The Justice Department turns up the heat against a resource-rich dictatorship as the State Department helps its leader buff his image.
- By Ken SilversteinKen Silverstein is a contributing editor with Vice and writes the Washington Babylon column for New York Observer. Follow him on Twitter at: @KenSilverstein1.
The minister of forestry of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny West African country, refused to offer foreign companies timber export licenses unless they bribed him. He took payment in personal checks or suitcases filled with cash. Companies that paid him off could log wherever they liked, including in national forest reserves allegedly protected under the country’s laws. Companies that refused to pay bribes got kicked out of the country and had their property and equipment stolen.
These allegations are contained in an amended civil forfeiture complaint filed on Monday, June 11, by the U.S. Justice Department that seeks tens of millions of dollars in assets belonging to Teodorin Obiang, the notoriously corrupt son of Equatorial Guinea’s long-ruling dictator. The U.S. government charges that the assets — which include a lavish estate in Malibu, California, and more than $1 million in Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a "white crystal-covered ‘Bad Tour’ glove" — were bought with corrupt money laundered in the United States.
The Justice Department filed its original complaint last October. Obiang’s attorneys argued that the complaint be dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence of corruption; on April 12, U.S. District Judge George Wu said he would dismiss the case unless the Justice Department provided more evidence within 60 days.
June 11’s filing was the government’s reply. While there has long been overwhelming common-sense evidence of Teodorin’s corruption, the complaint filed June 11 added substantial previously undisclosed details.
Teodorin’s father, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has ruled Equatorial Guinea since he took power in a 1979 coup. The country is rich in oil and has a per capita annual income of $19,300, on par with Hungary, but most of the population lives in dire poverty. That hasn’t stopped President Obiang from lining his pockets: He somehow managed to place eighth on a 2006 list by Forbes of the world’s richest leaders, with a fortune estimated at $600 million.
Obiang recently appointed son Teodorin as the country’s vice president and clearly intends to turn power over to him when he decides to retire. The Obiang family is being investigated for massive corruption in France and Spain, as well as in the United States. In Spain, a court is investigating a complaint that alleges that 11 of the president’s relatives and associates bought properties in Madrid and the Canary Islands with $26.5 million in laundered money. Teodorin is at the center of the French case. Last September, police seized 11 luxury vehicles outside his Paris residence, near the Champs-Élysées.
According to the Justice Department, Obiang in 1993 awarded Teodorin — then 24 years old — logging concessions on nearly 90,000 acres of rain forest. The following year, Teodorin was named minister of agriculture and forestry. As minister, Teodorin receives a modest salary of about $5,000 per month, which the Justice Department says is "inconsistent" with his lavish spending habits. In addition to his Malibu mansion, Teodorin owns a $38.5 million Gulfstream V jet and a small fleet of luxury cars, including Ferraris, Bugattis, Maseratis, and Porsches.
The Justice Department’s updated complaint contains astonishing details of Teodorin’s corrupt stewardship of his country’s national forests. It says that he demanded companies pay him $27 per log exported and that these "personal fees were calculated by technicians" on his ministerial staff. The complaint alleges that a Malaysian company called Shimmer paid him especially high bribes and in return was "provided unfettered access" to the country’s forests, including protected reserves.
All timber companies in Equatorial Guinea are required by law to provide for forest regeneration and invest in community health facilities, churches, and schools, but according to the complaint, Teodorin did not require companies owned by himself or his mother, "all of whom have substantial forestry concessions in E.G., to comply with these rules." The complain cites an unnamed national of Equatorial Guinea who owned a timber firm as saying that Teodorin’s companies "had no function other than to open bank accounts and receive illegal payments."
The complaint also says that Teodorin told one senior executive of a foreign firm that the executive would "suffer" because he refused to pay bribes. The unnamed executive was later arrested and jailed. When he was freed he left the country upon the advice of "an E.G. national familiar with [Teodorin]" who told him he should flee immediately "if he did not want his children in Europe to become orphans."
But even as the Justice Department finally pursues Obiang’s ill-begotten American assets, the State Department is participating in a hush-hush roundtable event on June 15 with human rights groups, academics, and Capitol Hill staff, with none other than President Obiang as the star attraction. The media are barred from the event, and the Wilson Center, which is hosting the dialogue, has told participants not to talk to reporters about it. (Full disclosure: Among the invited NGOs is the Open Society Foundations, where I am a fellow.) But the guest list and agenda are secret.
The invitation reads:
The Wilson Center’s Africa Program invites you to participate in a unique event, "Differing Perspectives on Equatorial Guinea — A Dialogue with H. E. President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo." This will be a small, private, invitation-only conversation on Friday, June 15, at 11am in the 6th Floor Boardroom with a select group of academic, NGO, Hill and opinion leaders. We will begin with remarks from the U.S. Department of State’s Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, followed by a short presentation from the President and an open exchange will ensue. The event will be closed to the press and will observe the Chatham House Rule. Please note that this invitation is not transferable.
Asked about the event, Steve McDonald of the Wilson Center said that it was "hosting this meeting at the request of the State Department as a small, private, invitation-only conversation between Obiang and Carson, plus a few opinion leaders from NGOs, the Hill and academia.… We are not telling anyone not to say the meeting is taking place. It is just private.… We have received no financial or other incentives to do this, but do it in a continuing commitment to facilitate dialogue that can lead to democratic and peaceful change in countries where those ideals are not being met."
Meanwhile, another Washington institution, the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, is planning a more direct PR job for the Obiang clan. It is hosting a summit this August in Equatorial Guinea "to promote open dialog and ground-up communication between the people of Africa, local and international organizations and government institutions." The foundation is offering an all-inclusive travel package with the reasonable — and cute — price of $2012.
Mike DeGeurin, Teodorin’s attorney, did not reply to a request for comment.
The State Department has promised a reply to a request for comment, but has not sent it as of publication time.
Update: The State Department responds:
"The idea for the meeting arose from a discussion between President Obiang and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson. The State Department has worked with Wilson Center on the meeting and Assistant Secretary Carson will participate in the meeting.
An open and frank exchange between a government and representatives of civil society organizations and other groups interested in and knowledgeable about Equatorial Guinea and Africa overall can provide valuable insights to all participants."