By Leslie Wayne
When it comes to savoring the spoils of wealth, no one does it better than corrupt government officials, greedy business executives and their entourages. Their houses are bigger, their yachts are sleeker and they are able to fly away from their often poverty-stricken countries in their luxurious private jets.
Corruption is theft: taking from the have-nots and giving to the haves. It can be bank executives in Kabul who were arrested for giving $900 million in loans to Afghanistan’s politically-connected. Or it can be simple bribes extracted to bring much-needed aid to Niger or Burkina Faso. The Arab Spring uprising, stretching from Morocco to Jordan, shows that people in many places around the world are increasingly fed up with being shaken down. Corruption has robbed these citizens of their dignity, their future and their hard-earned cash. One way to expose corruption is to trace where the money has gone — and the toys that loot has bought.
100r.org, a new, global, non-profit journalism website, is looking for loot — and a lot of it. As part of its mission, the site is eager to receive evidence of corruption that will be investigated, documented, and turned into solid articles. The goal is to shine a light on corruption in all of its forms. Just as there is the Fortune 500 and the Forbes Rich List, we are busy drawing up our own list, a “Wretched Excess List.” With your help, it will be populated by those who have enriched themselves through their ties to the powerful — or simply by taking it on their own. Send us photographs, video, evidence of real estate transactions, and we will take it from there. The “excess” can take any form — mega-projects, shopping sprees, offshore mansions. Here are few examples:
It’s hard to say much good about Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president who has led a reign of terror, except that he has a stunning house in Hong Kong. While his country is awash in disease, poverty and fear, Mugabe and his wife, Grace, can retreat to a $5 million three-story villa located in the fabled “Nine Dragons” section of Hong Kong, where the British colonial army once operated amid its hills.
Hong Kong has strict rules against money-laundering and Mugabe is shunned by most countries. Through a variety of partners and entities, Mugabe secretly bought his villa on Shan Tong Road in a gated development called JC Castle — named after the Chinese action star Jackie Chan. Press accounts in Europe show that anyone might need the skills of a Jackie Chan to get close. A number of journalists report being roughed up as they tried to photograph Mugabe’s lair.
India’s Mukesh Ambani, worth $27 billion, might object to being lumped in with Mugabe. Yet the chairman of Reliance Industries — India’s largest private concern, a chemical and energy behemoth — is building a house so outrageous, it has stunned Indians long accustomed to the stark differences of wealth and poverty.
It is the most expensive house in the world — the first $1 billion home. Eyebrows were raised by the sheer size of the 27-story Mumbai tower. Even more, it comes as Ambani stands accused in an Indian government auditor’s report of having a sweetheart arrangement with government officials that enriched Reliance at the expense of Indian taxpayers. India’s Comptroller and Auditor General found that Indian energy officials were “bending rules” and providing “huge” benefits in oil and gas contracts with Reliance. The company profited while the Indian government faces an “unquantifiable” loss and a growing controversy to boot. Reliance denies the allegations.
Meantime, it might be easy for Ambani to forget this messiness in a 60,000 square foot house with a six-story garage large enough for 150 cars, three helipads and a ballroom with crystal chandeliers. If Mumbai gets too hot — or Ambani feels heat from Indian regulators — he can retreat to one unique feature of the house: an ice-room which will be dusted by man-made snow flurries.
Then there is Teodorin Obiang, son of Equatorial Guinea’s long-ruling dictator. He’s asked a German shipyard to design a $380 million super yacht, destined to be the second-most expensive in the world and, at 387 feet, a monster of the seas. Global Witness, a London-based human rights group, uncovered the deal. Obiang’s country is awash in massive amounts of oil wealth for the elites and poverty for everyone else.
The project is code-named “Zen.” A spokeswoman for Obiang said he has only ordered the boat’s design and, should he complete the purchase, it would come from his own and not government funds. But where does Obiang get his money? He’s learned to live large on his modest $7000 monthly government salary. He also owns a $35 million mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, a fleet of luxury cars and a private jet.
Perhaps you can find additional examples of Wretched Excess. If so, tell us at email@example.com.
Leslie Wayne is senior editor of 100Reporters.