WASHINGTON -- The accusation was sensational:
Charles Taylor, the powerful Liberian warlord whose soldiers have been accused of cannibalism, had a controlling interest in a Maryland tree business that supposedly has earned a fortune doing work for Baltimore.
The source seemed credible: William H. Twaddell, the top U.S. official in Liberia from 1992 to 1995 and now the acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
"Charles Taylor either owns or controls a tree-service company of that name in Maryland, a legitimate business that reportedly won a contract to provide all landscaping services to the city of Baltimore, thereby generating $2 million monthly to the business," Twaddell told a House subcommittee at a hearing last week.
But since then, neither Twaddell nor anyone else in the State Department has been able to produce evidence to back up that assertion.
As time goes on, it looks like a case of mistaken identity and bad information -- one that has entangled an unwitting and unlikely bystander.
The only Charles Taylor Tree Co. in Maryland -- or anywhere in the continental United States, according to a computer search of corporate records -- is owned not by the would-be president of a war-torn West African country but by a self-described "country boy" who lives in Silver Spring.
In a phone interview, Charles Taylor, the Maryland tree man, was asked whether he had any connection to the Liberian warlord whose name he shares.
"Hell, no!" 50-year-old Taylor said from his vacation trailer in Western Maryland.
"I'm a country boy. I was born and raised in Virginia. I work for the government."
This Charles Taylor, it turns out, is a federal employee. In addition to owning the tree company in Silver Spring, Taylor works for the government on Capitol Hill.
Each winter, he helps put up the Christmas tree on the Capitol grounds, hanging lights, placing ornaments and tying up branches.
Seemingly irritated by the State Department's assertion, Taylor chalked it up to carelessness.
"It don't bother me," he said gruffly. "It ain't me."
The United States did not have an ambassador to Liberia during Twaddell's years there to show its unhappiness with developments in the country.
During that period, he served as the senior U.S. diplomatic official and performed the functions of an ambassador.
Twaddell said he came to believe that Charles Taylor, the warlord, owned a tree company in Maryland, after reading about it in one of the Washington or Baltimore newspapers in the past two years.
A search of The Sun, Washington Post and the Washington Times yielded no such article.
Twaddell said a similar story appeared somewhere in the Liberian press, accompanied by a picture of a truck bearing the name "Charles Taylor Tree Service" on the side.
Maryland's corporate records show that the only Charles Taylor Tree Co. is owned by the Silver Spring man, Charles E. Taylor, and his wife, Margaret Ann.
One needn't do much digging to see that this clearly isn't the former Liberian government official who was accused of embezzlement, lived in the United States for nearly 10 years and escaped from a Massachusetts prison in 1985 while awaiting extradition.
Four years later, he invaded Liberia with a small band of rebels from the neighboring Ivory Coast, triggering a civil war that has left an estimated 150,000 dead and in which all major factions have engaged in cannibalism, according to a State Department human rights report.
The middle name of that Charles Taylor is McArthur.
The middle name of Charles Taylor, the Maryland tree man, is Elwood.
Maryland's Charles Taylor says the State Department could have called him. All his trucks have the company's phone number written on the side in big numerals.
"If they've got a picture of my truck, they've got my phone number, too," he said.
As for the State Department's assertion that a Charles Taylor tree company has done $2 million worth of business monthly for Baltimore, Charles Taylor says he has never worked for the city.
City officials agree.
Ella H. Pierce, the city's purchasing agent, said she could find no record of the company, dating back to 1987.
Besides, she said, "Our tree-trimming contract only runs about $300,000 a year."
Informed of these developments earlier this week, Twaddell first said that perhaps there had been a mistake.
"Golly, if that proves to be the case, we owe the committee a correction," he said.
As for Charles Taylor of Silver Spring?
"He has my apologies and regrets on that," Twaddell said.
But a State Department official -- who declined to be identified by name -- said later that she has been told that Charles Taylor's name appears on incorporation documents for a company in Maryland, although she did not know its name.
The State Department official said a copy of the corporate record had been filed away in the archives in Suitland, in Prince George's County, and could take six months to retrieve.
In the meantime, the agency is trying to track down the article in the Liberian press that Twaddell recalls seeing.
But when it comes to accuracy, even Liberian journalists warn people not to believe everything they read in the Monrovia dailies.
Kenneth Best, who launched the country's first independent daily newspaper in 1981, said the civil war has led to a climate of sensationalism where reporters are said to have taken money in exchange for printing certain stories.
"You have to be cautious," said Best, who taught journalism last spring at American University in Washington.
"If it sounds like a good story, people publish it."
So how, apparently, did one of Charles Taylor's tree trucks end up in West African newspapers?
Margaret Taylor has an idea. The company trims trees for embassies. Perhaps someone who works at the Liberian Embassy saw a truck, took a photo and sent it on to Monrovia, she says.
"That's probably, honey, how it got started," she says.
At the moment, it seems as good a theory as any.
Pub Date: 7/06/96