Erik Prince, the Holland, Mich., native who sparked controversy a decade ago as the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, is back in the news, this time for his connections to the Trump administration.
The Washington Post reported Monday that Prince, the brother of U.S. Education Secretary Besty DeVos, met with a high-ranking Russian official on a remote island in the Indian Ocean just days before Trump was inaugurated. The meeting was an effort to establish a back-channel of communication to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Post reported.
The report came as the FBI acknowledged an investigation into contacts between Trump officials and the Russian government.
Through a spokesman, Prince said he had no role on the Trump transition team and questioned why American intelligence services were tracking American citizens.
He didn’t respond to a Free Press request for an interview.
Prince, a former Navy SEAL, comes from a wealthy western Michigan family. His father, Edgar Prince, founded Prince Automotive, an auto supply firm. After he died, his family sold it to Johnson Controls for $1.35 billion in 1997.
Erik Prince used his inheritance to form Blackwater, a training facility for special operation soldiers and police in North Carolina, in 1997. He quickly grew it into a services company that provided security teams for U.S. diplomats in Iraq during the Iraq War and a host of other services in war zones, eventually billing the federal government more than $1 billion for its work.
The company was little known until March 2004, when four Blackwater employees, retired special forces officers, were ambushed in Fallujah, Iraq. Insurgents killed them, dragged their bodies through the streets and hanged two of them from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Photos of the incident became one of the lasting images of the war.
In September 2007, the company generated controversy when its employees opened fire in Nisour Square, Baghdad, killing 14 unarmed civilians and prompting a debate about the accountability of private contractors in a war zone.
They later were convicted in American courts. One man received a life sentence while the other three were sentenced to 30 years.
Prince was called before Congress to testify in October 2007 and defended his company, saying his employees "have been the subject of negative and baseless allegations reported as truth."
He refused to say how much profit he made off his more than $1 billion worth of government contracts.
"We're a private company, and there's a key word there: 'private,'" he said.
He also noted the company's record, saying thousands of missions were completed in Iraq without one of Blackwater's security details failing to protect its client. And he said that in 2006, weapons were discharged in less than 1% of its 6,500 diplomatic missions.
"We're not a mercenary company," Prince said.
In his 2013 autobiography, Prince described growing up in Holland with its annual Tulip Festival, attending Holland Christian High School and later, the U.S. Naval Academy. He dropped out of the Naval Academy and later graduated from Hillsdale College.
While at Hillsdale, he interned at the White House but became disillusioned by President George H.W. Bush, who he said was "bargaining with people who wanted to weaken the sanctity of marriage, raise taxes with budget compromises and push environmental policies that meant undue expenses for major national employers."
Prince made his first political contribution at age 20, donating $15,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, writing that the money came from "investment income from stocks my parents had long ago bought for me."
By 2007 when the Free Press profiled him, Prince had given more than $200,000 to Republicans and conservative causes like the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that supports candidates who oppose abortion.