View a slide show of the surreal playboy life of Teodorin Obiang.
The owner of the estate at 3620 Sweetwater Mesa Road, which sits high above Malibu, California, calls himself a prince, and he certainly lives like one. A long, tree-lined driveway runs from the estate's main gate past a motor court with fountains and down to a 15,000-square-foot mansion with eight bathrooms and an equal number of fireplaces. The grounds overlook the Pacific Ocean, complete with swimming pool, tennis court, four-hole golf course, and Hollywood stars Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, and Kelsey Grammer for neighbors.
With his short, stocky build, slicked-back hair, and Coke-bottle glasses, the prince hardly presents an image of royal elegance. But his wardrobe was picked from the racks of Versace, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana, and he spared no expense on himself, from the $30 million in cash he paid for the estate to what Senate investigators later reported were vast sums for household furnishings: $59,850 for rugs, $58,000 for a home theater, even $1,734.17 for a pair of wine glasses. When he arrived back home -- usually in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce or one of his other several dozen cars -- his employees were instructed to stand in a receiving line to greet the prince. And then they lined up to do the same when he left.
The prince, though, was a phony, a descendant of rulers but not of royals. His full name is Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue -- Teodorin to friends -- and he is the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, a country about the size of Maryland on the western coast of Africa. A postage stamp of a country with a population of a mere 650,000 souls, Equatorial Guinea would be of little international consequence if it didn't have one thing: oil, and plenty of it. The country is sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest producer of oil after Nigeria and Angola, pumping around 346,000 barrels per day, and is both a major supplier to and reliable supporter of the United States. Over the past 15 years, ExxonMobil, Hess Corp., and other American firms have collectively invested several billion dollars in Equatorial Guinea, which exports more of its crude to the U.S. market than any other country.
Energy revenues have flowed into the pockets of the country's elite, but virtually none has trickled down to the poor majority; since the oil boom began, the country has rocketed to one of the world's highest per capita incomes -- and one of its lowest standards of living. Nearly four-fifths of its people live in abject poverty; child mortality has increased to the point that today some 15 percent of Equatorial Guinea's children die before reaching age 5, making it one of the deadliest places on the planet to be young.
Teodorin's 68-year-old father, Brig. Gen. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, seized power in a 1979 coup and has made apparent his intent to hand over power to a chosen successor. Obiang has sired an unknown number of children with multiple women, but 41-year-old Teodorin is his clear favorite and is being groomed to take over. That's a scary prospect both for the long-suffering citizens of his country and for U.S. foreign policy. As a former U.S. intelligence official familiar with Teodorin put it to me, "He's an unstable, reckless idiot."
He's also, according to thousands of pages of documents I've reviewed from multiple federal and congressional investigations of the Obiangs over the last decade, fantastically corrupt. As the minister of agriculture and forestry in his father's government, Teodorin holds sway over the country's second-largest industry. Investigators have documented how he has run his ministry like a business, operating several logging companies alongside the agency meant to regulate them. Documents from a secret joint investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency quote sources alleging that Teodorin supplemented his modest ministerial salary of $5,000 per month with a "large 'revolutionary tax' on timber" that he ordered international logging firms to pay "in cash or through checks" to a forestry company he owned. Investigators suspect a large chunk of his assets was derived from "extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct," stated a 2007 Justice report detailing the probe, which I first reported on for the Harper's website in 2009. Teodorin has not only assembled a vast fortune, he's routed much of it into the United States; a detailed report last year by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that he used shell companies to evade money-laundering laws and funnel more than $100 million into the United States.
All those millions purchased Teodorin a lavish and debauched lifestyle, according to allegations in a series of previously unreported civil lawsuits filed against him by a dozen former employees at the Malibu estate. They claim they were cheated out of salaries, overtime wages, and work-related expenses for items ranging from gasoline to toilet paper, while being forced to support a tawdry setup straight out of the movie The Hangover: There were drug "binges," as one ICE document claimed, escort service girls, Playboy bunnies, and even a tiger. "I never witnessed him perform anything that looked like work," reads a legal filing on behalf of Dragan Deletic, one of Teodorin's former drivers. "His days consisted entirely of sleeping, shopping and partying." (Without responding to specifics, a Los Angeles lawyer for Teodorin, Kevin Fisher, dismissed the charges as "salacious" and "extreme," adding, "The allegations have not been verified and the people making them are not subject to perjury, so I don't give a great deal of credence to them.")