Ex-executive at bankrupt private equity firm pleads guilty

NEW YORK (AP) — A former top executive at a Dubai-based emerging markets firm that coaxed the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. government to invest in feel-good projects pleaded guilty Friday, saying he was wrong to be silent as his firm exaggerated its finances to win over new investors.

"I regret my involvement more deeply than anyone can imagine," Mustafa Abdel-Wadood told U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein, who revealed that the former managing partner of the Abraaj Group had signed a cooperation deal with U.S. prosecutors.

The Abraaj Group was founded in 2002 by Arif Naqvi, who is fighting extradition to the U.S. from England. Free on bail, Naqvi has asserted his innocence against prosecutors' claims that the value of Abraaj's investments were exaggerated by at least a half-billion dollars.

Abraaj, once seen as pioneering a bright future for Middle East private equity firms, managed over $13 billion for investors at its peak.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Griswold told a judge recently that Abraaj enticed U.S. investors, including the Gates foundation and a U.S. government agency that facilitates American business investments in emerging markets with a fund investing in hospitals in developing countries.

Abraaj, she said, "represented itself as a pioneer of impact investing or investing that had a socially responsible impact, that is, doing good while doing well."

"In truth," Griswold added, "Abraaj was engaged in a massive fraud."

It collapsed last year after news reports exposed allegations of fraud and some investors, including the Gates foundation, privately pressed for answers.

Abdel-Wadood, 49, in pleading guilty to charges including racketeering conspiracy and securities and wire fraud, choked up as he acknowledged the firm was covering up fraud for years as it tried to recover from massive "cash shortfalls."

Abdel-Wadood, who oversaw Abraaj's investments as a managing partner, said Abraaj had serious liquidity issues by 2014, when Naqvi took steps "to close the gap, steps that disadvantaged our investors."

"Put simply, money was comingled that should have been segregated, and investors were not told the truth," he said.

The fraud culminated in fundraising in 2016 for a new $6 billion fund that attracted interest from U.S. financial companies and retirement funds for state workers in Texas, Washington, Louisiana and Hawaii, according to an indictment charging six individuals, including Abdel-Wadood and Naqvi.

"We painted a rosy picture of a prosperous firm," Abdel-Wadood said of the substance of fundraising pitches made to potential U.S. investors in Manhattan and in emails sent across the country.

Executives, he said, overstated the company's track record.

"At meetings with potential investors, I stood by silently while Abraaj's track record was overstated and its financial health falsely portrayed," he said. "I was respected by investors and potential investors. By my presence, I lent my credibility to statements that I knew were not true."

Abdel-Wadood said there was no formal agreement among Abraaj's leaders to commit crimes.

"Some of us pushed back at Arif Naqvi's misconduct," he said. "Too often, however, we capitulated."

Abdel-Wadood, an Egyptian national, has been under house arrest in New York since being granted bail in April. His bail conditions were relaxed Friday.

His attorney, Paul Schechtman, called his client's crimes "a tragic story of a good man who stayed at Abraaj to try to rectify the madness that Arif Naqvi created and along the way participated in the wrongful conduct that he has acknowledged today."