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Who is Dennis Washington? The billionaire who almost bought Ekati mine, again

Dennis Washington's $166-million offer to purchase the Ekati mine is now a dead deal. CBC News took a look at the lengthy business background of the billionaire who would have been behind the takeover.

In the first 3 months of the pandemic, his net worth grew by 13%

An aerial view of the Ekati mine, 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. (Dominion Diamond Corporation)

Dennis Washington, 86, is the wealthiest man in Montana, with a net worth of $6.1 billion US. 

He is the majority interest owner of The Washington Companies, which made a $166 million offer on the N.W.T. 's troubled Ekati Diamond Mine in September. The owner, Dominion Diamond Mines, went into creditor protection in April, saying the COVID-19 pandemic had essentially shut down the diamond industry.

Though Washington's multi-million dollar offer is now a dead deal, CBC News took a look at the billionaire's lengthy business background.

In the first three months of the pandemic Washington's net worth has grown by 13 per cent from $5.5 billion US to $6.2 billion US, states a June 24 news release from Americans for Tax Fairness.

Profiles of Washington describe him as a self-made billionaire who started out selling newspapers as a teenager and became one of America's most powerful industrialists. 

His portfolio includes a "significant ownership" in Seaspan ULC, through The Washington Companies, which are involved in rail and marine transport, construction and mining, heavy equipment, aviation and real estate development, states the Seaspan website.

His largest asset is Montana Rail Link, reports Bloomberg.

Washington has a hobby refurbishing boats, including one 332-foot luxury yacht named Attessa IV. It recently docked in B.C. for some repairs and flies the Cayman Island flag

In 2017, The Washington Companies bought all shares in Dominion Diamond for a total of $1.2 billion US with a $550 million US bond from creditors. (Dominion Diamond Corporation )

His business with mines

Washington got his start in the construction business in 1964, according to the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation. 

In the 1980s, he revived a floundering copper pit mining operation in Butte, and Montana Resources now produces up to 80 million pounds of copper a year and spends $74 million on payroll tax and purchases every year.

Although metal prices have tumbled because of the pandemic, the mine is still in operation

He also held mining interests in the state, which he sold or leased to a group of three businessmen who in 1998 were convicted in an offshore investment scam that cheated investors and enriched the executives by $100 million US. 

Washington's interests in the N.W.T.

The N.W.T. government says it is hopeful the purchase of Ekati will get northerners back to work. 

Recently, Dominion Diamond has fired some of the mine's workers, ending their benefits and pension contributions, and withholding information on severance pay. 

Of Ekati's 634 Canadian workers, 40 per cent are northerners (253 people) and within that northern workforce, 151 people are Indigenous. In 2019, it employed 425 contract workers — 150 of them northerners. 

In 2017, The Washington Companies bought all shares in Dominion Diamond Inc. for a total of $1.2 billion US with a $550 million US bond from creditors. 

That purchase represented a 44 per cent premium on Dominion's share price before the merger was announced. 

In 2018, the union representing workers at Ekati accused Dominion of "union busting" by threatening to lay off 150 unionized employees and replace them with contractors. 

The pandemic slowed business down, and in April Dominion was unable to meet a $20-million US interest payment on that bond The Washington Companies used to buy the company.

Filing for creditor protection put Ekati's financial situation on clear display through an affidavit by Dominion's chief financial officer, Kristal Kaye.

There are only two secured creditors for the mine — Credit Suisse AG, a branch located in the Cayman Islands is owed $221 million and Wilmington Trust in Delaware is owed $784 million CDN, a May 5 creditor listing for Dominion shows. 

Dominion Diamond Holdings, a limited liability company, was incorporated in Delaware on Nov. 15, 2019. Its sole shareholder is Washington Diamond Investments, a company controlled by The Washington Companies, court documents show. 

That deal is opposed by Dominion creditors, who say the mine's assets are devalued because of the pandemic. 

Donations to youth, education, Trump

The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation is the major philanthropic organization receiving contributions from The Washington Companies and Washington family. It is focused on philanthropy for youth and education. 

"By influencing young people during their formative years and providing opportunity for personal advancement through education, Dennis and Phyllis hope to create a positive and lasting impact on our culture and society," the website reads. 

Washington and his wife Phyllis are also generous donors to Donald Trump's re-election campaign — giving him $1 million since the 2016 campaign.

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