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Hold That Car

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When it comes to being the target of international criminal investigations, the buffoonish clan that runs oil-rich Equatorial Guinea may be setting new records. Just two weeks ago, French investigators seized millions of dollars’ worth of sports cars belonging to Teodorin Nguema Obiang, the son of the country’s long-ruling dictator. A major investigation of the Obiang family is also unfolding in Spain, where the clan owns multiple properties.

But the United States has been slow to act against the self-styled prince of Equatorial Guinea. Until now.

I’ve reported extensively for Foreign Policy on Teodorin’s over-the-top lifestyle in California, where he owns a $30 million estate in Malibu and where, according to former household employees I interviewed, he was renowned for sleeping all day and partying all night. (A favorite spot is the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.) The would-be heir of Equatorial Guinea once rented a yacht owned by Paul Allen to throw a party for his then-girlfriend, the rapper Eve, and even commissioned plans for a custom-built $380 million superyacht of his own.

The U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency have been investigating Teodorin — Equatorial Guinea’s minister of agriculture and forestry and his father’s handpicked successor — on suspicion of laundering funds into the United States and alleged "extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct" back at home, according to documents from the government’s probe. The investigation, which I first reported in 2009, was launched more than four years ago and until now has moved at a snail’s pace, despite repeated congressional investigations that, in addition to the joint Justice Department-ICE probe, have produced mounds of evidence.

Some critics have argued that the U.S. government has been slow to move because American energy firms, led by ExxonMobil, have billions of dollars invested in Equatorial Guinea and most of its oil is exported to the United States. Never mind that his father, Teodoro Obiang, who seized power in a 1979 coup, runs a regime as brutal as it is corrupt.

But last week U.S. investigators finally took action. Several sources I spoke with told me that the Justice Department filed a "lis pendens" — a written notice that a lawsuit concerning title to property has been filed — with the Los Angeles County recorder’s office. Laura Sweeney, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, confirmed to me that it had filed the document [but she declined to provide further information]. (The recorder’s office can take more than a week to process documents and make them publicly available.) The document, I’m told, identifies a number of Teodorin’s assets as relevant to the legal action, including his mansion, a private jet, a variety of sports cars, a white crystal-covered glove from Michael Jackson’s "Bad" tour, and other memorabilia of the King of Pop.

According to legal sources I spoke with, the filing does not constitute a lien on his property but makes it exceedingly difficult for him to sell his estate (or his Michael Jackson memorabilia, if he hasn’t taken it back to Equatorial Guinea). Sources have told me that Teodorin doesn’t come to the United States much anymore and that he has shipped his sports cars out of the country. His private jet, which he bought for $38 million, is presumably no longer in the United States either. It’s not clear precisely what charges the feds are contemplating bringing against Teodorin; the lis pendens refers to a related federal case against him in U.S. District Court, but it is not public and apparently under seal.

Incidentally, Teodorin has multiple connections to Michael Jackson’s siblings. He had a close friendship with pop star Janet and this year invited Michael’s brother Marlon to Equatorial Guinea "to discuss potential partnerships in the agricultural and cultural sectors of the country," as stated in a news release.

I sent a request for comment on Oct. 12 to Qorvis Communications, Equatorial Guinea’s Washington lobby shop. It declined comment, as did the Justice Department. Duane Lyons, an attorney for Teodorin at the Los Angeles office of Quinn Emanuel, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On a side note, former Clinton White House counsel Lanny Davis, the Washington lobbyist, has filed a civil suit against the government of Equatorial Guinea. He alleges that his former client failed to reimburse him for expenses on a $2 million contract.

UPDATE: I obtained a copy of the lis pendens. The official title is lengthy but begins, "U.S. v. One White Crystal-Covered ‘Bad Tour’ Glove and other Michael Jackson Memorabalia." The title goes on to list a number of Teodorin’s other assets, including his $30 million estate in Malibu, a private jet, and seven sports cars: a Bugatti Veyron, a Bentley Azure, a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, and three Rolls Royces.

The document says, "Notice is hereby given that the foregoing action has been commenced and is now pending in the United States District Court for the Central District of California between the parties above-named for the forfeiture of said real property."

That related case is apparently sealed so the details of the Justice Department’s case are not clear. But it is certainly devoting significant resources to the task of seizing his Malibu mansion.  The document was signed by Jennifer Calvery, chief of the department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section and several of her deputies, and by Janet Hudson, a senior trial lawyer in the criminal division.