A former U.N. official says former NBA great Dikembe Mutombo showed "abject negligence" in a gold deal that resulted in him getting ripped off for millions of dollars involving a militia leader wanted for war crimes.
A U.N. report said Mutombo, who has cultivated a reputation for honesty and charity, is not guilty of any crimes. Mutombo could not be reached for comment by ABC News, but U.N. investigators said he was unaware that his business deal involved the wanted warlord Bosco Ntaganda.
Mutombo's actions may not have been criminal says Jason Stearns, the former head of the U.N. group of experts on Congo, but he does call them inexcusable.
"For anybody involved in business in a place like the Congo, before they carry out any deals they need to do due diligence," Stearns says. "He can't really argue he didn't know."
Stearns says the humanitarian is guilty of "abject negligence."
A recent report by a team of U.N. officials investigating the violence and corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo found that Mutombo, along with a Nigerian-American head of a Houston-based oil company and another investor, lost tens of millions of dollars that ended up in Ntaganda's pockets.
NBA Star's Role in Gold Smuggling Scandal
Officials say they believe Mutombo acted as more of an intermediary, rather than knowingly taking part in a criminal enterprise, but say the case highlights how corruption, lack of government oversight and mineral wealth continue to fuel Congo's conflict.
"This case shows the failings on both the part of international actors and the Congolese government," Sterns says. "It shows how international, local business and the Congolese government are all complicit in mafia-like rackets in the eastern Congo."
In 2010 Mutombo and three of his Congolese relatives met with Kase Lawal, the Nigerian-American and his partner Carlos St. Mary, the director of a diamond trading company, in New York.
The men worked out a business deal estimated at more than $10 million to acquire and sell more than 1,000 pounds of gold extracted from Congo's vast mines.
But Mutombo never saw the gold. Instead his money ended up in the hands of Ntaganda, a militia leader wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
According to the U.N., Mutombo's business partners knew before the handoff of the gold and the money in the Eastern Congo city of Goma that Ntganda was involved. Instead of pulling out, the report said, they were "reassured" by the war lord's role.
The scandal is a blight on Mutombo's otherwise squeaky clean reputation. The 7-foot-2 basketball star played for the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks for 12 years, and was considered a model player, twice receiving the league's Walter Kennedy Citizenship award for his humanitarian work and sportsmanlike conduct.
In 1997 he founded the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation committed to improving the lives of people in Congo. He has built hospitals, schools and even paid for the women's basketball team's trip to play in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
In 2007, President George W. Bush honored Mutombo in his State of the Union speech, calling him the "son of Congo" who never forgot "the duty to share his blessings with others."
Ntaganda, however, is on a U.N. sanctions list, but that hasn't kept him from earning an untold fortune operating businesses across eastern Congo and abroad. He's known to be so ruthless that he's reportedly executed officers within his rebel group who disagree with him.
The ICC indictment alleges Ntaganda, usually referred to using his first name Bosco, commanded a force responsible for arresting, torturing and murdering hundreds of civilians in 2002-2003.
"He's somebody who has quite a bit of blood on his hands," says Stearns. "He's also the mastermind of a smuggling racket and he has made a fortune in recent years."
Ntaganda takes advantage of elaborate gold and mineral smuggling schemes that involve interlopers in neighboring Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. While the trade in coltan, the mineral found in tin used to make cell phones and other electronics, has received so much attention the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring electronic companies to verify the origin of material used, gold continues to trade with almost no oversight at all.
"Congolese gold is much in demand," the U.N. report states. "Most of the gold trade in the country goes unrecorded, and most transactions are concluded in neighboring countries."
For example, the monitoring group found that there was a difference of more than three tons of gold between the import statistics of the United Arab Emirates, where much of Congo's gold ends up, and the exports claimed by the government of Uganda.
High gold prices and little oversight make trading the commodity a lucrative venture for not only people like Mutombo, wanting to invest in the war-torn country, but also for Congo's brutal military and rebel groups.