Exclusive: US prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation of the National Geographic Society
This is not your typical story about international bribery. For one thing, it involves mummies. It also involves one of America’s most beloved institutions: National Geographic.
Vocativ has learned that the Justice Department has opened a criminal bribery investigation into the prestigious nonprofit. At issue: Nat Geo’s tangled relationship with Dr. Zahi Hawass, a world-famous Indiana Jones–type figure who for years served as the official gatekeeper to Egypt’s glittering antiquities.
Beginning in 2001 and continuing for a decade, National Geographic paid the archaeologist between $80,000 and $200,000 a year for his expertise. The payments came at a time when the popularity of mummies and pharaohs was helping transform the 125-year-old explorer society into a juggernaut with multiple glossies, a publishing house and a television channel. But they also came as Hawass was still employed by the Egyptian government to oversee the country’s priceless relics.
So did this money give Nat Geo unfair access to a lucrative market for all things ancient Egypt? National Geographic wouldn’t comment on any investigation or “conversations we may or may not have had with governmental bodies about legal matters,” says a spokeswoman for the nonprofit. But the company says its payments were lawful. As for Hawass, he firmly denies that anything untoward took place. “It was a contract,” he says. “It was not a bribe. I gave no single favor to National Geographic.”
Whether Nat Geo broke the law is unclear. But its relationship with Hawass offers a window into the interlaced world of money, science and show business that has developed around Egypt’s artifacts. “Egypt and National Geographic, at least in Nat Geo’s eyes, were synonymous,” says a former official at the company. Another veteran of the nonprofit agrees: “I suspect that all along what National Geographic was paying for was access that they would not have gotten otherwise.”
The story of how National Geographic found itself in potential legal hot water coincides with the nonprofit’s decision to launch an American cable channel. For years Nat Geo was known for its iconic, yellow-bordered magazine and lush photography. It produced books and documentaries, had a show on PBS and dabbled in cable TV overseas. But it wasn’t until 2001 that the society partnered with Fox and launched the National Geographic Channel in the United States, the biggest television market in the world. This decision cast the society into a pitched battle for ratings with the likes of Discovery Networks.
Seven months after the channel launched, National Geographic announced it was adding Hawass as explorer-in-residence—an honor held by the likes of Jane Goodall, the legendary anthropologist. Hawass was already a minor celebrity at the time. But working with National Geographic ratcheted up his profile. Even his initial honorarium, which he says was $80,000 a year, dwarfed his government salary. There was, he says, nothing illegal about the arrangement. “When I became an ‘explorer,’ I signed a contract to write books and make lectures,” he says. “Based on the law, if you sign a contract to write books and make lectures, you have to get the government’s approval, and I did!”
The next few years were gangbusters for Egyptology and National Geographic. Sometimes the society’s programming seemed circus-like, with Hawass front and center as the charming ringmaster. A prime example: Pyramids Live: Secret Chambers Revealed, which broadcast live to 141 countries. Hawass let National Geographic place a small robot inside the Great Pyramid to see what was on the other side of a small, mysterious door. The promotion was frenetic. The Times of London called it “an attempt to unravel one of the final secrets of the last remaining wonder of the Ancient World.” The event occurred at 3 a.m. in Cairo just so Americans could watch it live in prime time. “You have a mystery,” Hawass told reporters, “and the mystery will be solved.”
The show was a complete nonevent, at least for archeology. The tiny robot crawled along the pyramid’s shaft and opened the door. But on the other side was just another door, which wouldn’t even open. Still, ratings were strong. “Egypt did well on cable television,” says one former National Geographic employee. But as Nat Geo’s Egypt push continued, so did that of its rivals. The market grew fiercely competitive.
The relationship between Hawass and Nat Geo was a knotted one, and legal experts say it presented unique challenges in parsing the law. Every two years, Hawass signed a new explorer-in-residence agreement with National Geographic, and every two years, the society paid him more and more money. In his contract, Hawass had to indicate that his services for National Geographic—evidently a few lectures and some consulting projects—were outside his official duties as a government official. He also had to agree that his services were legal under Egyptian law.
American law, experts say, may be a different matter entirely. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it illegal to pay foreign officials for “securing any improper advantage,” according to the Justice Department. Criminal bribery penalties can be stiff, with company fines up to $2 million. Individuals can be forced to serve up to five years in prison and pay more than $250,000.
Jessica Tillipman, an assistant dean at the George Washington University School of Law, says that on rare occasions it can be legal to pay a foreign bureaucrat—as long as there’s no effort to sway his official duties. What’s potentially problematic, says Tillipman, is that National Geographic did business with the government agency that Hawass ran. “It certainly raises red flags,” she adds. “That’s true any time a payment goes directly to a foreign official.” She also points out that the law doesn’t allow prosecutors to go after foreign officials like Hawass for taking payments; only the people or firms that make the payments can face prosecution.
But what’s significant, she says, is that National Geographic paid Hawass openly and seemed unconcerned about legal violations. This transparency, analysts say, weighs in Nat Geo’s favor. “The openness would go far to negate the potential corrupt intent,” another expert says, “because they are not trying to conceal it.”
Though National Geographic would not answer direct questions about a federal investigation, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit says: “If there were requests made by governmental entities about our activities, we would cooperate fully and transparently. The National Geographic Society has complied with all applicable laws and acted appropriately with respect to its relationship with Dr. Zahi Hawass and the government of Egypt.”
The Justice Department won’t acknowledge whether or not an investigation has been opened.
The best example of Hawass’ magic, and his complicated relationship with National Geographic, is the American museum tour of Egypt’s Tutankhamun-era artifacts, which began in 2005.
The tour—seen by 8 million people—was the brainchild of John Norman, a promoter who had been involved in Broadway shows like Titanic and Jesus Christ Superstar. At a hurried dinner in Switzerland, Norman convinced the antiquities king to let the King Tut artifacts come to the United States.
Hawass, according to Norman, “recommended that we talk to National Geographic to see if they wanted to be involved with us to organize the exhibition.” Hawass, Norman emphasizes, suggested but did not insist on using the society. And he only recommended Nat Geo because of its sterling reputation.
Soon enough, Norman inked a deal with Nat Geo as a co-sponsor. Around the same time, in 2005, National Geographic rolled out a bevy of King Tut–related material. There was a film that featured Hawass, which the society billed as “a high-tech forensic investigation unveiling new findings related to his death.” There was also a cover story in National Geographic magazine, which used facial-reconstruction technology to show how the boy king really looked. That same month, National Geographic released a companion book to the exhibit, as well as a children’s version. Hawass was listed as the author of both.
The exhibit brought more than $100 million into the coffers of the Egyptian government. And though Hawass said his primary concern was to protect Egypt, the fact is, he made $120,000 that year as an explorer. He also profited from books and TV appearances—all while he was officially tasked with protecting Egypt’s antiquities. “When you start blurring roles like that,” a former federal prosecutor says, “it makes it harder to figure out what the rules are.”
Perhaps that’s why employees at National Geographic were often uneasy about the longstanding arrangement with Hawass. “He was a government official. So what was National Geographic doing paying a government official?” a former employee says. “I did have those concerns early on.”
Yet that same employee is careful to emphasize that his fears were eventually allayed because Hawass often worked with the Discovery Channel, among other Nat Geo competitors. Indeed, despite his agreement with National Geographic, Hawass sometimes provided full access to their rivals. “Nat Geo and Discovery were always kind of competing with each other for what Zahi would throw them,” says one source, “for what project Zahi would grant them the right to produce as an exclusive.”
The ratings battle was so heated that some are convinced National Geographic did whatever it could to stay in Hawass’ good graces. Chris Hedges, a well-known former New York Times reporter, says the society was so obsessed with access that it killed one of his stories for their magazine in 2003. The topic: the dark side of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, a police state replete with poverty and repression. “It was all laid out,” he says. “And the television division read it and freaked out.” The fear, Hedges was told, was that the Egyptian government would be furious. And though he was paid in full, the story never ran.
Chris Johns, who was and still is editor in chief of National Geographic magazine, disagreed with Hedges about the story. ”As anyone who has ever done editorial work knows, stories get changed, dropped and redirected all the time and for all kinds of reasons,” he said. “In this particular case, my decision not to move forward had nothing whatsoever to do with National Geographic Television, nor any concerns that someone in Egypt may or may not have had.”
Even Hawass’ most ardent critics agree he not only fiercely protected Egypt’s treasures, but also kept control in Egyptian hands. I wanted to ask him how he reconciled his clear sense of duty with how he made his money. I spoke to him over the phone this summer a few weeks after the Egyptian military ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
Hawass was quite pleased by the coup, but was still angry about how alleged Morsi supporters had destroyed a precious museum. It was exactly the sort of thing he had spent his life’s work trying to prevent. “You can forget those who kill people,” he said, angrily, “but you cannot forget those who try to kill history. In my opinion, those people were trying to smash and demolish the identity of Egypt.”
The Arab Spring was hard on Hawass. In 2011, he stepped down from his role as an explorer, after being promoted by the Egyptian government (the position made it illegal, he says, for him to accept lecture fees). But not long after the Mubarak regime collapsed, a court sentenced him to a year in prison on charges related to a museum gift shop contract. The ruling was overturned, but soon enough, Hawass was booted from government.
The Morsi era would spell even more trouble for the esteemed archaeologist—as well as for National Geographic. Last year, an Egyptian court found that a Cleopatra exhibit sponsored by the society—and agreed to by Hawass—had to be returned to Egypt. The deal to ship antiquities out of the country, the court said, was illegal. Egyptian prosecutors also hit Hawass with a travel ban. That was eventually overturned, but the brouhaha is perhaps what brought Hawass’ relationship with National Geographic to the attention of the US Justice Department.
Despite the various charges, Hawass remains defiant: “Every crook and every thief who had been in prison before was against me. But all these allegations against me were completely wrong and completely false. I’m really happy that the Egyptians know how much I gave Egypt and how much I love Egypt. I never in my life did anything against my country. Everything I did was for the betterment of Egypt.”
Over the course of several conversations, I got a sense of Hawass’ charisma and outsized ego. I understood how he had become perhaps the world’s biggest archaeological power broker. “$200,000 is nothing,” he says about the money that Nat Geo paid him in 2010. “My lecture fee is really a big fee! Sometimes I take $50,000 a lecture. And my lectures in the United States are very popular. Over 4,000 people, they pay to get tickets, 4,700 sometimes. People pay $20 for tickets to come to my lectures!”
OK, I said, maybe it was fine for National Geographic to pay him in the manner that it did. But what if a US defense contractor had hired a high-ranking Egyptian defense official as a consultant, and openly paid him for lectures, even while it was looking to sell arms to Egypt? Would that be OK? “No, no,” he says. “This is cultural. Culture is different.”
“No one can bribe me,” he adds. “I’m the most famous Egyptologist.”