The son of a former Prime Minister of Gabon pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by bribing government officials in Africa.
Entries in Gabon (12)
A Gabon national was arrested Tuesday and charged with conspiracy to bribe officials in at least three African countries to help win mining rights for a joint venture involving U.S. hedge fund giant Och Ziff.
A Chinese national suspected of leading an ivory-smuggling ring was arrested in Kenya last month and extradited to China as part of an international sweep against the illegal trade.
The world keeps shrinking for Africa's kleptocrats.
Prisoner number 30079-01 has a release date of January 15, 2014.
Ken Silverstein's report on this week's Senate hearings about foreign rulers moving huge chunks of money to the U.S. is here.
For Silverstein, Harper's Washington editor and writer of the online Washington Babylon, the Senate investigation is a personal triumph. With help from Global Witness, he exposed the financial maneuverings of African kleptocrats and their U.S. enablers. His story in November about Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of the dictator of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, was a breakthrough.
We mentioned Silverstein's story in a post here, noting it was the first time a mainstream publication had ever talked about Presidential Proclamation 7750 -- the 2004 American law that allows the State Department to deny visas to foreign kleptocrats and their families.
Silverstein wondered then why Obiang -- "a notoriously crooked official" -- was allowed to enter the U.S. and stash millions in cash and assets there. Did the lack of action against Obiang, Silverstein asked, stem from political pressure to ignore the crimes and corruption of a possible future president of an oil-friendly ally?
In Washington, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, used Silverstein's reporting to launch an investigation into Obiang and others, culminating in this week's hearings. At a press briefing Tuesday, Silverstein asked Senator Levin why Obiang isn't on a list of corrupt foreign officials barred from the U.S. under Proclamation 7750. “That’s the right question,” Levin replied.
This week, Levin's committee released a 330-page report. Some "findings of fact" were:
Lawyers. Two U.S. lawyers helped Teodoro Obiang circumvent anti-money laundering and PEP (politically exposed person) controls at U.S. banks by allowing him to secretly use a series of attorney-client, law office, and shell company accounts as conduits for his funds.
Realtors. Two realtors helped Obiang buy and sell multi-million-dollar residences in California, and a real estate escrow agent facilitated his purchase of a $30 million property by handling millions of dollars wire transferred from Equatorial Guinea, without verifying the source of the funds, since they had no legal obligation to do so.
Escrow Agents. After one U.S. escrow agent, as an AML precaution, refused to complete the purchase of a Gulfstream jet for Obiang without obtaining information on the source of $38.5 million to be paid for the aircraft, another U.S. escrow agent stepped in and completed the transaction with no questions asked. The escrow agents had no legal obligation under current law to inquire about the source of the funds.
Lobbyist. A U.S. lobbyist helped President Omar Bongo of Gabon obtain six U.S.- built armored cars and U.S. government permission to buy six U.S.-built military cargo aircraft from Saudi Arabia to support his regime, while allowing his U.S. bank accounts to be used as a conduit for $18 million in suspect funds in connection with those transactions, with no questions asked.
Offshore Corporations. Jennifer Douglas, a PEP through her marriage to Atiku Abubakar, former vice president of Nigeria, used a series of U.S. bank accounts to bring over $25 million in suspect funds into the United States via wire transfers from offshore corporations. Douglas was later named in the bribery prosecution of ex-U.S. Congressman William Jefferson and has been linked to corruption admitted by Siemens.
University. A U.S. university accepted over $14 million in wire transfers from unfamiliar offshore shell corporations to pay for consulting services related to development of a university in Nigeria founded by Mr. Abubakar.
Personal Accounts. Pierre Falcone, a PEP through his close association with the President of Angola and appointment as an Angolan Ambassador, was able to use personal, family, and U.S. shell company accounts at a U.S. bank in Arizona to bring millions of dollars in suspect funds into the United States and move those funds among a worldwide network of Falcone accounts, despite his status as an arms dealer and a long history of involvement in criminal proceedings in France. Falcone is now in jail in France.
Silverstein's latest story added these weird details:
Two American attorneys set up shell accounts for Obiang to help him buy a $30 million home in Malibu and a $38.5 million jet. All told, Obiang moved more than more than $110 million into the U.S. from 2004 to 2008. One of the shell companies was called Sweet Pink, named after the rapper Eve Jeffers, who was then Obiang’s girlfriend and the president of Sweet Pink. (Eve later dumped Obiang, reportedly after hearing rumors that his dictator father was a cannibal who ate his political opponents. The senate report neither confirms nor denies that Obiang Sr. is a flesh eater.)
A copy of the proceedings of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations -- Keeping Foreign Corruption Out of the United States: Four Case Histories -- along with the full staff report can be downloaded here.
The lawsuit examining how three African rulers and their families managed to acquire dozens of luxury homes, cars and other assets in France has been stopped. A Paris magistrate had ordered the investigation in May at the request of Transparency International. See our post here. But last month an appellate court agreed with the Justice Ministry that TI lacked standing to bring the case.
The rulers named in the suit were Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo Republic, and Omar Bongo-Ondimba of Gabon. The Congo Republic and Gabon -- recently joined by Equatorial Guinea -- are important oil exporters. According to Reuters, the French oil and gas group Total SA is "the leading producer in Gabon and Congo Republic and many other French firms, public and private, have long-term contracts there."
William Bourdon, one of TI's lawyers, said: "Those in France and Africa who organize and take advantage of the looting of African public money will be celebrating with champagne." TI said it will ask France's Supreme Court (the Cour de cassation) to reinstate the investigation.
Gabon's President Bongo died in June. He had ruled the country since 1967, making him Africa's longest-serving head of state. His family owns 39 properties in France, Reuters said, mostly in exclusive districts of Paris and on the Riviera. The Congo Republic's Sassou-Nguesso and his relatives own 24 French properties, including a Paris mansion worth $28 million.
TI tipped police in 2007 to the African leaders' French assets. A preliminary police review identified "dozens of bank accounts, properties in rich districts of Paris and on the Riviera, and a collection of Bugattis, Ferraris, Maybachs, Maseratis and other luxury cars." The foreign rulers have denied using embezzled public funds to buy assets in France.
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Another time, another surge. President Lyndon Johnson, during a June 8, 1965 phone call to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, said this about U.S. troops in South Vietnam and the generals' requests for reinforcements:
I don't see exactly the medium for pulling out. . . . Our 75,000 men are going to be in great danger unless they have 75,000 more. My judgment is and I'm no military man at all, but I study it every day and every night and I read the cables, I look back over what's happened in the last two years, the last four really, and if they get 150, they'll have to have another 150. And then they'll have to have another 150. . . .
But, unless you can guard what you're doing, you can't do anything. We can't build an airport, by God . . . it takes more people to guard us in building an airport than it does to build the airport.
From the transcript of LBJ's Path To War, Bill Moyers' Journal, November 20, 2009.
The New York Times' Adam Nossiter has written a terrific article about kleptocracy and corruption in Gabon (here). Here's how his account begins:
LIBREVILLE, Gabon — In the airport duty-free store, the wine is upward of $400. The service at the fancy French restaurants in the chic Louis district is immaculate, and at the luxury hotel on the sea the call girls dress like fashion models.
The futuristic government palaces on Omar Bongo Triumphal Boulevard, with their flying-saucer and rocket-ship outcroppings, marbled interiors and expanses of plate glass, would make the pedestrian feel humble, if there were any. It is almost as if you could be in a prosperous city in Texas.
But you are in Gabon, and behind the late ruler’s palaces, which line the wide empty boulevard, are shacks and shanties stretching to the horizon, dirt roads and street vendors eking out a living selling cigarettes and imported vegetables. Most live on less than $2 a day in this little Central African country, rich in both oil and poor people. Evidence of the gulf between the haves (Mr. Bongo’s extended clan) and the have-nots (everybody else) is always just around the corner.
This is the late Mr. Bongo’s legacy: Libreville as a pop-up book representation of his regime of “ill-acquired goods,” as the French good-government activists who sued him last year call it.
The “Bongo system,” as people here refer to it — forsaking roads, schools and hospitals for the sake of Mr. Bongo’s 66 bank accounts, 183 cars, 39 luxury properties in France and grandiose government constructions in Libreville — is etched in the streets of this languid seaside capital, where he ruled for 41 years, and also in the minds of its inhabitants. . . .In June we reported President Bongo's death. He had ruled the country since 1967. When he died of a heart attack at 73, he was the longest-serving head of state on the African continent. A month earlier, our post C'est Magnifique! reported a French investigation into how President Bongo and two other African rulers had managed to buy numerous luxury homes in posh Paris neighborhoods and along the Riviera.
In March we reported the civil lawsuit filed against President Bongo in Gabon by Marc Ona Essangui, a 45-year-old Gabonese anti-corruption campaigner. Ona Essangui, who's confined to a wheelchair, claimed damages after being stopped from leaving the country four times last year, once on route to an anti-corruption conference in New York. In December 2008, he was arrested and jailed for ten days, charged with possessing a seditious document. It turned out to be an open letter to President Bongo that accused his government of mismanagement and corruption.
Gabon's president, Omar Bongo, 73, died last week of heart failure while in Spain on a holiday. In 1967, at just 31, he became the country's second post-colonial ruler and stayed on to become the longest-serving head of state on the African continent.
Outside Gabon -- a West African country with about a million and a half people and lots of oil -- he was generally seen as a force for stability and regional peace. He was a dependable ally of Western countries, particularly France and the United States. Marking his death, President Obama said, "President Bongo consistently emphasized the importance of seeking compromise and striving for peace, and made protecting Gabon's natural treasures a priority. His work in conservation in his country and his commitment to conflict resolution across the continent are an important part of his legacy and will be remembered with respect."
Some Gabonese were quoted as saying they weren't sorry to have a leadership change after 42 years. Others were stunned by the death of the only president most of them had ever known. The wailing heard on reports from the BBC reminded us of stories about Americans who grew up during FDR's dozen years in office. Some never quite got over the trauma of his death, our mother included.
President Bongo appeared in this space a month ago in our post C'est Magnifique! A French magistrate had just ordered authorities to investigate how he and two other African rulers had managed to buy numerous luxury homes in posh sections of Paris and along the Riviera.
And in March we reported the civil lawsuit filed against him in Gabon by Marc Ona Essangui, a 45-year-old Gabonese anti-corruption campaigner. Ona Essangui, who's confined to a wheelchair, claimed damages after being stopped from leaving the country four times last year, once en route to an anti-corruption conference in New York. In December, he was arrested and jailed for ten days, charged with possessing a seditious document. It turned out to be an open letter to President Bongo that accused his government of mismanagement and corruption.
A couple of days after he died, stories appeared that he had secretly funded Jacques Chirac's 1981 presidential campaign. The source of the allegations was another former French president, Valerie Giscard d'Estaing. Chirac denied the charges. The U.K.'s Telegraph said: In a startling new claim concerning France's murky past ties with African leaders, Mr Giscard said the 73-year old Gabonese premier who died on Monday spent years building up a "very questionable financial network", and that he had broken off ties with him when he allegedly helped fund Mr Chirac's bid for the presidency.
Gabon was named in the very first Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement action brought by the SEC, but it's never appeared again. In 1978, a firm called Page Airways, Inc. was accused of using a company owned by President Bongo as an intermediary in a deal to sell Gulfstream II business jets. Page promised not to violate the FCPA any more and was let off without financial penalties. But despite Gabon's clean FCPA record since then, it ranked 96th on the 2008 Corruption Perception Index, tied with Benin, Guatemala, Jamaica, Kiribati and Mali.
President Bongo's body was flown home last week as his nation started a month-long period of mourning. On Wednesday, the head of the senate, Rose Francine Rogombe, 66, was sworn in as care-taker president. The constitution requires an election within 45 days. Opposition politicians are questioning whether balloting will be free and fair. Some think Bongo's son, Ali-Ben, the current defense minister, has already been tabbed to replace his father (reports are here and here).
Francophile kleptocrats everywhere must be shaking in their Yves Saint Laurent double monk-strap black boots today, thanks to a Paris magistrate's ruling. He accepted a case brought by Transparency International that requires French authorities to investigate how three African rulers, their family members and friends managed to acquire numerous luxury homes, cars and other assets in France.
It's unusual to hear positive news from France about fighting graft. A few months ago, for example, the government decided French law prevents the prosecution of overseas bribery (Paris Pulls The Plug On Enforcement). So this marks a dramatic turnaround. There's one problem, though -- it might end soon.
The magistrate who made the ruling, Francoise Desset, is an independent investigator. But the justice ministry, through the public prosecutor's office, is already trying to quash his decision. There's concern the case and others that could follow would upset France's foreign policy.
The rulers named in the suit are Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo Republic, Omar Bongo-Ondimba of Gabon, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. Gabon and the Congo Republic are former French colonies still close to Paris, while Equatorial Guinea is becoming an important oil exporter. The French oil and gas group Total SA, according to Reuters, is "the leading producer in Gabon and Congo Republic and many other French firms, public and private, have long-term contracts there."
Gabon's President Bongo has run the country since 1967 and thinks of France as his second home, according to Reuters. The BBC said "a 2007 French police investigation found the leaders of the three countries and their relatives owned homes in upmarket areas of Paris and on the Riviera along with luxury cars, including Bugattis, Ferraris and Maseratis."
If the investigation is allowed to proceed, Transparency International says the scope will be wide:
This judge will have to determine how the assets owned in France were acquired, and where the funds in the many bank accounts uncovered during a preliminary police investigation came from. The investigation will also throw light on the various intermediaries involved in the transactions under scrutiny, namely the banks identified by the police investigation whose compliance with anti-money laundering regulations is in question.TI said it hopes the case will eventually lead to the right of restitution for the people of the three countries under the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, ratified by France in 2005.
Our thanks to Pete from DC for sending us a link to this story.
Read Transparency International's May 6, 2009 release here.
Marc Ona Essangui is from Gabon -- a West African country with lots of oil, about a million and a half people, and just two presidents since independence from France in 1960. He's the local head of the Publish What You Pay coalition, an NGO operating in 70 countries "that helps citizens of resource-rich developing countries hold their governments accountable for the management of revenues from the oil, gas and mining industries."
Gabonese authorities last year stopped Ona Essangui, 45, from leaving the country on four separate occasions. In June he was prevented from traveling to a conference in New York of Revenue Watch Institute. A spokesperson from Gabon's Ministry of the Interior, Maryse Issembet Me, reportedly said leaders of NGOs are in the pay of Europeans and Americans. In an AFP story, she was quoted as saying, "NGOs get up to whatever they want. They are at the mercy of and act for the Europeans and the Americans . . . The decision of the interior ministry was perfectly normal."
In December last year, Ona Essangui and a co-worker, along with a civil servant and two journalists, were arrested and held for about ten days. He was charged with "possession of a document for dissemination for the purpose of propaganda" and with having "oral or written propaganda for incitement of rebellion against state authorities."
The document in question was an open letter to President Omar Bongo Ondimba that accused his government of mismanagement and corruption. The letter asked why Gabon, with its vast natural resources, doesn't enjoy a standard of prosperity and development equivalent to the Gulf countries in the Middle East.
Ona Essangui, who has been in a wheelchair since contracting polio when he was six, faces a jail term of up to five years and a fine of around $500.
Now, however, he's suing the government in a court in Libreville for damages resulting from his travel ban. His lawyer says the claim of about $103,000 is a matter of "enforcing respect for human rights . . . and fundamental freedoms," according to AFP.
Gabon ranked 96th on the 2008 Corruption Perception Index, tied with Benin, Guatemala, Jamaica, Kiribati and Mali. On the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, where it ranks 118th, the commentary contains this warning: Gabon's economy is driven by oil, forestry, and minerals. In 2006, oil accounted for over 50 percent of GDP, over 60 percent of government revenues, and over 80 percent of exports. Despite a relatively high average income from oil revenue, most people live in poverty. With oil production declining as fields become exhausted, Gabon needs to diversify its economy.