The US Justice Department’s $30 million settlement deal with the eldest son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, announced on October 10, marks the end of a decade-long US effort to pursue Teodoro (“Teodorín”) Nguema Obiang Mangue for corruption and money-laundering. Under the settlement, Teodorín will have to forfeit to the US some of the funds the Justice Department says he “shamelessly looted.” He agreed to pay without admitting any wrongdoing.
The case was the first in the US against a sitting government official and shows the importance of seeking accountability for misuse of public funds while those allegedly responsible are still in office. It also offers a window into the world, and all its excesses, of a member of a powerful elite in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where the bulk of the population lives in poverty.
Teodorín is a former minister and currently the country’s second vice president. His father, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, is the world’s longest-serving non-royal head of state.
The US government accused Teodorín of bribes, kickbacks, embezzlement, and extortion of the country’s natural resource wealth on an astounding scale. His government salary was less than $100,000 per year, yet he allegedly spent more than $300 million to buy mansions on four continents and make other high-ticket purchases between 2000 and 2011.
One can imagine what the impact might be, in social and economic rights terms, if $300 million in public funds had instead been available to provide clean water or basic sanitation in a country where the government itself says only about half the population has access to either.
Teodorín maintains that his wealth came from legitimate business income.
Clearly not everyone agrees. France has filed money-laundering charges against Teodorín based on its own investigation. French police seized his Paris mansion and millions of dollars in furnishings, along with a fleet of luxury vehicles that the government later sold at auction.
The US government’s haul is less than half of the $70 million it originally sought. Teodorín’s Malibu mansion, a Ferrari, and several life-size statutes of Michael Jackson must be sold to pay the settlement. However, he doesn’t have to hand over a Gulfstream jet or the rest of his collection of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a white, crystal-covered glove worn on the “Bad” tour, which cost an estimated $1 million and was secreted away while the US case was ongoing.
At least $20 million from the settlement will “be used for the benefit of the people of Equatorial Guinea.” If US and Equatoguinean government representatives can’t agree on how to disburse the funds, the decision will be left to a three-member panel and, failing that, mediation in a US court. It’s good to have a fail-safe, since charity in Equatorial Guinea is often a cover for propaganda, favoritism and—the US investigation alleged—corruption.
The settlement terms leave unclear what, if any, protection US law enforcement officials may have secured for whistleblowers, witnesses, and those who could suffer reprisals in connection with its investigation.
Several organizations in August called on the US to insist on the release of the Italian businessman Roberto Berardi as a condition of any settlement with Teodorín, but there’s no sign this appeal was heeded.
Berardi’s arrest, almost two years ago, came soon after he confronted Teodorín, his partner in a construction business, about suspicious wire transfers in the company’s name that the Justice Department maintains paid for the Michael Jackson glove.
The Obiang government has kept Berardi in solitary confinement, in miserable conditions, for months at a time. He has been repeatedly tortured and last month was denied food and water for several days.
While Berardi languishes in prison in Equatorial Guinea, Teodorín enjoys his freedom, his Michael Jackson memorabilia, and the perks of being the son of a repressive president in a resource-rich country.