Question: how did an African politician, on an official salary of roughly $6,000 a month, manage to acquire the lifestyle of a Hollywood billionaire, partying at the Playboy mansion, travelling in private jets, and living at a $30m Malibu mansion filled with impressionist artwork, and surrounded by its own private golf course?
Answer: simple. First, that politician was lucky enough to be Teodoro Nguema Obiang, heir apparent to the autocratic dictator of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country in West Africa which since discovering huge oil reserves in the mid 1990s has acquired the dubious distinction of having one of the world’s most spectacularly-corrupt governments.
Secondly, Obiang was able to find a pair of high-flying Beverly Hills lawyers who – in exchange for extravagant fees - were prepared to set up an opaque string of shell companies that allowed him to secretly control dozens of US bank accounts through which tens of millions of his ill-gotten dollars could be laundered.
That, at least, is the claim made in an extraordinary 118-page lawsuit filed this week by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), which is attempting to persuade a judge to confiscate some of Obiang’s most treasured possessions, including his Malibu Home, his Ferrari car, and his collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, which includes seven life-sized statues of the singer, along with a white cotton glove worn on his 1987 “Bad” tour.
The document sheds unprecedented detail on the alleged schemes by which Obiang used his role as Forestry Minister in his father’s government for personal enrichment. And it unpicks the dubious steps his lawyers then took to, in the words of the DOJ, “defraud” a string of US banks into providing a safe haven for that illegally-acquired wealth.
It also provides a year-by-year rundown on the hundreds of millions of dollars that Obiang frittered away on yachts, jewellery, fast cars, and real estate, while citizens of his country lived in abject poverty, without proper roads, and with intermittent electricity and running water. His personal spending, since 2000, has ranged from $7m to $88 million a year.
As recently as last year, when the US government launched a very public bid to claw back money laundered through its financial system by crooks and corrupt foreign politicians, Obiang was able to spend some $7,620,452 on himself. Purchases chronicled by the lawsuit include a $1.2m Piaget watch, a $532k Ferrari, and $494k on dozens of items of Jackson’s former belongings, which were sold at auction in California.
Between 2004 and 2011, his combined expenditures totalled $314m, the lawsuit claims. That’s more than four thousand times his official salary. “This document is a potential smoking gun, which suggests that systemic corruption has been occurring for nearly two decades,” said Joseph Kraus of EG Justice, an international human rights group which campaigns for reform in Equatorial Guinea.
“It details the names of companies that were allegedly asked to pay bribes or other illegal 'fees' for the right to do business in the country. And it implicates Teodorin [Mr Obiang’s nickname], who many believe is being groomed to succeed his father as president, in brazen corruption and money laundering schemes designed to finance an extravagant lifestyle.”
The legal complaint tells how Obiang’s father appointed him to his cabinet in 1998. He swiftly began forcing large timber companies – including ABM, Agroforestal and Isoroy - wishing to exploit the country’s publicly-owned forests, to pay millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, it claims. They were allegedly told to stump up fees to access forestry, fees to operate there, and fees to export their product. He personally received roughly ten percent of the value of wood harvested.
At one point, Obiang announced an overnight export “tax” of $27 per log, to be applied on every timber shipment out of the country. The money was paid directly into a private commercial bank account in Equatorial Guinea, which he had personal control over, the lawsuit alleges.
“Companies that refused to pay [him] were prevented from exporting their timber from the Port of Bata, where nearly all of Equatorial Guinea’s timber originated, and incurred additional expenses of up to $5,000 per day for any delays,” it reads.
Obiang also required oil and gas companies wishing to exploit Equatorial Guinea’s huge reserves – which, despite the impoverished existence of most inhabitants, have given it a per-capita GDP similar to that of Spain – to lavish gifts upon him. And he deliberately inflated construction contracts for personal enrichment, prosecutors say, making tens of millions more dollars. Enormous wealth was apparently nothing to Obiang without a Hollywood lifestyle, though. The document tells how he decided to move to the US, taking a place at Pepperdine, a private, Christian university in Malibu where tuition alone costs $40,000 per year.
A Houston-based oil company called Ocean Energy, which at the time was operating in Equatorial Guinea, agreed to pay his fees and living expenses. Paying bribes to foreign officials is strictly prohibited under US law. The company did not respond to inquiries from The Independent this week regarding the arrangement.
Over subsequent years, Obiang and his relatives were clients of Riggs Bank, a once-venerable institution in Washington DC. But in 2004, amid reports that the family had been allowed to deposit suitcases full of banknotes and wire $700 million dollars into accounts there, without proper oversight, Riggs was fined $15m, and agreed to pay a $25m civil penalty. It collapsed the following year.
At that point, Obiang enlisted the help of two Beverly Hills lawyers, Michael J Berger and George Nagler. Because US banks were no longer willing to open accounts in his real name, the attorneys set up dozens of shell companies to, in the words of prosecutors: “defraud US financial institutions regarding [Obiang’s] relationship to accounts opened.”
The attorneys quickly began to enjoy the trappings of their despotic client’s lifestyle. In a private email, Berger, whose Twitter feed proclaims him a “specialist in bankruptcy law and marathon runner,” thanked Obiang for inviting him to private party at which a live, white tiger was produced to entertain guests. “SO COOL!” he said.
In another e-mail, the bespectacled, middle aged attorney thanked Obiang for taking him to a bash at the Playboy Mansion where he got the “VIP treatment” and “met many beautiful women.”
Neither Berger nor Nagler were willing to discuss the DOJ lawsuit, or their work for the African dictator’s son this week. In a recent appearance before the US Senate, Berger refused to talk, pleading “the fifth” – an amendment to the US constitution which protects citizens against self incrimination.
Obiang has in the past denied all allegations of corruption, claiming his wealth instead comes from a successful business career. Quovis, a lobbying firm which represent him in the US, said that lawyers were still digesting the DOJ lawsuit, and would not yet be commenting.
Activists meanwhile hope that the case will persuade the US to tighten its anti-corruption laws. “Information raising grave concerns about corruption and Obiang has been public for years, and yet it was relatively straightforward for him to move his money into America,” said Robert Palmer, of the pressure group Global Witness. “Imagine what sort of corruption other politicians, who are more devious and intelligent, are able to get away with.”