In 2006, while most of his people lived on less than a dollar a day, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue bought a 12-acre Malibu estate with a putting green overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a Gulfstream V, the kind of jet that operates at $3,000 an hour and can fly non-stop from Moscow to Rio de Janeiro.
Under the terms of a kleptocracy settlement announced Friday with U.S. Justice Department, Nguema, 45, the second vice president of Equatorial Guinea, will keep the jet.
But he will be forced to sell the 15,000-square-foot mansion, its guest and gate houses, its ocean-viewing pools and tennis court. (Oh, and the 2011 Ferrari 599 GTO he parked there. And up to seven life-sized statues from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.)
After a three-year legal battle with Washington, the $30 million haul announced Friday is less than half of what prosecutors had originally hoped to confiscate as the proceeds of gross corruption and crime. The expected $20 million proceeds from the sales will be given to a charitable organization benefitting the people of Equatorial Guinea. The recipient will be selected jointly with the U.S., giving Nguema a say in who benefits from his penalty.
No Victory Lap
Nguema floated for a decade atop a $300 million fountain of unending riches and cash allegedly embezzled, extorted, stolen and laundered from Equatorial Guinea, one of the poorest nations on earth. His lavish spending made him a natural target for a new campaign begun four years ago by the Justice Department to seize the ill-gotten gains of the world’s corrupt leaders.
Still, much of the booty was gone — seized by authorities in France or spirited out of U.S. grasp by Nguema. Some witnesses were likely unavailable. And federal judges in two cities had frustrated prosecutors by demanding proof that Nguema’s lavish purchases were tied to specific crimes.
Attorneys for both sides revealed in July that they would settle out of court.
For the kleptocracy initiative’s signature case, there would be no trial or testimony, no verdict, no unalloyed victory.
And Nguema admits no wrongdoing.
If the kleptocracy initiative outlives the Obama administration, the Nguema cases may be a signal to other leaders of just how far the Justice Department is willing to go — or not go — when it faces resistance from a host government and pushback from U.S. courts.
In announcing the settlement on Friday, Leslie R. Caldwell, chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, told reporters that by agreeing to forfeit $10.3 million to the United States, in addition to selling the seized property, Nguema had tacitly admitted his involvement in criminal conduct.
She said the absence of some witnesses had not led prosecutors to steer clear of a jury trial, with its unpredictable outcome.
“I would say no,” she said. “I think we have ample evidence to do the money trail.”
Witness Lock Down
At least one witness identified by prosecutors, Nguema’s Italian ex-business partner Roberto Berardi, remains in prison in the port town of Bata, where he has smuggled out mobile phone pictures of his back criss-crossed with red lines, seemingly the result of his own torture.
According to Roberto’s brother Stefano, Roberto was also able to smuggle out a recording made surreptitiously on June 21 this year, which allegedly captured the sound of another detainee’s torture.
After more than five minutes, a voice, which Stefano says is his brother’s, offers a comment in accented French.
“This is what we hear every day…. I can record it but I have difficulty taking photos because if I’m caught I’ll be beaten. But I hope this message will reach you,” says the voice.
Berardi and Nguema were joint owners of Eloba Construcción, a building contractor created for public works in Equatorial Guinea which prosecutors claim was looted by Nguema.
Roberto Berardi in Equatorial Guinea prison. Photos courtesy of Berardi family.
According to the Justice Department, on just one occasion, Nguema used an Eloba account to wire $872,112 to the United States to pay for Michael Jackson memorabilia he had bought at auction in December of 2010.
This included a $275,000 crystal-covered glove from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” tour of 1987, which Nguema will also get to keep in Equatorial Guinea along with other auction items so long as he pays $1 million to the United States.
According to Human Rights Watch, Berardi was himself sentenced last year to two years in prison in Equatorial Guinea for theft and fraud in what appeared to an effort to prevent him from revealing information about Nguema. Medical records indicate that in prison he has developed pulmonary emphysema and typhoid fever but he has been denied medical care, according to the organization. Family members now fear for his life.
Another potential Eloba witness, the employee Alessandro Corbara, was reportedly killed in a car crash in Equatorial Guinea as recently as July under circumstances that Italian Senator Luigi Manconi has publicly described as suspicious.
Requests for comment submitted to the Equatoguinean embassy, to Nguema’s Los Angeles attorney Duane R. Lyons and to the Washington publicity firm Qorvis were not answered.
However in a Facebook announcement carried by The Wall Street Journal, Nguema said he was glad to end a “long and costly ordeal.”
“I agreed to settle this case despite the fact that the U.S. federal courts had consistently found that the Department of Justice lacked probable cause to seize my property,” he was quoted as saying.
The so-called “Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative” has wracked up notable successes — seizing a Manhattan condo held by the son of the disgraced former Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian and taking in a half billion dollars stashed in accounts around the world buy the ex-Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and his cronies.
But the Nguema action is the only one taken so far against a senior official still in power. And it has wound up less than a triumph.
Ken Hurwitz, an anticorruption legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative in New York, described the outcome as “a mixed result.”
“I think they got the entirety of everything that was in the United States and that was all they would have gotten anyway.”
“They unearthed a huge amount. They exposed in thousands of pages of documents the extortion, the embezzlement, what everyday business is like for the ruling clan,” said Hurwitz. “They may have felt there were problems in the case. A number of the witnesses were anonymous which suggests there may have been concerns about security,” he added.
The Best Toys
In apparent violation of an agreement with the Justice Department, Nguema began shipping his Jackson memorabilia and luxury cars out of the United States. Prosecutors say they do not know where the jet is. But federal judges in Los Angeles and Washington, where the two separate cases were brought, had repeatedly insisted that prosecutors re-state their allegations with greater specificity, tying Nguema not merely to suspicious wealth but to specific crimes and victims.
During pretrial arguments in 2012, George H. Wu, a federal judge in Los Angeles, described purchases inventoried in the prosecution’s complaint as “spender’s porno,” but said that the case faced the “major problem” of tying the assets to dirty money.
“When viewed in tandem with other details suggesting illegal behavior, Nguema’s wealth might allow an inference of illegal activity — but standing alone, it does not,” wrote Rudolph Contreras, a federal judge in Washington, as he initially threw out the government’s case for the Gulfstream last year.
Nguema has long pointed to logging concessions granted him by his father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, as a source of potentially legitimate wealth.
His lawyers accused the government of “character assassination,” focusing on Nguema’s lifestyle rather than tying purchases to money and the money to actual crimes in Equatorial Guinea. However, in refining their allegations over several years, prosecutors accused Nguema of serial criminality in voluminous detail.
They said Nguema extorted fees from timber companies and misappropriated and stole hundreds of millions dollars in public funds in Equatorial Guinea. Witnesses, some anonymous, described bribes paid for timber export licenses, logging permits, foreign companies allegedly required to pay Nguema personally for permission to operate in Equatorial Guinea and death threats delivered against those who refused to cooperate.
Prosecutors also said that no legitimate source of income could possibly account for the pharaonic sums that Nguema had spent.
In 2008, Nguema spent $290,000 commissioning designs for a German yacht that was to have cost $380 million. He abandoned plans after word of the pending purchase became public.
For every year between 2000 and 2011, Nguema’s spending dwarfed both his official salary of less than $100,000 and the “fraudulent income” he claimed from his companies, prosecutors said.
Stefano Berardi, the brother of imprisoned witness Roberto Berardi, told 100Reporters he was “disgusted” by the settlement.
“The proof, they have it. It’s very obvious,” he said from his home in Berlin. “This is a political choice. I am ashamed for Mr. Obama.”