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Report: DOJ investigating National Geographic Society for Egypt payments

DOJ has opened a criminal bribery investigation into the nonprofit, National Geographic Society, and the details are worthy of another Indiana Jones movie or an Egypt-based episode of the Bones TV show.

Vocativ broke the story Monday.

In 2001, National Geographic decided to go beyond producing its iconic magazine and TV shows. It partnered with Fox to launch the National Geographic Channel in the United States to compete with the Discovery Channel.

National Geographic hired an archeologist named Dr. Zahi Hawaas and paid him between $80,000 and $200,000 a year for his expertise. His main employer at the time? The Egyptian government. He was the chief person overseeing the country’s famous antiquities.

Did the payments National Geographic made to Hawaas give it unfair access to the ancient Egyptian artifacts? The company would not comment on the investigation to Vocativ, but contends its payments were lawful. Hawaas also says the payments were under contract for his expertise, and not a bribe.

National Geographic’s coverage of the Egyptian artifacts, including robotic-powered visuals of the innermost parts of the Great Pyramid, ratcheted up the competition for coverage of Egypt. Ratings were strong, and every two years, National Geographic paid Dr. Hawaas more money.

In his contract, Hawaas had to agree his services were legal under Egyptian law and that his lectures and consulting projects were outside his official duties as a government official.

But experts in the United States point to the FCPA, finding the payments to Hawaas problematic under the law.

Vocativ quoted Jessica Tillipman, a senior editor of the FCPA Blog, who said National Geographic did business with the government agency that Hawaas ran. ‘It certainly raised red flags,” Tillipman said. “That’s true any time a payment goes directly to a foreign official.’

National Geographic was open about the payments made to Hawaas and seemed unconcerned about their legality. This might work in its favor, as its transparency may show it had no corrupt intent.

Hawass has been fighting legal problems that cropped up during the Egyptian revolution and overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Last spring, the prosecutor general there banned him from traveling outside Egypt, pending an investigation of charges brought against him by two former colleagues. They accused Hawass  of wasting public money and exposing Egyptian antiquities to possible theft by shipping them overseas without permission. The sponsor of the U.S.-based exhibit? National Geographic.

The travel ban was overturned, but the legal actions in Egypt might have been the catalyst for the current investigation by the DOJ into National Geographic and its relationship with Hawaas. The DOJ hasn’t commented on the story.

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Julie DiMauro is the executive editor of FCPA Blog and can be reached here.

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