Erik Dean Prince (born June 6, 1969) is an American businessman and former U.S. Navy SEAL officer best known for founding the government services and security company Blackwater USA, now known as Academi. He served as its CEO until 2009 and later as chairman, until Blackwater Worldwide was sold in 2010 to a group of investors. Prince currently heads the private equity firm Frontier Resource Group and is chairman of Hong Kong-listed Frontier Services Group Ltd. He is the brother of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Erik Dean Prince
June 6, 1969
Holland, Michigan, U.S.
|Education||United States Naval Academy|
Hillsdale College (BA)
|Known for||Founder of Blackwater|
(m. 1991; died 2003)
(m. 2004; div. 2012)
Stacy DeLuke (m. date unknown)
|Relatives||Edgar Prince (father)|
Betsy DeVos (sister)
|Service/||United States Navy|
|Unit||United States Navy SEALs|
Early life, education, and military serviceEdit
Prince was born on June 6, 1969, in Holland, Michigan, the son of Edgar D. Prince and his wife, Elsa (Zwiep),[note 1] and the youngest of four children. He graduated from Holland Christian High School.
Prince's father had started as a salesman making 40 cents an hour, who founded a die cast machine manufacturing firm, Prince Machine Corporation, in 1965, which became a supplier to the automobile manufacturing industry and eventually a billion-dollar company. As business "exploded" Prince began to invest some of the profit through the Prince Group into other types of car parts and shopping malls, creating a network of companies and real estate worth a billion dollars. In the early 1970s, Edgar Prince's company patented a sun visor that could light up and sold 5,000 to General Motors. In the '90s, the company produced 20,000 a day. Prince and his father toured the world together, visiting the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, a divided Berlin, and Normandy. According to his mother, these trips "made a big impression" on the young Prince.
Prince was accepted into the United States Naval Academy and attended it for three semesters before leaving, citing that he loved the Navy but disliked the Academy. He went on to receive his B.A. in economics from Hillsdale College in 1992. Some sources say Prince dropped out of the Naval Academy, while others say he transferred to Hillsdale. During his time at Hillsdale, he served as a volunteer firefighter and as a cold-water diver for the Hillsdale County Sheriff's Department. Prince eventually became an emergency medical technician.
In 1990, Prince secured a low-level internship in the White House under George H.W. Bush, but soon left to intern for California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, President Ronald Reagan's former speechwriter. Rohrabacher described Prince as "a bright, driven young man." At the age of 21, Prince volunteered to search for a mass grave in Nicaragua, to expose killings under President Daniel Ortega and later said that he had found one.
After college, Prince was commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy via Officer Candidate School in 1992. He went on to become a Navy SEAL and deployed with SEAL Team 8 to Haiti, the Middle East, and the Balkans. He credits the SEALs for being an outlet for his entrepreneurial spirit. In his autobiography he states that during the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s, he realized that there was a need for private training facilities for special operations.
Prince ended his U.S. Navy service prematurely in 1995 when his father died. Erik assumed control of daily operations at Prince Machine Corporation for a year until 1996 when his mother sold the company for $1.35 billion in cash to Johnson Controls.
Prince moved to Virginia Beach and personally financed the formation of Blackwater Worldwide in 1997. He bought 6,000 acres (24 km2) of the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and set up a school for special operations. The name "Blackwater" comes from the peat-colored bogs in which the school is located.
From 1997 to 2010, Blackwater was awarded $2 billion in government security contracts, more than $1.6 billion of which were unclassified federal contracts and an unknown amount of classified work. From 2001 to 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) awarded up to $600 million in classified contracts to Blackwater and its affiliates. It became the largest of the State Department's three private security companies, providing 987 guards for embassies and bases abroad. Prince built a shooting range on his rural Virginia land to serve as a nearby training facility to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. In his memoir Prince says that he provided the CIA with links to Afghan warlords who helped "topple the Taliban and drive al Qaeda into hiding."
Blackwater came under increasing criticism after the Nisour Square massacre in September 2007, in which Blackwater employees opened fire in a crowded square in Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and seriously wounding 20 more. Three guards were convicted in October 2014 of 14 manslaughter charges, and another of murder, in a U.S. court.
The criticism continued after president Barack Obama took office in 2009. Prince said he believes that much of this criticism stems from politics. "I put myself and my company at the CIA's disposal for some very risky missions," Prince told Vanity Fair for its January 2010 issue. "But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus."
Prince has defended Blackwater's work, pointing to the fact that in 40,000 personal security missions, only 200 involved guards firing their weapons. He has said, "No one under our care was ever killed or injured. We kept them safe, all the while we had 30 of our men killed."
Prince, according to author Robert Young Pelton, reportedly thinks of Blackwater's relationship to the military as something similar to FedEx's relationship to the U.S. Post Office: "an efficient, privatized solution to sclerotic and wasteful government bureaucracy." He credits his father's competitive streak in the automotive business with the inspiration to design a lighter, faster army.
Prince resigned as CEO of Blackwater on March 2, 2009, and remained chairman of the board until he sold the company in late 2010 to a group of investors.
Disclosure as part of a covert CIA task forceEdit
Prince was part of a CIA task force created to kill terrorists. Allegedly, the House intelligence congressional committee leaked his name to the press. Prince has said that he is convinced that former CIA director Leon Panetta outed him as a CIA asset, after shutting down the covert CIA training operation in 2009.
Private security for the United Arab EmiratesEdit
After Blackwater faced mounting legal problems in the United States, Prince was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and moved to Abu Dhabi in 2010. His task was to assemble an 800-member troop of foreign troops for the U.A.E., which was planned months before the Arab Spring. He helped the UAE found a new company named Reflex Responses, or R2, with 51 percent local ownership, carefully avoiding his name on corporate documents. He worked to oversee the effort and recruit troops, among others from Executive Outcomes, a former South African mercenary firm hired by several African governments during the 1990s to defeat violent rebellions in addition to protecting oil and diamond reserves.
As of January 2011, Prince was training a force of 2,000 Somalis for anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. The program was funded by several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and backed by the United States. Prince's spokesman, Mark Corallo, said Prince had "no financial role" in the project and declined to answer any questions about Prince's involvement. John Burnett of Maritime Underwater Security Consultants said, "There are 34 nations with naval assets trying to stop piracy and it can only be stopped on land. With Prince's background and rather illustrious reputation, I think it's quite possible that it might work."
Private equity investor in AfricaEdit
Prince currently heads a private equity firm called Frontier Resource Group and is chairman of Frontier Services Group Ltd, a Bermuda-incorporated logistics and transport company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Frontier Services Group is backed by China's state-owned CITIC Group and Hong Kong-based investor Chun Shun Ko. Prince's ventures advise and support Chinese investment in oil and gas in Africa.
In May 2014, it was reported that Prince's plan to build a diesel refinery in South Sudan, in which $10 million had already been invested, was suspended. The halted refinery project was reported to be supported personally by the country's president, Salva Kiir Mayardit. Frontier Services Group was reported to be paid $23.3 million by South Sudan's Ministry of Petroleum to transport supplies and perform maintenance on oil production facilities.
As part of Prince's Africa-focused investment strategy, Frontier Services Group purchased stakes in two Kenyan aviation companies, Kijipwa Aviation and Phoenix Aviation, to provide logistics services for the country's oil and gas industry. In October 2014, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority denied Kijipwa Aviation an aviation license renewal.
Prince also purchased a 25% stake in Austrian aviation company Airborne Technologies. In 2014, Prince commissioned the company to modify Thrush 510G crop-dusters with surveillance equipment, machine guns, armor, and other weapons, including custom pylons that could mount either NATO or Russian ballistics. One of the modified crop-dusters was delivered to Salva Kiir Mayardit's forces in South Sudan shortly before a contract with Frontier Services Group was cancelled. Frontier Services Group owns two of the modified Thrush 510Gs, but since executives learned the craft had been weaponized by Prince, the company has declined to sell or use the aircraft to avoid violating U.S. export controls.
Ties to Trump campaign and transitionEdit
The New York Times reported in May 2018 that Prince arranged an August 2016 meeting in Trump Tower, attended by himself, Donald Trump, Jr., George Nader and Joel Zamel, during which Nader reportedly told Trump Jr. the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE were eager to help his father win the election, and Zamel pitched a social media manipulation campaign from his Israeli company. Prince had stated in his November 2017 testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that he had no formal communications or contact, nor any unofficial role, with the Trump campaign. Asked about this contradiction in March 2019, Prince replied, “I don’t know if [the Committee] got the transcript wrong" and "not all the discussion that day was transcribed, and that’s a fact.” Prince acknowledged for the first time in March 2019 that he had attended the 2016 Trump Tower meeting, asserting he was there to "talk about Iran policy."
Special Counsel investigators have examined a meeting around January 11, 2017, in the Seychelles that was convened by the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (known as "MBZ"), which Prince attended. Also present at that meeting were Nader and Kirill Dmitriev, the CEO of the state-owned Russian Direct Investment Fund, who is close to Vladimir Putin. UAE officials reportedly believed that Prince was representing the Trump transition and Dmitriev was representing Putin. The Washington Post had reported on April 3, 2017, that American, European and Arab officials said the Seychelles meeting was "part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump." Prince denied in his November 2017 House Intelligence Committee testimony that he had represented the Trump transition or that the meeting involved any back-channel. The Washington Post reported on March 7, 2018, that the Special Counsel had gathered evidence that contradicts Prince, and ABC News reported on April 6, 2018, that Nader had met with Prince at a Manhattan hotel days before the Seychelles meeting and later provided him with biographical information about Dmitriev.
The Mueller report later found that Nader had represented Prince to Dmitriev as "designated by Steve [Bannon] to meet you! I know him and he is very very well connected and trusted by the New Team," while Prince "acknowledged that it was fair for Nader to think that Prince would pass information on to the Transition Team," although Bannon told investigators that Prince had not informed him of the Dmitriev meeting in advance. Prince testified to the House Intelligence Committee that “I didn't fly there to meet any Russian guy,” although the Mueller report found that he and Nader made significant preparations to meet Dmitriev. Although Prince characterized a second meeting between him and Dmitriev in a hotel bar as a chance encounter of no consequence, the meeting was actually pre-arranged after Prince had learned from calls back home that Russia had moved an aircraft carrier off Libya and he wanted to convey that the United States would not accept any Russian involvement in Libya.
Prince describes himself as a libertarian. He has said, "I'm a very free market guy. I'm not a huge believer that government provides a whole lot of solutions. Some think that government can solve society's problems. I tend to think private charities and private organizations are better solutions."
Prince credits his time as a White House intern with some of his political views. He said that "having that White House internship responsibility and badges, I walked around some of these other cavernous federal agencies, and you want to talk about depressing? Walk through HHS or HUD or Commerce, you name it. Leviathan realized." Speaking of his internship, Prince said, "I saw a lot of things I didn't agree with--homosexual groups being invited in, the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act." Disenchanted, Prince became a backer of presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.
Prince has advocated for a leaner, more efficient military. He suggests several ways to make the military more efficient without compromising security. His suggestions include: greater accountability of costs, using appropriate equipment for each job, reduction of overhead, and operational and procurement reform.
Contributions to political and charitable causesEdit
Between 1998 and 2007, Prince donated more than $200,000 to Republican and third-party causes. In 2006, Prince contributed money to the Green Party of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania as part of a failed effort to help Republican Rick Santorum defeat Democrat Bob Casey. He has also donated to the Family Research Council, a beneficiary of the Prince and DeVos families since the 1980s.
Other Republican politicians that Prince has contributed to include Ron Paul, Walter Jones, Joe Miller, Todd Tiarht, Mike Pence, Dana Rohrabacher, Oliver North, Pat Buchanan, Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, Duncan Hunter, Ted Poe, Jon Kyl, Pete Hoekstra, and Mitt Romney.
Prince serves as vice president of the Prince Foundation, which his family founded. In the 1990s Prince founded the Freiheit ("Liberty") Foundation, a nonprofit charity which funded a number of conservative causes. Prince has often donated to organizations which promote Christian causes, including the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and the Prison Fellowship, and politically conservative groups such as the Council for National Policy, of which his father was vice president at the time of his death. Prince supported a Muslim orphanage in Afghanistan and built mosques at Blackwater bases.
Prince's first wife, Joan Nicole, died of cancer in 2003 at age 36. She introduced Prince to Catholicism. They had four children. He later wrote that he had an affair with Joanna Ruth Houck, his children's nanny, while his wife was dying. Prince and Houck married in 2004. He is now married to Stacy DeLuke, a former Blackwater spokeswoman.
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- At the time of their marriage, she was known by her maiden name, Elsa Zwiep. Following her marriage to Prince, she was known as Elsa Prince. After Prince's death in 1995 she married, in 2000, a minister, Ren Broekhuizen, and was known as Elsa Prince-Broekhuizen.
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