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.
The surreal playboy life of Teodorin Obiang
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.