The Justice Department on Tuesday seized roughly a million dollars in Florida real estate from a witness cooperating in a federal bribery investigation that involves the Franco-Israeli diamond billionaire Beny Steinmetz.
Federal prosecutors claim the property — which included three houses in suburban Jacksonville and an assortment of restaurant equipment such as refrigerators, grills and fish display cases — was the fruit of money laundering and a bribery scheme to win mining rights in the Republic of Guinea six years ago.
The owner, Mamadie Touré, was the fourth wife of the former Guinean dictator Lansana Conté. She has been cooperating with a Manhattan federal grand jury investigation since at least as early as February 2013.
The Justice Department suspects that a Steinmetz company won lucrative mineral rights in Guinea — in part by paying and offering millions of dollars in bribes to Conté via Touré.
Steinmetz has not been charged. He also adamantly denies wrongdoing, engaging an aggressive legal and publicity operation in London and New York to counter negative coverage in the news media and describing documents held in evidence as forgeries.
At issue is access to iron ore deposits in Guinea’s Simandou mountain range, said to be the largest untapped reserve remaining the world, with a potential value in the tens of billions of dollars.
A former Steinmetz associate, Frédéric Cilins, was sentenced in July to two years in prison for attempting to thwart the grand jury investigation by offering millions of dollars to Touré to destroy evidence.
With 94 days off for good time, Cilins is scheduled to be released in January from the Moshannon Valley correctional institution in Pennsylvania, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
Cilins was arrested at the Jacksonville airport last year after a series of meetings in which he attempted to pay Touré to help him destroy documents sought by the grand jury.
In one covert FBI surveillance recording made by Touré, who wore a wire, Cilins hushed his voice to say on whose authority he was acting: “Everything I say is directly from Beny.”
Shortly before his death in 2008, President Conté had awarded multi-billion-dollar iron ore concessions to BSG Resources Ltd., which is owned by Steinmetz family trusts.
The concessions had been unceremoniously stripped from the giant Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest producer of iron ore.
It was unclear why federal authorities had waited until 2014 to begin criminal forfeiture proceedings against Touré’s properties.
The development may mean the bribery investigation is progressing.
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 prohibits the payment of bribes to win business and can also apply when the conduct involves U.S. soil or the U.S. banking system.
Touré has told investigators that she herself took at least $5.3 million in bribes, including cash, Toyota Land Cruisers and diamond jewelry.
While in the United States, she allegedly continued to receive payments from Cilins or other Steinmetz-related individuals into 2012, according to federal prosecutors.
“Touré laundered the bribe payments through the U.S. financial system, making numerous transfers between bank accounts in excess of $10,000,” wrote Alexis J. Loeb, the prosecutor in the case. The amount is a financial threshold for money laundering charges.
Loeb’s court filing did not name Steinmetz or BSGR. But the circumstances she described made clear that she was referring to the company.
Guinean authorities stripped BSGR of the Simandou concessions in April, saying a local investigation had uncovered “acts of corruption” in the concessions’ tendering.
BSGR filed an arbitration claim against the Guinean government before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes in London in September. In a prepared statement, a BSGR said it filed the claim “to separate fact from fiction” and that it “looks forward to testing the evidence” before the International Centre, adding, “The tribunal will prove that the current Government of Guinea is the real perpetrator of corruption, and that these allegations are being used to justify an illegal expropriation of BSGR’s assets in Guinea.”
However BSGR is also reportedly facing arbitration claims from the Brazilian miner Vale, an erstwhile partner in the Simandou project which is now seeking to recoup at least some of the $1.1 billion investment it claims to have lost.
To further complicate matters, Rio Tinto has filed a lawsuit in New York accusing both companies of conspiring to steal the concession.
Touré did not appear to be represented by a lawyer in the forfeiture matter.
Telephone calls and an email to her seeking comment were not answered.