Boyle declined to testify about the plan, recalling that North had told him: "You can't tell this to anybody." But the witness later conceded that he had no idea whether it was classified, and then described the plan:
"He (North) said there were two plans in one. They involved Nicaraguan contras seizing a part of Nicaragua, establishing a provisional capital--a provisional government--and the U.S. Navy going down and blockading the country, preventing the supplies coming in from Cuba to support the Sandinistas and at that point, supposedly, the Sandinistas would fall and the contra government would come into power and then Nicaragua would be restored to democracy.