Richard Olson: Diamonds, Diplomacy and Romantic Life… The Story of the Fall of the Former US Ambassador
In 2012, when Richard Olson came to Pakistan as the US Ambassador, the host country did not particularly welcome him, because Pakistan was angry over the US attack on its soil to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad a year earlier.
Richard Olson cleverly took control of this situation. In this, his experience of more than 30 years of diplomacy outside America came in handy.
When he retired four years later in 2016, then US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Richard Olson, ‘one of our finest diplomats’, had made a far-reaching impact on American diplomacy.
But behind the scenes, the time after Richard Olson’s arrival in Islamabad is full of scandals. According to a US court document, Richard Olson faces allegations of extramarital affairs, undeclared diamond gifts, perjury and illegal lobbying.
What are the charges against Richard Olson?
Last year, Olson pleaded guilty to charges of lying on ethics paperwork and violating the so-called ‘revolving door’ law by lobbying for Qatar within a year of retiring from federal service.
On Friday, the court sentenced him to three years’ probation and a fine of 93 thousand 400 dollars.
Richard Olson, who was present in the court, addressed Judge Michael Harvey before sentencing, saying, “I have paid a very high price for my mistakes. I am socially isolated and I am left with nowhere professionally. I have lost my credit and been deprived of my savings.”
Outside court he refused to speak to the BBC.
Along with the loss of prestige of Richard Olsen, his 34 years long career which was described as ‘illustrious’ also became a victim of decline. Experts say that this incident has also exposed the claims of superior American diplomacy.
The US State Department has refused to comment on this lawsuit.
Thomas Allen Schwartz, professor of history and politics at Vanderbilt University, says, “The Foreign Service is generally considered bland. The standard is generally boring.”
But according to him, “This case is surprising…It seems that Richard Olson took too much risk.”
Romantic relationship with a British journalist
In fact, at that time Richard Olson was working to promote relations with Pakistan. This was a tricky ‘assignment’. This also included secret meetings with Taliban officials.
Court documents reveal that Richard Olson’s romantic life was also paving the way for him to be blackmailed.
After Richard Olson’s arrival in Islamabad in 2012, he also started a romantic relationship with a British journalist working in Pakistan.
Richard Olson and journalist Mona Habib had a romantic relationship until 2014. Then Mona Habib came to know that Olson was married to another diplomat of the US State Department and that he was also dating several other women.
Richard Olson’s wife was serving as ambassador to Libya at that time.
Richard Olson’s attorneys said in court filings, which were first published in The Washington Post, that Mona Habib believed that Richard Olson only had romantic relationships with her partners, whereas Richard Olson did not.
Richard Olson told authorities that he had told the CIA’s Islamabad station chief about his relationship with Mona Habib, but according to court records, Richard Olson did not tell this to US Embassy security officials.
How did Mona Habib collect the fees?
According to the intelligence rules of the Ministry of External Affairs, it was necessary for him to do so. Richard Olson and Mona Habib resumed their relationship in early 2015.
Mona Habib got admission in the Journalism program of Columbia University of America but she was not in a position to pay the admission fee of almost one lakh dollars.
According to court records, Richard Olson offered to introduce Mona Habib to Pakistani-American businessman Imad Zubairi. Imad Zubairi had very close relations with American officials. Imad Zubairi later admitted to crimes like falsifying records and tax evasion regarding fundraising for American politicians in 2019 and was also sentenced.
At Richard Olson’s request, Imad Zubairi agreed to pay Mona Habib $25,000 to help pay her tuition at Columbia.
Mona Habib sat in the front row of the courtroom on Friday, staring straight ahead as lawyers argued about her relationship with Richard Olson. The discussion was whether she was Richard Olson’s ‘romantic friend’, ‘secret partner’ or ‘girlfriend’ at the time of his admission to Columbia University.
In court documents, Richard Olson’s lawyers insisted that the ambassador had merely introduced Mona Habib to Imad Zubairi. He did not do anything wrong in this nor was he in a romantic relationship with Mona Habib at that time.
Diplomatic relations between Pakistan and America
Despite this, experts say that this case of Richard Olson became a matter of concern because diplomatic relations between Pakistan and America were weak at that time.
According to Professor Thomas Alan Schwartz, there was a lot of possibility of blackmailing between America and Pakistan under the circumstances of that time. According to him, “I can imagine very serious consequences in such a situation.”
Richard Olson and Mona Habib later restored their relationship. He also got married in the year 2019. Mona Habib has refused to talk to BBC.
Former Ambassador Richard Olson also got into trouble because of another woman, his mother-in-law.
According to court documents, when Richard Olson was serving as head of the US Council in Dubai, officials there sent him an expensive gift to his office, which was actually diamond jewelry worth $60 thousand.
Under the standards and laws of the time (the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act), Richard Olson was required to report gifts of more than $285 and either return them or give the money at market value to the federal government.
But Richard Olson did no such thing. He later told investigating officers that the diamonds were a gift to his mother-in-law who had moved to Dubai to help take care of her children. Laws related to gifts do not apply to them.
Gift given to mother-in-law turns into trouble
In a letter dated November 2016, Richard Olson wrote to the State Department that he could not force his mother-in-law to return the jewelery as the department had asked him to. If she was forced to do so, “I think she would consider it robbery.”
The US State Department ultimately closed its investigation without taking action, but prosecutors described the jewelry as ‘an extremely expensive and clearly inappropriate gift’ and claimed that Richard Olson lied to avoid accountability.
Professor Thomas Allen Schwartz said that this allegation appears to be less serious than the case of romantic relationships, although it still points to a moral bankruptcy.
Richard Olson was not charged in either case – the romantic relationship and the gift of diamonds.
But in the court proceedings, the prosecution presented both these cases as evidence of inappropriate behavior and immoral gifts. On this basis, he also demanded harsh punishment for Richard Olson.
On Friday, Prosecutor Ivan Turgeon said Olson avoided taking accountability. He also claimed that his crimes were merely ‘paperwork errors’.
Ivan Turgeon said that when the accused is continuously denying that his attitude was wrong then the punishment of probation is not appropriate.
He said that if people are allowed to act as if the laws do not apply to them, then they will.
How many months was Richard Olson sentenced to?
Richard Olson escaped jail but was sentenced to six months in prison after admitting two corruption charges.
Richard Olson pleaded guilty to a first offense of lying to businessman Imad Zubairi about obtaining a first-class round-trip ticket even though he was a federal government employee at the time. This trip was from the American state of New Mexico to London, where he had to give a job interview in the company of a Bahraini businessman, whose identity was not disclosed.
The Bahraini businessman gave Richard Olson a job in his company on an annual contract of three lakh dollars. Imad Zubairi paid about 20 thousand dollars for the plane tickets and luxury hotel expenses for this interview.
Richard Olson also pleaded guilty in November 2016 to providing ‘aid and advice’ to the government of Qatar within a year of his retirement. In this way he violated the laws of the federal government. Under which, a gap of one year is required after retirement for government officers before taking such a job.
Richard Olson said in a statement Friday, “I acted against the law and I accept responsibility for my error in judgment.”
“It was a mistake, it was not intentional. But it was a mistake and it has had huge consequences.”
This post originally appeared on www.bbc.com