View a slide show of the surreal playboy life of Teodorin Obiang.
For the past four years, two U.S. government agencies have led a meandering investigation into charges of corruption and money-laundering involving Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of the oil-rich, Exxon-friendly dictator of Equatorial Guinea. As I reported in the most recent print edition of Foreign Policy, internal documents from a joint probe by the U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency detail how Obiang has amassed an enormous fortune, despite earning an official salary as Equatorial Guinea's minister of agriculture and forestry of only about $5,000 per month.
And yet, federal investigators have displayed remarkably little enthusiasm for bringing a case against Obiang, who is known as Teodorin and has spent millions of dollars in the United States over the last decade living a life of Hollywood debauchery, according to exclusive interviews with his employees, federal investigators, and documents from several international probes I have reviewed. Indeed, U.S. investigators from the Justice Department and ICE have failed to locate or contact important potential witnesses. And recently, some investigators have suggested that they are frustrated with the case and are thinking about whether to shut it down this spring, sources familiar with the probe told me.
It is not as if the U.S. government is unaware of Teodorin's apparently ill-gotten gains. A Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report last year alleged that Teodorin has laundered more than $100 million into the United States. According to the report -- the subcommittee's second about the Obiang clan -- he used that money to buy a $30 million estate in Malibu, California, a $38 million private plane, and a fleet of luxury sports cars. Global Witness, the London-based anti-corruption group, recently reported that Teodorin had commissioned plans for a custom-built $380 million superyacht.
"The evidence of corruption in this case is overwhelming," said Jack Blum, a former Senate investigator who worked on major cases such as the Bank of Credit and Commerce International affair and is now a Washington attorney specializing in money-laundering and corruption. "We know that the money being tossed around by young Obiang is not coming out of his official salary, but the U.S. government isn't interested in taking him down because there's oil involved. You can't run a pretend investigation when the problems are this acute. It's outrageous."
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. Energy revenues have flowed into the pockets of the country's elite, but virtually none has trickled down to its citizens, who by and large are desperately poor. Under the rule of his father, who has run the country for 32 years since taking power in a coup, Teodorin has been given his own fiefdom to exploit -- timber, the country's second most valuable resource. Justice Department and ICE documents I reviewed from the fall of 2007 noted that a large chunk of Teodorin's assets were likely derived from "extortion, theft of public funds, or other corrupt conduct" and that he made huge sums by imposing a large "revolutionary tax" on timber that went into his pocket.
The inquiry's goal, according to one ICE document, is to "identify, trace, freeze, and recover assets within the United States illicitly acquired through kleptocracy by Teodoro Obiang and his associates." Yet four years later, Teodorin still comes and goes into the United States -- plane records indicate that in late February he flew into Washington, D.C. (which a source confirms) on his private jet before heading to California and from there on to Rio de Janeiro to celebrate Carnival with his father -- and federal officials have taken no steps to seize his Malibu mansion.