Nugan Hand Bank

In 1973 Frank Nugan, an Australian lawyer, and Michael Hand, a former CIA contract operative, established the Nugan Hand Bank. Another key figure in this venture was Bernie Houghton, who was closely connected to CIA officials, Ted Shackley and Thomas G. Clines.

Nugan ran operations in Sydney whereas Hand established a branch in Hong Kong. This enabled Australian depositors to access a money-laundering facility for illegal transfers of Australian money to Hong Kong. According to Alfred W. McCoy, the "Hand-Houghton partnership led the bank's international division into new fields - drug finance, arms trading, and support work for CIA covert operations." Hand told friends "it was his ambition that Nugan Hand became banker for the CIA."

In 1974 the Nugan Hand Bank got involved in helping the CIA to take part in covert arms deals with contacts within Angola. It was at this time that Edwin Wilson became involved with the bank. Two CIA agents based in Indonesia, James Hawes and Robert Moore, called on Wilson at his World Marine offices to discuss "an African arms deal". Later, Bernie Houghton arrived from Sydney to place an order for 10 million rounds of ammunition and 3,000 weapons including machine guns. The following year Houghton asked Wilson to arrange for World Marine to purchase a high-technology spy ship. This ship was then sold to Iran.

By 1976 the Nugan-Hand Bank appeared to have become a CIA-fronted company. This is reflected in the type of people recruited to hold senior positions in the bank. For example, Rear-Admiral Earl P. Yates, the former Chief of Staff for Policy and Plans of the U.S. Pacific Command and a counter-insurgency specialist, became president of the company. Other appointments included William Colby, retired director of the CIA, General Leroy J. Manor, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Pacific Command and deputy director for counterinsurgency and special activities, General Edwin F. Black, former commander of U.S. forces in Thailand, Walter J. McDonald, retired CIA deputy director for economic research, Dale C. Holmgren, former chairman of the CIA's Civil Air Transport and Guy J. Pauker, senior Republican foreign policy adviser.

One of those that Earl P. Yates brought in to help the Nugan Hand Bank was Mitchell WerBell. Yates later told the Joint Task Force on Drug Trafficking he recruited WerBell as a consultant because he "had extensive experience in Central America". Former CIA agent, Kevin P. Mulcahy later told the National Times newspaper "about the Agency's use of Nugan Hand for shifting money for various covert operations around the globe."

Paul Helliwell meeting Michael Hand and Frank Nugan
Paul Helliwell meeting Michael Hand and Frank Nugan

The investigative journalist, Jonathan Kwitny, became convinced that the Nugan Hand Bank had replaced the Castle Bank and Trust Company in Nassau, as the CIA's covert banker. The bank, run by Paul Helliwell, was forced to close after the Internal Revenue Service discovered that he Castle Bank was laundering CIA funds and drug profits.

On 27th November 1979 Michael Hand wrote to Ted Shackley. It concerned a meeting the two men had recently attended in Washington: "The opportunity of meeting you again on different terms was very enjoyable and I sincerely trust that something worthwhile businesswise may surface and be profitable for both of us."

In the winter of 1979, Edwin Wilson had a meeting with Bernie Houghton and Thomas G. Clines in Switzerland in an attempt to help him out of his difficulties. This included a non-delivery of 5,000 M16 automatic rifles. The three men discussed ways of using the Nugan Hand Bank to float a $22 million loan to finance the delivery. Hand was obviously concerned that if Wilson was arrested he might begin talking about his dealings with Nugan Hand.

On 7th January 1980, Robert Wilson (House of Representatives Armed Services Committee) and Richard Ichord (chairman of the Research and Development Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee) had dinner with Bernie Houghton at the Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar and Restaurant in Sydney.

On 27th January, 1980, Frank Nugan was found shot dead in his Mercedes Benz. With his body was a Bible that included a piece of paper. On it were written the names "Bob Wilson" and "Bill Colby". Robert Wilson was a senior member of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee and William Colby was a former director of the CIA.

Bernie Houghton was in Switzerland at the time and he immediately rang his branch office in Saudi Arabia and ordered the staff to leave the country. Houghton also visited Edwin Wilson's office in Geneva and left a briefcase with bank documents for safekeeping. Soon afterwards, a witness saw Thomas G. Clines going through the briefcase at Wilson's office and remove papers that referred to him and General Richard Secord.

Two days after Nugan died, Michael Hand held a meeting of Nugan Hand Bank directors. He warned them that unless they did as they were told they could "finish up with concrete shoes" and would be "liable to find their wives being delivered to them in pieces".

Michael Hand, Patricia Swan, Bernie Houghton and his lawyer, Mike Moloney, spent the next few days removing files from Nugan's office. They also began paying back selected clients. One estimate is that over $1.3 million was paid out in this way.

Frank Nugan's inquest took place in April, 1980. Testimony from Michael Hand revealed that Nugan Hand was insolvent, owing at least $50 million. Hand then promptly fled Australia under a false identity on a flight to Fiji in June 1980. Bernie Houghton also disappeared at this time and it is believed both men eventually reached the United States.

According to one witness, Thomas G. Clines helped Bernie Houghton escape. Michael Hand also left the country accompanied by James Oswald Spencer, a man who served with Ted Shackley in Laos. The two men traveled to America via Fiji and Vancouver. One report published in November, 1980, suggested that Michael Hand was living in South America. It claimed that he had managed to escape with the help of "former CIA employees".

An investigation by the Australia/New South Wales Joint Task Force on Drug Trafficking discovered that the clients of the Nugan Hand Bank included several people who had criminal convictions relating to drug offences including Murray Stewart Riley, Donald William McKenzie, James Lewis Williams, Malcolm Craig Lord, Charles Robertson Beveridge, Barry Graeme Chittem, Murray Don Newman, Bruce Alan Smithers, James Sweetman, James Blacker, Colin Courtney, Stephen Demos, John Brooking and John Ceruto. According to the records the bank was making $100,000 a year from tax advice. In reality, it was receiving it for money laundering.

One right-wing organization called Accuracy in Media defended the Nugan-Hand Bank claiming it was really an honest but hard-luck banking organization that had been maligned by an anti-military press.

The Australian government asked the Royal Commissioner D. G. Stewart to investigate the Nugan-Hand Bank scandal. The Stewart Royal Commission was published in June, 1985. It stated that the "Nugan Hand Ltd. was at all times insolvent... and flouted the provisions of the legislation as it then stood in that large volumes of currency were moved in and out of Australia".

Stewart went on to blame the dead Frank Nugan and the missing Michael Hand for the illegal activities of the bank. Rear-Admiral Earl P. Yates, William Colby, General Leroy J. Manor, General Edwin F. Black, Walter J. McDonald, Dale C. Holmgren, Guy J. Pauker and Bernie Houghton were considered blameless. Despite the evidence, Hand and Patricia Swan, Nugan's secretary, were accused of being the only ones "responsible for the shredding of documents". The Crimes of Patriots

Primary Sources

(1) Jonathan Kwitny, The Crimes of Patriots (1987)

Alexander Butterfield, a former Asian-intelligence officer, had some helpful advice for a reporter asking questions about Bernie Houghton. In 1973, Butterfield had attained instant celebrity by revealing to Congress and the world that Richard Nixon's Watergate conversations were secretly taped in the Oval Office. (Little if anything was made of the curious circumstance that a career intelligence operative had played such a pivotal role in the downfall of a president.)

Asked about Houghton, Butterfield quickly said to call Allan Parks, a retired air force colonel who now runs the flying service at Auburn University in Alabama. Sure enough, Parks remembered Houghton well, mostly, he said, from his days as intelligence officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok during the war. Parks recalls constantly stumbling over Houghton's name in cable traffic.

Military secrecy still prevents Parks from telling all he knows, he says, but he remembers meeting Houghton-and he places Houghton in Asia well after Houghton allegedly retired to Australia to become a barkeep.

"He ferried C-47s, cargo airplanes, from Thailand," Parks says. "The man, he was running everything. Between Australia and Thailand. I met him in Bangkok in a bar. I was involved in Laos in some things I can't discuss in '70 and '71. There was traffic I read relating to that. But I can't go into it because it's all secret." It was something to do, Parks says, with "Project 404," which is still "classified." (Asked about Michael Hand, Parks has the same response: "I can't tell you. It's classified. No comment.")

But the mention of Houghton elicits reminiscences from Parks: "There's no doubt about it, he'd fly anything. The Golden Triangle, that's where he got his opium from. There was one flight, he flew in slot machines. He did some deals over in India."

Asked the name of Houghton's airline, Parks just laughs, and says, "He didn't call his planes anything. Nobody could track his airplanes. He didn't have an airline, like. The embassy was always trying to run him down. It was funny." Asked for other sources, Parks says, "Anybody who would know would give you the same answer I would."

Then he refers a reporter to General Aderholt, who he says also observed Houghton from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. Aderholt went on to become commanding general of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Thailand, and, with General John K. Singlaub, ran covert air operations throughout the Vietnam-Laos-Thailand war zone. Retiring from active duty after the war, generals Aderholt and Singlaub took command of various right-wing paramilitary groups in the United States.

During the mid-1980s, when the Reagan administration was barred by Congress from supplying and directing Contra rebels trying to overthrow the Government of Nicaragua, but was determined to do so anyway, Generals Singlaub and Aderholt played important roles in keeping the Contra rebellion alive. Though they were supposedly working through private channels, their efforts were coordinated by the White House through Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, and the source of their funds was open to question during the Contra scandal investigations of 1987.

Aderholt seems to have been in good position to know what was going on in Southeast Asia during Bernie Houghton's days there. Aderholt had combined his air force career with work on the side for little airlines and medical relief agencies overseas, creating the aura of someone involved all along in private "front" operations for the CIA or some related U.S. intelligence agency. But Aderholt's recollections of Houghton contradict with the accepted chronology of Houghton's life.

(2) Joel Bainerman, The Crimes of the President (1992)

The Nuran Hand bank collapsed, owing some $50 million. None of the deposits were secured because they were used for illegal activities. These included defrauding American military personnel in Saudi Arabia out of nearly $10 million. The bank sent out "investment counselors" to installations where Americans were working in Saudi Arabia and told them to invest their salaries in Nugan Hand's Hong Kong branch in secured government bonds.

The Australian government eventually investigated the collapse of the bank and found that millions of dollars were missing and unaccounted for. It discovered that the main depositors of the bank were connected with the narcotics trade in the Middle East and Asia, and that the CIA was using Nugan Hand to finance a variety of covert operations. Government investigations revealed ties between Nugan Hand and the world's largest heroin syndicates. The reports said that the Bank was linked to at least 26 separate individuals or groups known to be associated with drug trafficking.

In 1983 the Australian Joint Task Force on Drug Trafficking released a report on Nugan Hand's activities to Parliament which said Shackley, Secord, Clines, Quintero, and Wilson were people whose background "is relevant to a proper understanding of the activities of the Nugan Hand group and the people associated with that group."

(3) Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (1991)

The pattern of events surrounding this expansion indicates that Michael Hand may have realized his dream of becoming the "CIA's banker". Both Sydney police and Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny came away from their long investigations of Nugan Hand convinced that there may well have been some connection between the bank's sudden rise and the antecedent demise of a CIA proprietary, the Castle Bank and Trust of Nassau. After retiring from the CIA, Paul Helliwell, founder of such agency "proprietaries" as SEA Supply Inc. of Bangkok and Air America, opened a law office in Miami and formed Castle Bank offshore in nearby Nassau to cover the agency's covert money movements. In 1973 agents of the Internal Revenue Service were able to photograph the Castle Bank's customer list while a bank executive dined in a posh Key Biscayne restaurant with a woman described as an IRS "informant". Reviewing the purloined documents, IRS investigators found that the 308 Castle Bank customers on the list had moved $250 million to foreign numbered accounts. Depositors included Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, Penthouse magazine publisher Robert Guccione, and some major organized crime figures - Morris Dalitz, Morris Kleinman, and Samuel A. Tucker. Elated by the find, investigators formed Project Haven to make "the single biggest tax-evasion strike in IRS history." Suddenly, the IRS announced that it was dropping the investigation because of "legal problems". According to a later investigation by the Wall Street Journal, "pressure from the Central Intelligence Agency ... caused the Justice Department to drop what could have been the biggest tax evasion case of all time." The CIA invoked "national security" since it was using the Castle Bank "for the funding of clandestine operations against Cuba and other intelligence operations directed at countries in Latin America and the Far East." By the time Helliwell died from emphysema on Christmas Eve, 1976, Castle Bank had been liquidated.

Simultaneous with the closure of Castle Bank's Nassau office, Nugan Hand Bank launched its formal "banking" operations in the nearby Cayman Islands. The opening of Caribbean branches, a new area for Nugan Hand, and recruitment of retired CIA officers gave it a corporate structure similar to the collapsed Castle Bank. Indeed, a former CIA agent named Kevin Mulcahy, a key witness in the Edwin Wilson case, gave details to the National Times of Sydney "about the Agency's use of Nugan Hand for shifting money for various covert operations around the globe".

Working through Houghton, moreover, the Nugan Hand Bank deepened its contacts with the network of ex-CIA officials surrounding Edwin Wilson. After helping Hand informally with the bank's operations for the previous five years, Houghton finally joined Nugan Hand's staff in late 1978 and opened a branch in Saudi Arabia to collect deposits from American contract employees. Under Houghton's management, the Saudi branch ran the bank's biggest - and simplest - fraud. With introductions from Beck Arabia of Dallas, a leading engineering firm with major Middle East contracts, Houghton flew into Saudi Arabia in January 1979 and rented a villa at Al-Khobar to serve as both office and residence for the bank. Over the next twelve months, Houghton and his aides circulated through the U.S. construction camps along the Persian Gulf, issuing bank receipts for cash deposits from American contract workers. Paid in cash and unable to make deposits in Saudi Arabia's backward banking system, American expatriate workers needed the deposit-taking service that Nugan Hand pretended to provide. Houghton then bought bundles of Thomas Cook traveler's checks and sent them off in commercial courier parcels to Michael Hand's new office in Singapore. Through this simple system, Houghton and Hand collected collected at least $5 million from their fellow Americans - all of which simply disappeared when the bank collapsed a year later.

(4) Nugan Hand Bank, Wikipedia (July, 2006)

Concerns over bank's questionable accounting processes began to circulate by the late 1970s as investors attending Nugan Hand AGM's were prevented from asking questions by the bank. These concerns turned into panic for bank investors in the early hours of 27 January 1980 when Nugan (who was facing charges of stock fraud) was found shot dead by a .30 caliber rifle in his Mercedes Benz 100 miles west, outside of Lithgow, New South Wales; it is said that a hand-written list was found on his body with a list of substantial loans Nugan Hand had extended to various notables, such as William Colby and Bob Wilson. The following police investigation returned a verdict of suicide. Suspicions of the bank's activities grew in subsequent days as details emerged of the contents of Nugan's car (including the business card of former CIA director William Colby) and news that Nugan's house and office had been ransacked by Hand and Yates and important company files destroyed or stolen.

The official inquest into Nugan's death in June 1980 made front page news amid testimony from Hand that Nugan Hand was insolvent, owing at least A$50 million (and as much as hundreds of millions), including $20,000 rent on their Sydney headquarters. He then promptly fled Australia under a false identity on a flight to Fiji in June 1980, after destroying Nugan Hand's remaining records. Hand has not been seen since; it is generally assumed that Hand, as a CIA operative, re-entered the US and was given a false identity. A subsequent Royal Commission of inquiry into the activities of the Nugan Hand Group revealed money laundering, arms shipments, drug dealing, theft (including US$5 million from US military personnel in Saudi Arabia) and large-scale tax avoidance by Nugan Hand throughout its brief but eventful existence. One Commission witness, a former Nugan Hand director, stated that Hand warned Bank executives "If we didn't do what we were told, and things weren't handled properly, our wives would be cut into pieces and put in boxes and sent back to us."

Australia's Joint Task Force on Drug Trafficking compiled a report on Nugan Hand in 1983, determined that, above and beyond the revelations of the Royal Commission, Nugan Hand had acted as a CIA front to finance a war in Laos by laundering drug money (particularly via the Nugan Hand Chang Mai branch) participated in the covert sale of an electronic spy ship to Iran and weapons shipments to southern Africa. The CIA's use of Nugan Hand as a front appears to have been more extensive than merely enriching certain people or supporting the heroin drug trade.

(5) Earl P. Yates, The True Patriots (1987)

In his otherwise admirable fight against the scourge of drugs, fraud, illegal arms sales, and abuse of government power, Mr. Kwitny has maliciously maligned and assassinated the character of some truly great American heroes and in so doing has besmirched the reputations of the military and intelligence services of this nation. My purpose here is to defend the honor of those men and the services they represent.

The general comments herein concern only those people for whom I had some measure of responsibility for their involvement in Nugan Hand and for whom I can speak with great confidence. Their names are: General Edwin Black, General Erle Cocke, General LeRoy Manor, Mr. Dale Holmgren, Dr. Guy Pauker, Mr. Donald Beazley, Mr. William Colby, Mr. Walter McDonald, Mr. Robert Jantzen, and Mr. George Farris (hereinafter, THE TRUE PATRIOTS).

I specifically exclude all others, not because I consider them guilty or care any less about their fair treatment, but because I do not have the time, space, or knowledge to defend them against the alleged crimes. I use the word "alleged" advisedly, for as of this date, more than seven years after the collapse of Nugan Hand, no crimes have been proven.

Before addressing the general reader, I direct my first comments to the Nugan Hand employees and investors, who were the principal victims of the bank failure. Each of THE TRUE PATRIOTS has expressed to me a most genuine distress for your losses, particularly those of you whom they might have influenced to invest in Nugan Hand. Most of them lost significant sums of their own. For example, I never received any pay due me and personally lost over twenty-five thousand dollars in unreimbursed business expenses. We are, therefore, able to share both your agony and your anger.

Having devoted their lives to the service of their country and having often risked those lives in dangerous missions, THE TRUE PATRIOTS highly treasure the morale and reputation of those who are taking the same risks today in our national defense. They are distressed over any damage done to that morale and reputation by such warped and distorted viewpoints as found in this book.

Each of them deplores the injury done to the relationship between the United States and Australia, a long, strong, and mutually important relationship, which the Soviet Union and its KGB Disinformation Service would dearly love to destroy.

For the above reasons they unanimously regret any distress that their association, however innocent, might have contributed to others. I add to these regrets my own remorse for having induced THE TRUE PATRIOTS to join Nugan Hand. I must take full responsibility for that. They associated with Nugan Hand largely because of their trust in my assurances that I had gone to extraordinary lengths to determine the integrity of that organization and found no evidence whatsoever of a shortfall.

I informed them that my assurances were based on my personal interviews with a wide range of highly respectable, knowledgeable people and agencies, many of whom had a recognized duty to know the bona fides of Nugan Hand. These included: the managing directors of the two largest banks in Australia, which held Nugan Hand accounts; an agent of the Reserve Bank, which has responsibilities similar to our Federal Reserve Bank; the Premier of New South Wales, whose private office was adjacent to the Nugan Hand offices; two prominent Australian lawyers who had worked closely with Mr. Nugan; an agent of the Australian Tax Department, who was familiar with Mr. Nugan's tax work; the managing director of the Sydney subsidiary of Citicorp, who traded securities with Nugan Hand; a partner of the accounting firm that certified Nugan Hand records; vice-presidents of two large international banks that had accounts with Nugan Hand; the U.S. Consul General in Sydney; the desk officer in the Department of Commerce who publishes financial reports on Australian firms; agents of the Treasury Department; agents of the FBI; some highly satisfied clients of Nugan Hand; and several employees. Of all these, none gave any unfavorable information, and most had high praise. General Black and others interviewed similar groups, including prominent newspapers, with comparable results.

In recruiting THE TRUE PATRIOTS, I explained the substance of my lengthy conversations with Mr. Nugan and Mr. Hand about their ultimate objective to build an international "one-stop business shopping-center" organization to make it easier for small businesses to compete in the international marketplace against the multinational cartels. They liked the concept and the opportunity to pursue it. They believed, as I did, that their employment was honorable, that Mr. Nugan and Mr. Hand were honorable, successful, and reliable businessmen, with the highest sense of personal integrity and genuine concern for their clients.

In response to queries about how the firm made money, Mr. Nugan gave me an extensive mathematical dissertation, supported by genuine money market documents, on how to "gross-up" the interest yield on money by buying and selling discounted bills of exchange on the lively Sydney market. He later held a conference of other employees to explain this important aspect of Nugan Hand's money market operation. He further informed me and others that his law practice yielded four to twelve million dollars per year (a false claim, nevertheless substantiated by two other lawyers and a CPA) and that the money was always available as a drawdown to protect our client's deposits.