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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

U.S. Tells of Corruption in West Africa

WASHINGTON (CN) - The son of the president of Equatorial Guinea refuses to return a $38 million jet he bought with money he stole through companies that harvest his country's natural resources, the United States says. The federal complaint is replete with tales of extravagant expenditures by the spoiled son, including "eight Ferraris, seven Rolls-Royces, five Bentleys, four Mercedes, a Porsche, two Lamborghinis and an Aston Martin" and $275,000 for one of Michael Jackson's gloves.

The Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, Criminal Division, sued the Gulfstream G-V Jet, in a rather lurid, 24-page complaint that describes the pampered life of the son of the longtime president.

The jet was bought from Blue Sapphire Services and is believed to be in Equatorial Guinea. The entity that bought it is called Ebony Shine International, but its true beneficiary is the president's son, according to the complaint.

The United States sued the jet, seeking forfeiture in rem.

Though not named as defendants, key players in the lawsuit are Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mbasogo, who seized power in a 1979 coup - which overthrew his uncle - and the president's son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue.

Equatorial Guinea has become a major oil and gas producer since the 1990s. It is the third-largest oil and gas producer in Sub-Saharan Africa, and with a population of only 680,000, and rule by a corrupt "Inner Circle," the "billions of dollars in annual revenue" from oil and gas has gone a long way - but not to everyone, Uncle Sam says.

The president's son, Obiang Mangue, is the minister of Forestry and Agriculture, and "the beneficial owner of the defendant aircraft," but his official title doesn't tell the tale. The real players in Equatorial Guinea are the "Inner Circle: a small number of individuals who hold critical positions of political and economic power," according to the complaint.

"During President Obiang's more than 30-year rule, members of the Inner Circle have amassed extraordinary wealth through a variety of corrupt schemes."

The president's son, a member of the Inner Circle, was well taken care of: "In 1991, at the age of 23, Nguema came to the United States to study English as a Second Language at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California," the complaint states. "He did not live on campus; instead, he shuttled between rooms at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and a house he rented in Malibu. After five months, he dropped out of the program. His tuition and living expenses (including his hotel bill and the rental of the house in Malibu) were paid by an American Oil company operating in Equatorial Guinea."

Dropping out of college didn't hurt him, though. His father gave him concessions to harvest 88,000 acres of rainforest - National Forests - and also made him Minister of Forestry, and junior was on his way, "to enrich himself through corrupt schemes in the timber industry," according to the complaint.

Then President Obiang gave Mangue control of the country's infrastructure development, which allowed him to award his company multimillion-dollar government contracts for road construction, according to the complaint.

The young heir apparent extorted millions from companies doing business in Equatorial Guinea, refusing to sign approvals for timber exports unless the exporter pays a "tax" for his personal benefit, the complaint states.


Nguema and his own "inner circle" also demand that foreign companies operating in Equatorial Guinea give them "gifts and free services. For instance, a major international civil engineering firm in E.G., which had obtained several substantial infrastructure contracts from the Government of E.G., built a mansion for Nguema in Malabo, E.G., at his request and direction," the complaint states.

Nguema used his extorted wealth to buy millions of dollars worth of sports cars, mansions, celebrity memorabilia and sports boats, and spent $290,000 to design a $380 million yacht that he decided not to buy after all, according to the complaint.

"In March 2001, Nguema bought a new 2001 Bentley automobile in Beverly Hills, California, paying for it with a personal check for $366,000, drawn on his Riggs Bank account. A few months later, he bought a second 2001 Bentley, from the same dealership in Beverly Hills, for which he paid $57,500 in cash and $228,000 by personal check drawn on the same account," Uncle Sam says.

Nguema also spent $6.5 million on a house in Bel Air; $8 million on two luxury homes in Cape Town, South Africa; $9.6 million on sports cars and luxury vehicles, including eight Ferraris, seven Rolls-Royces, five Bentleys, four Mercedes, a Porsche, two Lamborghinis and an Aston Martin; $2 million on two high-performance racing boats, one of which sank and cost him $400,000 to salvage; $130,000 on Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana designer clothes; $32 million on Michael Jackson memorabilia, including Jacko's "Bad Tour" glove, which cost him $275,000; and $38.5 million on the defendant jet.

He paid a German company $290,000 to design a mega-yacht that would have cost him $380 million, but "after Nguema's payment for the pre-design became public, official sources within E.G. announced that he was not purchasing the yacht," according to the complaint.

"When opening accounts at financial institutions in the United States, Nguema provided various explanations for his source of funds," the complaint states - not even halfway through. "For example, in March 2007, when opening a bank account at Comerica Bank in California, Nguema claimed that he acquired money from a 'family inheritance' and from 'trading expensive and custom automobiles.' In September 2006, when opening a bank account at Pacific Mercantile Bank in California, Nguema claimed to be self-employed as an 'investor,' in addition to serving as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. As a member of the Inner Circle, Nguema derived his funds from a variety of corrupt schemes."

All this came to light due to a U.S. Senate investigation on money laundering and foreign corruption, "which focused in part on money brought to Riggs Bank in the United States from E.G. that was suspected of being proceeds of foreign corruption in E.G." the complaint states.

The corrupt Inner Circle deposited their stolen loot in the Riggs National Bank in Washington, D.C., from 1995 to 2004, according to the 2004 report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Riggs Bank had to pay $41 million in fines and civil penalties for failing to report suspicious monetary transaction by high-risk customers.

Uncle Sam says Nguema's money is the product of theft, as Equatorial Guinea's forest and oil belong to the nation - not to his family. It says the thefts of millions or billions of dollars violate the 1968 Criminal Code of Spain, which is in effect in Equatorial Guinea.

The complaint rolls merrily along: "Like other members of the Inner Circle, Nguema has also diverted E.G. public resources and monies for his personal use. On one occasion in 2005, Nguema, who was attempting to purchase a $40 million luxury aircraft for his personal use, advised the manufacturer that he could have a United States oil company operating in E.G. assume responsibility for making the payments for his personal jet," the complaint states. "These payments would then be credited against balances owed by the oil company to the government of E.G. In this roundabout manner, government funds would be used to buy the plane for Nguema without appearing to come from the E.G. Government."

In this instance, the United States says, the oil company refused to do it.

The defendant jet was sold to Nguema by Blue Sapphire Services, a British Virgin Islands company. Nguema paid the company's escrow agent, McAfee & Taft, a $15 million down payment, but the agent stopped the deal because "Nguema refused to comply with that company's requirements, including a requirement that Nguema identify the source of the funds," the complaint states.

The U.S. says McAfee & Taft returned the money to Equatorial Guinea's bank account, but Nguema bought the jet through another escrow agent, IATS of Oklahoma City.

Uncle Sam says the jet was purchased using money obtained by unlawful activity, including extortion, misappropriation, theft, and embezzlement of public funds by or for the benefit of a public official, in violation of E.G. laws.

It seeks the forfeiture of "One Gulfstream Aerospace model G-V aircraft purchased by Ebony Shine International Ltd., bearing manufacturer's serial number 669 and International Registration Number VPCES (Cayman Islands), its tools and appurtenances."

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